Eurovision divas strut their songs on a Tel Aviv stage
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Eurovision divas strut their songs on a Tel Aviv stage

Israel hosts a preview of the beloved (by some) European song contest, with 20 visiting singers and some golden oldies

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Eurovision contenders visiting Israel planted trees on Tuesday, April 12 in a JNF-KKL forest as part of their three-day tour sponsored by Israel's Tourism Ministry (Courtesy Avi Hayun)
The Eurovision contenders visiting Israel planted trees on Tuesday, April 12 in a JNF-KKL forest as part of their three-day tour sponsored by Israel's Tourism Ministry (Courtesy Avi Hayun)

JAFFA — Drag queens, gay men and middle-aged women (and their husbands) crowded onto the floor of Jaffa’s Theater Club Tuesday night for an event only Eurovision lovers could appreciate.

Pegged as a promo for the upcoming Eurovision contest being held May 14 in Sweden, 20 of the competing singers from all over Europe, including Israel’s very own Hovi Star, performed for the extremely responsive crowd, as part of their three-day visit to Israel as guests of the Tourism Ministry.

This was the first time Israel has hosted any kind of Eurovision event since 1999, when Eurovision came to Israel following its 1998 win with Dana International’s rendition of “Diva.”

It’s part of a long-standing Eurovision tradition that the winning country hosts the following year’s contest.

This year marks the 61st Eurovision Song Contest, and it’s being held in Stockholm, Sweden, after Swedish singer Måns Zelmerlöw won the 2015 contest. It’s the third time Stockholm is hosting the beloved but cheesy song contest, in which 43 countries are participating.

But on Tuesday night, Tel Aviv got to celebrate Eurovision its own way. And there’s nothing this crowd loves more than its own reality show.

After a set of drag queens opened the event by lip-syncing Eurovision songs past and present, the cheering crowd waved flags representing the countries present for the show, smartphones held high to capture every possible moment on stage.

“We love these guys, and we love your singing,” said Ziona Patriot, decked out in a leopard print gown and with tawny curls to match.

The party got started with some crowd-pleasing blasts from Eurovisions past, as the now-teenage singers from KIDS.IL performed “Let the Music Win” from 2012’s first Junior Eurovision contest.

But they couldn’t compete with Izhar Cohen, whose disco rendition of Ehud Manor’s “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” with the Alpha Beta won the 1978 Eurovision contest, Israel’s first time winning the event.

Cohen, his curls longer than his 1978-style afro, let the audience do at least half of the singing. They, of course, knew every single word.

An interlude of free-style “Hava Naglia” and “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” with the audience introduced the next stop on Eurovision memory lane as songwriter Tzivka Pik and a bevy of very skinny backup singers performed “Diva,” his 1998 hit written for drag queen Dana International (who didn’t show).

And only then was it time for the emcee, songwriter Doron Madali, to introduce the real stars, 20 Eurovision contestants here for a three-day visit courtesy of Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

From Lithuania’s Donny Montell, a Justin Bieber lookalike with gold sneakers, to Belarus’ Ivan, tossing his long blond hair from side to side, to Switzerland’s soft-voiced Rykka to Hungary’s chiseled Freddie (“He’s the kind of guy I dream of,” minced Madali) to a heavily muscled Ovdiu Anton who offered heavy metal from Romania, all of the contestants sang their mostly forgettable songs in English.

The rules have changed over time, with periods when songs were required to be performed in a national language. Since 1999, songs can be performed in any language, and these days it seems most contestants choose English.

Then again, singing in English means that Eurovision followers can learn the songs, and since they get to participate in the voting process, that’s a serious consideration.

Audience favorite Zoe from Austria, performed Tuesday night, April 12 at a Eurovision preview hosted in Israel Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Audience favorite Zoe from Austria, performed Tuesday night, April 12 at a Eurovision preview hosted in Israel (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“I’ve spent the last few months learning all my favorites,” said Dudu, an audience member who said he has been a Eurovision fan all of his life.

In this crowd, the Eurovision favorites sang last, as befitting the belles of this ball.

Up first was Austria’s Zoe, a sixties throwback in a sunflower yellow dress, with the audience hanging on every word of “Loin d’ici.” Next up was 29-year-old singer Hovi Star (his real name is Hovev Sekulets) whose song — wait for it — is “Made of Stars.”

But the two real contenders are France’s Amir Haddad, a French-born Israeli who competed in 2006 Israeli reality show “A Star is Born” and then went on to perform in the French version of “The Voice,” where he was a finalist, and Russian Sergey Lazarev, who performs within a circle of black-clad dancers for his song, “You are the Only One.”

“This guy was on ‘A Star is Born’ with me!” said Madali, hugging Haddad.

(Madali was a member of the “A Star is Born” production team.)

Twenty singers later, the event was over, at least for now.

Come May 14, Eurovision fans will need to pay extra attention when they vote, as a new system is being implemented this year, for the first time since 1975.

This year, each contestant will be awarded twice as many points, from the jury and the viewers, but separately, instead of together. The final scores will be combined at the end of the (very) long night.

And remember, you can watch the Eurovision live on the official Eurovision website, and for now, you’ve got plenty of time to brush up on each and every song.

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