A visibly emotional Eden Alene took the stage Tuesday for a final rendition of “Halo,” the Beyonce song that had just made her Israel’s contestant for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest in the Netherlands.
Onstage and surrounded by judges, presenters and other contestants, Alene, who clutched a small Israeli flag under her arm, wrapped her other arm around her mother, Zehava Varkanesh, as she hugged her tight. Alene closed her eyes, showing relief that the nerve-wracking process was finally over.
Alene’s voice broke, just a little, as she looked into her mother’s eyes, holding her hand and singing the end of the song that clinched her place in the competition that will take place in May in Rotterdam.
It has clearly been a long road for this mother and daughter pair.
Alene’s parents have long since divorced and she has no contact with her father.
Varkanesh, her religiously observant, single mother, has supported Alene during the last 16 years of singing and voice training. She worked as a housekeeper to support their family and made sure she was available to help Alene at all times.
Alene’s win has been significant for Israel and its Ethiopian community, as she will be the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to represent the Jewish state at Eurovision.
There have been other Israeli firsts for minorities in this European-based song contest. In 2009, Achinoam Nini and Mira Awad, who is of Arab descent, were Israel’s representatives at Eurovision. In 1983, Ofra Haza, of Yemenite heritage, performed “Chai” and in 1998, Dana International, a transgender singer who identifies as female, won the contest with “Diva.”
Varkanesh said: “Eden represents pride for all Ethiopians. Everyone is behind her, supporting her and loving her.”
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Alene was also a vastly different pick from Israel’s more recent Eurovision contestants. Kobi Marimi represented Israel last year with his distinctively operatic style, when the country hosted Eurovision. In 2018, Netta Barzilai, the quirky, talented singer behind the hit “Toy,” represented Israel in Eurovision and won the contest that year.
Alene has said she prefers singing pop songs, but also lets her ear guide her, adding that she has to connect to a song from the start.
It wasn’t initially clear whether Alene would win “HaKochav Haba” (The Next Star), a reality TV singing show that determines Israel’s contestant for Eurovision.
But the 19-year-old beat fellow teenage contestants Orr Amrami-Brockman, Gaya Shaki and Ella Lee Lahav in the show’s grand final.
Alene performed in a white sequined jumpsuit under a halo of twinkling lights, surrounded by 10 backup singers.
It was a setup reminiscent of the Jerusalem YMCA Youth Chorus, made up of Jewish and Arab teens, in which Alene took part in from 2014 to 2016, during her high school years.
“Eden has definitely been hustling and working. You have to if you want to make it as an artist,” said Micah Hendler, founder and director of the chorus. “She not only has the incredible gift of her voice, but really works so hard at it. It was amazing to be part of her growing up [process] personally and musically.”
Alene, who was born and raised in Jerusalem before recently moving to Kiryat Gat, has been on a musical path since she was three when she first attended a local conservatory, her mother told Channel 12.
They told her she had talent and should try voice training, and she took to it right away, said Varkanesh.
“She sings in the bathtub at home, she’ll sing if people ask her to at the bus stop,” said her mother in the interview.
Alene told reporters that her first time singing in public was in nursery school with a friend and that her first time on stage was for an elementary school talent show.
Alene, who is a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, won Israel’s “X-Factor” reality TV show in 2018 when she was 17.
The Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam will take place on May 16, just nine days after Alene’s 20th birthday.
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Her mother is nervous about the contest, telling Channel 12 she finds it hard to see Alene on the big stage, knowing how overwhelming it can all be.
As for her daughter, Varkanesh told reporters Alene prefers to be alone before she goes onstage, without speaking to anyone, simply to prepare herself.
Alene’s entry for Eurovision will be selected during “The Next Song For Eurovision,” another show to be broadcast live on Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, featuring four potential songs.
“Eden has had the most incredible, resounding success on the national and global stage,” said Hendler. “And deservedly so, she’s fantastic.”
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