ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Eurovision 2023Non-participating countries can cast votes for 1st time

Israel hoping Noa Kirel’s star power can fuel a come-from-behind Eurovision win

Experienced pop singer seeks to ride ‘Unicorn’ to the top of the song contest in Liverpool, but faces tough competition from Sweden, Finland and France

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

  • Israel's Noa Kirel rehearses her Eurovision song 'Unicorn' on stage at Liverpool Arena in Liverpool, UK, May 3, 2023. (Sarah Louise Bennett/EBU)
    Israel's Noa Kirel rehearses her Eurovision song 'Unicorn' on stage at Liverpool Arena in Liverpool, UK, May 3, 2023. (Sarah Louise Bennett/EBU)
  • Singer Noa Kirel during her first rehearsal on the Eurovision stage in Liverpool, May 1, 2023. (Eran Levi/Kan)
    Singer Noa Kirel during her first rehearsal on the Eurovision stage in Liverpool, May 1, 2023. (Eran Levi/Kan)
  • Noa Kirel in the clip for her 2023 Eurovision song 'Unicorn.' (Courtesy Kan 11)
    Noa Kirel in the clip for her 2023 Eurovision song 'Unicorn.' (Courtesy Kan 11)
  • Noa Kirel in the clip for her 2023 Eurovision song 'Unicorn.' (Courtesy Kan 11)
    Noa Kirel in the clip for her 2023 Eurovision song 'Unicorn.' (Courtesy Kan 11)
  • Singer Noa Kirel poses at a press conference in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2022, announcing her participation in the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
    Singer Noa Kirel poses at a press conference in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2022, announcing her participation in the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
  • Noa Kirel rehearsing 'Unicorn' for the Eurovision at Liverpool Arena in Liverpool, UK, May 1, 2023. (Corinne Cumming/EBU)
    Noa Kirel rehearsing 'Unicorn' for the Eurovision at Liverpool Arena in Liverpool, UK, May 1, 2023. (Corinne Cumming/EBU)

It’s going to be “phenomenal.”

When the 2023 Eurovision song contest kicks off in Liverpool on Tuesday evening with its first semifinal, Israeli pop star Noa Kirel is aiming to ride a “Unicorn” straight to victory.

Kirel’s genre-defying song and gravity-defying dance moves have been the topic of major buzz ahead of the contest, but she will face an uphill battle to take home this year’s trophy.

For the first time since 2014, Israel selected its Eurovision contender via an internal committee set up by the Kan public broadcaster instead of a reality TV competition. In picking Kirel, 22, Kan is banking on her star power and wealth of experience as one of the country’s most famous pop stars, with a range of radio-friendly hits and nonstop tabloid attention.

But the competition is fierce with Sweden’s Loreen – who won the Eurovision in 2012 – considered a heavy favorite for a repeat win with the power ballad “Tattoo.”

Other strong contenders for the win in Liverpool are Finland with its bizarre techno-metal-rap tune “Cha Cha Cha” and France with its typically uber-French love song “Evidemment.”

Kirel’s song “Unicorn” is sung largely in English  — with a couple of Hebrew phrases. Its lyrics appear to champion self-empowerment (“I’m gonna stand here like a unicorn/ Out here on my own”) with an earworm refrain that is a wordplay on “feminine” and “phenomenal.”

Before departing for Liverpool, Kirel met with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem and told him that “Unicorn” is about “being who we are, and accepting us how we are, loving ourselves, about being Jewish in front of the world. It’s a song that basically calls for diversity and acceptance.”

On Tuesday evening, Kirel will perform in the 9th slot in the second semifinal, hoping to garner enough votes to advance to the grand final on Saturday night.

“Unicorn” was co-written by Kirel, Yinon Yahel, May Sfadia and powerhouse songwriter Doron Medalie, who also co-wrote Netta Barzilai’s 2018 Eurovision-winning song “Toy.”

Singer Noa Kirel (right) poses for a selfie while making the ‘unicorn’ symbol with President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, ahead of Kirel’s departure to represent Israel at the Eurovision with the song ‘Unicorn.’ (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Medalie, who is in Liverpool this week as part of the Israeli delegation, told The Times of Israel that he believes Israel has a shot at winning – if it can garner enough international support.

“This is the 50th year that Israel is taking part in the competition,” Medalie said. “In order to reach a point of victory, I call on… everyone who is reading and who is interested: We need your help.”

As of Tuesday morning, the Eurovision betting odds charts – which have accurately predicted a number of past winners – ranked Kirel in the 7th spot, which would be Israel’s best showing since Barzilai’s win in 2018.

According to data released by Spotify last week, “Unicorn” has received the ninth-most listens among this year’s Eurovision songs in participating countries. Topping Spotify’s most-popular Eurovision list is Sweden, followed by Italy and Norway.

Netta Barzilai (center) and Doron Medalie (to her left) celebrate Israel’s 2018 Eurovision win in Lisbon, Portugal. (EBU)

Medalie said supporters of Israel across the globe should use social media to convince their followers to cast their votes for Kirel in both the semifinal on Tuesday and, presuming she advances, the grand final on Saturday.

For the first time ever this year, residents of countries that do not participate in the Eurovision will also be able to cast their votes, via either the Eurovision app or a dedicated website (it costs money to vote from any country). All the votes from non-member countries will be tallied up together and given the weight of one additional country.

Also in a change from past years, the semifinals will be judged solely based on the televote, while the final will be decided based on a combination of jury votes and the televote.

This year, 37 countries are slated to compete for the grand prize – not including Russia, which was excluded by the EBU following its invasion of Ukraine. A handful of other countries dropped out for monetary reasons.

Medalie said that while he has been watching a fair number of other countries’ competitors rehearse, his focus since arriving in Liverpool has been entirely on Kirel.

“I have to admit that this year I am focused exclusively on our performance, so that it will be the most exciting and incredible,” he said. “Everyone else doesn’t interest me as much.”

Medalie said that finally stepping on to the official Eurovision stage last week to rehearse after months of preparation was “the most exciting, but mostly requires peak concentration from all of us” to get everything perfect before the competition.

Noa Kirel rehearsing ‘Unicorn’ for the Eurovision at Liverpool Arena in Liverpool, UK, May 1, 2023. (Corinne Cumming/EBU)

Kirel won’t be the only Jewish contestant this year: the UK’s Mae Muller, who will be performing the upbeat dance number “I Wrote a Song,” also has Jewish heritage, and has spoken in the past about her grandfather’s escape from Nazi Germany.

Nor is Kirel the only Israeli taking the stage in Liverpool this week: 2018 winner Netta Barzilai has been invited to perform during the interval in the grand final on Saturday night, alongside five other iconic Eurovision performers.

“Eurovision called again, and I couldn’t say no, I missed you guys,” Barzilai posted on Instagram last month after the news was announced. “See you in Liverpool!”

The UK’s Mae Muller at the Eurovision 2023 studio in Liverpool, UK, May 6, 2023. (Corinne Cumming/EBU)

This year’s contest is being hosted in the UK after Ukraine won the 2022 competition in Turin, Italy, riding a wave of geopolitical sympathies following the Russian invasion. The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the contest, said it could not safely hold this year’s contest in Ukraine and therefore asked the UK to host instead.

This year marks the first time since 1980 that the winning country is not hosting the next contest – the last time being when Israel won back to back in 1978 and 1979 and declined to stage the competition for a second time running. The last time the UK hosted the Eurovision, in 1998, Israel’s Dana International won with her song “Diva.”

Kirel told the official Eurovision YouTube channel last week that returning to the country where Dana won could prove to be a lucky charm.

“Maybe it’s a blessing, I don’t know – I’m looking at the positive side,” she said. “Maybe it’s a blessing for me. I hope so.”

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