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‘The Masked Singer’ and the curious nature of celebrity in Israel

Why do former lawmakers, health officials and even famous ex-cons populate reality TV in the Jewish state?

Amy Spiro

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

Former Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto is revealed as the "Pea" on Israel's "Masked Singer" on October 25, 2021. (Keshet 12)
Former Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto is revealed as the "Pea" on Israel's "Masked Singer" on October 25, 2021. (Keshet 12)

The second season of Israel’s “Masked Singer” came to a not particularly dramatic end on Saturday night, when the “Gorilla” was crowned the winner and unmasked as singer Shai Gabso.

A singer winning a singing competition isn’t much of a surprise. The bigger shock came earlier in the season, when the “Pea” was revealed to be Itamar Grotto, the former deputy director of the Health Ministry.

While most of the season was, as expected, populated by B- and C-list singers, actors, athletes and other entertainment industry figures, there were a few curveballs among the cast. Former Knesset member Stav Shaffir was revealed to be the “Ladybug,” and the “Porcupine” was Haaretz columnist and economic commentator Nehemia Shtrasler.

People seeking out (additional) fame on reality TV shows is not much of a novelty. But the inclusion of such unlikely figures on one of Israel’s most-watched TV programs points to a deeper undercurrent in Israeli society, where the notion of celebrity reflects what locals consume on a regular basis: the news. Israelis’ obsession with the news has spawned a new kind of celebrity – or at least a more expansive definition.

Without COVID, Grotto probably would never have been cast in a primetime reality TV show. But the pandemic brought him to TV screens and news programs on a daily basis, making him a household face.

The nightly news ranks among the top-watched shows in the country, and news dominates the TV networks for close to seven hours per day. And the figures and faces seen there have entered the Israeli zeitgeist in a way that makes some of them as famous as the actors, singers and performers who tend to populate such reality series. Yonit Levi, the host of Israel’s most-watched news show – who happens to be married to the host of “The Masked Singer,” proving just how interconnected Israel’s entertainment industry is – is one of the most-recognized women in Israel.

Labor party MK Stav Shaffir seen in February 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

With just three broadcast channels in Israel — and only two commercial ones — Israelis are somewhat of a captive audience. “The Masked Singer” begins as soon as Keshet 12’s nightly news show comes to a close, and “Survivor” starts playing once Reshet 13’s primetime news program ends. And both commercial networks hype their shows heavily throughout the afternoon and evening news shows, making it seem almost natural to see some of the same faces returning to the screens.

While not all members of Knesset past and present are household names, some of those who make headlines for both good and bad reasons have become the ideal feeders for reality TV.

The surprise of Shaffir’s appearance on “The Masked Singer” was more about her singing talent – she was kicked off ninth and confounded the celebrity judges with her identity – than the likelihood that she would take part. Disgraced former Likud MK Oren Hazan – seemingly more suited for reality TV than the Knesset – joined and then won the most recent season of “Big Brother VIP.” Former Likud MKs Nava Boker and Inbal Gavrieli competed on “Survivor VIP” and short-lived former Likud MK Pnina Rosenblum had an even shorter stint on “The Amazing Race.” Former Jewish Home MK Yinon Magal even appeared on the first season of “The Masked Singer” last year, which also included news anchors Lucy Aharish and Gadi Sukenik. Meanwhile, former Labor MK Eitan Cabel competed on the more genteel VIP season of “My Kitchen Rules.”

Some elected officials, meanwhile, don’t wait for their time in office to end before trying their hand at reality TV. Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben-Ari is competing in the currently airing soccer competition show “Goalstar” – filmed while she was not in the Knesset. Current Tourism Minister Yoel Razbozov – a former Olympian judoka – was slated to appear on “Ninja Israel” while an MK, but he tore a muscle while training and bowed out. Likud MK and former minister David “Dudi” Amsalem took part in a “Master Chef VIP” season that has yet to air.

But the way in which other Israelis have parlayed their 15 minutes of infamy into a reality TV paycheck can be even more jarring.

Shula Zaken seen at the Jerusalem District court on November 6, 2014. (Ido Erez/POOL)

Shula Zaken – the former aide to ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert who went to prison in the same corruption scandal that brought down her boss – has so far appeared in two reality shows following her release: “Goalstar” and “Big Brother.”

Meni Naftali — the former manager of the prime minister’s residence under Benjamin Netanyahu who later became his chief critic, almost state witness and repeated plaintiff against the former first family – competed on “Survivor VIP.”

Azzam Azzam, the Israeli Druze man who was convicted by Egypt of spying for Israel and jailed there for eight years before his release in 2004, later also appeared on “Survivor VIP.”

And in one of most jarring such instances, Orly Revivo – known for years simply as “Aleph,” the chief complainant against ex-president Moshe Katsav, who was ultimately convicted of raping her – participated in “Big Brother VIP.”

It’s not that surprising that such figures would accept – or seek out – opportunities on reality TV. After being rocketed to fame and often notoriety, it can be hard to find steady work out of the public eye. But the TV networks take a chance on casting these figures because the TV-watching public is already deeply familiar with them.

Meni Naftali, the former manager of the official residence of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives to his libel trial against the Netanyahu family, at the Herzliya court on December 2, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On any given night, more than 25% of Israeli homes with televisions are tuned to the nightly news. Through wars, elections, terrorist attacks and never-ending political scandals, many Israelis have grown accustomed to being glued to the news. And in such a tiny country, there is almost no such thing as a local news story. The biggest story of the day in Eilat is likely the same biggest story of the day in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Kiryat Shmona.

I may tune in to trashy American reality TV for the entertainment factor, but in Israel it’s often for the Jewish geography. I can’t watch Israel’s “Married at First Sight” without hearing which of the contestants went to high school with a friend and which one is related to my cousin’s wife. Even I, an immigrant, have spotted a familiar face during the auditions for “Master Chef” or “Rising Star,” and for those who grew up in Israel, the likelihood is even higher.

The dynamics in Israel’s entertainment industry – which is often referred to as “the swamp” – are fluid. With a smaller population pool than most Western countries, it can seem that either Israel has just a few celebrities, or that about 10% of the population is “famous.” Reality TV stars become celebrities and celebrities show up on reality TV and viewers continue to devour information about all of them.

Just as long as we don’t mistake any of them for role models.

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