Eurovision 2018: The People Behind the Sequins

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It’s the evening May 6, and the Lisbon sun refuses to relent as the contestants the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 march down the red carpet. At one point the Ukrainian pop star Melovin (whose name is a combination his favorite designer Alexander McQueen and his favorite holiday Halloween) stops at my position along the metal barricade. Before I can identify the smell rancid candy wafting in my direction, he sprays me with his debut fragrance, the appropriately named “Black Gas.”  

“I see it as sparkling wine,” he says through his interpreter, as the overpowering scent causes my eyes to water and triggers a severe migraine. “It has chocolate, ginger and strawberry. This perfume is for strong, powerful and brave people like myself.”

Beautiful to some, akin to nerve agent to others, Melovin’s perfume reflects the wackadoodle world Eurovision — itself a heady mix personalities, aromas and musical genres. This year’s contest, which came to an end on May 12, featured 43 acts performing genres from Hungarian post-metal to Moldovan folk-pop.

The winner, Israel’s Netta Barzilai, delivered an anthem empowerment which required her to bock like a chicken to a relentless beat. It sounds like froth, but dig deeper and the meaning starts to flow. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the song decries men who won’t let women think for themselves. The animal noises position those men as the other kind chicken — cowards who fear the strength empowered women.

I’d arrived in Lisbon on April 26 — 17 days before the finale — to cover the madness for my blog and YouTube channel. It sounds early, but so much the drama takes place during the two weeks leading up the finale, as producers perfect their camera angles and technicians crank up the fire machines. During a series rehearsals, the 43 contestants nip and tuck their stage shows, and try to shape the media narrative during press conferences and one-on-one interviews. The night the finale, the performances zip by in three minutes. It’s in the weeks build-up where you discover the people behind the sequins.

Ahead the semi-finals, Alekseev — Belarus’ singer — had hoped his Eurovision performance would inspire his long-lost father to get in touch. And surely his outré performance was difficult to miss. While singing his electro-ballad, a female dancer in red shot a rose from a bow and arrow and, through a series camera tricks, impaled his hand. He later turned to the audience to reveal a “bloodied” back filled with rose petals. Afterwards, his limited English gave him a philosophical air while we spoke in a crowded corridor. “She hurt me, she made me smile,” he said his on-stage love interest. “When you can feel, it means you are alive.”

The Russian act Julia Samoylova arrived in Lisbon with a year baggage, having been banned from Eurovision 2017 by Ukrainian authorities for previously performing in Crimea. The Ukrainian media and a number Eurovision fans had labeled her a pawn the Russian government, and fears mounted that the audience may boo her during the shows — just as they had done to Russian acts in the past.

But the singer, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, rose above it all. On stage she sat atop a mountain as she rehearsed her number “I Won’t Break,” concealing her wheelchair beneath the fabric the mountain peak. “I don’t feel ashamed that I’m in a wheelchair, but I don’t want to show it on stage,” she said. “We want to avoid peopling thinking I want to pull the sympathy card.”

The semi-finals came and went and so did Belarus and Russia. They along with 15 other countries were eliminated before cameras even rolled on the main event.  

The qualifying acts had overcome plenty hurdles themselves. The Netherlands' Waylon faced criticism for including an all-black cast dancers whose krumping seemed to have little to do with his country song “Outlaw in ‘Em.” And Mikolas Josef, a Czech heartthrob who had walked Milan Fashion Week, dislocated a disc in his spine while performing a backflip during rehearsals, leading to three hospital visits in as many days.

Other drama was decidedly more showbiz. Denmark’s delegation, which built their act around five sea-faring men who resemble Vikings, complained that their planned on-stage blizzard was more inviting than foreboding. “The production team here in Portugal does not get us and the snow we saw today became way too romantic and Christmas-y,” their Eurovision chief told Danish media. “We want Jonas standing in a real blizzard, and they must fix that.” (Cue the jokes beginning with “Oh snow you didn’t!”)

Ahead Eurovision, Cyprus’ Eleni Foureira was known primarily for her highly sexual music video for her song “Fuego,” which sees her writhing on the floor, at times with bananas and pineapples, in a costume so tight it appeared painted on her body. The lyrics to her Mediterranean dance anthem suggested something plastic, even if infectious: “I’m burning up and I ain’t coolin’ down, yeah I got the fire.”

But in thoughtful interviews, the 31-year-old brought her personal history into sharper focus, recounting how her family had fled the Albanian Civil War before starting a new life in Greece. During rehearsals, she whipped her hair with Shakira precision and Beyoncé abandon, and her freedom movement suddenly seemed like a siren call for open borders and what’s possible when you create a space for immigrants to flourish.

“What has happened to me is so beautiful and amazing,” she said at a party at Hard Rock Cafe the night after her semi-final. “I know what it is like to have a difficult life and to start your life from the beginning. I was dreaming this, and I really worked so hard to be here with you guys. Thank you so much.”

On the night the finale, she finished second — Cyprus’ best-result ever. And by Tuesday, “Fuego” was No. 11 on the global iTunes charts.