It’s been a long time since Israel was favourite to win the Eurovision Song Contest; twenty years have passed since Dana International’s glittering triumph with Diva. But now Israel has another star turn with Netta Barzilai, whose song Toy is the bookies’ favourite, and had clocked 19m views on YouTube before the contest aired.
Barzilai secured her place in the Eurovision finals after performing Toy at the first intallment of semi finals in Lisbon on Tuesday. She made it through to the Top 10 alongside Ireland, Cyprus and Finland. A further 18 countries will take part in the second semi-final on Thursday.
Israelis - who largely ignored the contest last year - are now planning parties to watch her perform. How does she view the pressure of being the favourite? "As a way forward you decide what path you take in life. I celebrate diversity and my placing in the final doesn't actually matter. I want to reach as many hearts as possible through my music."
It’s fair to say that Toy stands out as much for Barzilai’s performance as the actual music. She’s plus size and proud, full of chutzpah and confidence, has a dance that mimics a chicken - there are chicken clucks and squawks in the mix too - and a sound that translates well into club culture. Add lyrics that are part nonsense, and half female empowerment - the chorus runs: “I’m not your toy/You stupid boy” - and it’s not surprising that Barlizai has hit a chord that could take her career well beyond Eurovision.
The 25-year-old was born in Israel but spent her early childhood in Nigeria where her father was working. When she was six the family returned to Hod HaSharon in Israel, also home to Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli. Barzilai did her military service as a singer in the Israeli navy’s band and studied at the Rimon School of Music in the Electronic Studies Department. She was a Singer at Tel Aviv’s Bar Giora club and directed its weekly blues nights, while also working as a kindergarten teacher.
Bar Giora is still her favourite place in Tel Aviv, a city she loves. “You can walk along Dizengoff – it’s packed with bars and the vibe is everywhere. It’s not just from individuals, it’s not from underground, it’s everywhere. You can feel the ground vibrating, every second of the day. You can just stand on the street and just feel a vibe that is very special.”
What creates that vibe? “It’s the warmth of the Israeli people. People are really warm and cheeky in Israel. You can’t put into words exactly what it is. Whatever you say to anyone is OK, and nowadays people are searching for that authenticity. Everyone here likes to be open with people. There’s no bullshit. They say it like it is. It’s getting a beer on a sidewalk; we drink it and we have fun.”
She’s talked in the past of being bullied as a child. What would she say to a bullied schoolgirl today? “I would say everything will be OK. I had to go through what I went through but I have amazing parents and I love myself. Bullying must stop but I had a dream.”
In 2016 Netta co-founded an improvisation singing group called The Experiment which toured all over Israel. She’s now lead soloist in a group called Gaberband. Her music features looping, a technique of repeating sound sections, and she’s held workshops teaching young musicians how to work these effects into the music.
Barzilai journey to Eurovision nearly fell at the first hurdle when she was eliminated from the reality show Next Star for Eurovision, which picks the country’s entrant. She was saved by the judges, and stormed to victory.
Can she win on Saturday night? Maybe the golden cats that act as her backdrop will boost her fortune? She thinks so "We thought the K-pop J-pop theme was great fun and we could use this in my act. I think my cats bring me good luck."
The Eurovision Song Contest is on BBC1 at . 8 pm Saturday May 12.