Now in its second season, The Ambassador (Hashagrir) is Israel's most popular reality television show. Beginning with 14 contestants from diverse backgrounds, the goal of the show is to boost Israel's image abroad by completing the tasks assigned. The winner walks away with the "ambassador" title and a year-long job working for the New York-based non-profit organization, Israel at Heart.
So what makes a great ambassador? According to Melody Sucharewicz, one of the three remaining contestants on the show, "it comes down to... personality, appearance and emotional intelligence."
In an interview withThe Jerusalem Post from her penthouse in Tel Aviv, the lion-maned beauty reflects on her own suitability for the position. "You must have 100% identification with Israel as well as the willingness to fight for Israel. Ever since I can remember, I've been seen as an ambassador of sorts... be it during the Gulf War, any crisis, any topic in school about Israel, or in street conversations - I always found myself in the position of explaining and defending Israel."
Born and raised in Munich, Melody, now 26, grew up in a Zionist household. Her father, Leo, served in the IDF for three years, and made sure to bring Melody and her older sister Charme, 27, on visits to Israel throughout their childhoods.
"Coming to Israel was a built-in plan, probably a result of a very Zionistic education from my father," says Melody.
Melody immigrated to Israel in 1999, and has been living and studying here ever since. After completing a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology with honors at Tel Aviv University, she went on to do a master's in management, specializing in organizational behavior.
"Luckily, I managed to finish my last semester [despite the show's rigorous schedule]. Now the only thing I have left is to write the thesis," she says.
With all her studies, Melody admits that she didn't watch the first season of The Ambassador, though she did manage to catch the final episode. It was then that she realized that it might be something more than just another reality show.
"I was critical of media and reality shows," she recalls, "but seeing the finale really touched me. Behind the media hype and ratings, I was very impressed that there were a few young people who were eager to go out into the world to represent Israel positively."
Despite being pleasantly surprised by the show's integrity, Melody remained skeptical about taking part herself.
"At the beginning I was quite resistant [to the idea of auditioning]. I couldn't picture myself on a reality show. I've done some commercials and acted as a host on German TV, and I wasn't overly impressed....But seeing how society reacts towards [a reality show] is a very interesting experience."
"Unsurprisingly - probably because of my hair - people began recognizing me from the promos even before the show first aired. I got used to it very quickly."
As Melody soon discovered, there are pros and cons to local fame.
"On the one side, I like [the recognition] a lot because all the comments and conversations are lovely. The people in Israel are loveable, even if they do tend to intrude into the private parts of your life. On the other hand, it's sometimes very exhausting. Sometimes I find myself coming home and I can't talk to anyone anymore."
When she wasn't at home chatting with her fans, Melody was busy flying around the world. The show often went on location, from Moscow to New York City to Stockholm to Kampala.
"Uganda was probably the most impressive for me because it was my first time in a Third World country. It was a very authentic experience.
"The mission to Sweden was also very touching. We had to convince as many random people on the street as possible to come volunteer on a kibbutz for a few weeks. Each and every person that I spoke to got the message... Often it took me just a few minutes to cause a change in their minds, to open their eyes."
In one of the most unusual twists this season (though typical of most other reality shows), Melody was proposed to by another contestant.
"It sure was one piece of an experience," she says of Tom's unexpected gesture. "It was my first proposal, and it was on TV, next to Israel's top news journalists... I was shocked, flattered and embarrassed at the same time, and just really didn't know how to react. It all came quite out of the blue."
Melody figures it was a good way for Tom, a new immigrant from Sweden, to exit the show. It was a last-ditch effort, albeit a very romantic one.
"In the end we stayed very good friends. I like Tom a lot; he's a great and special guy."
When asked what advice she would give to young women and aspiring ambassadors, Melody replied in all seriousness that, "the first thing is they have to be aware of the fact that the world considers Israeli women the most beautiful in the world, so they have to keep up with the criteria. Many people say, although I don't fully agree with it, that there are some chauvinist aspects to Israeli society. What impresses me most is the strength and grace of the women. I think it's very important to cultivate those traits - to become an assertive, impressive young woman."
"Overall, it's important that each one of the 7.2 million Israelis - wherever we go, whether it's to see a football match in Munich or on a business trip to Hong Kong - be an ambassador for Israel. We have to impress people."
Impressing people has been something Efrat Oppenheimer has always strived to do. "All my life I've hung around people who were older than me, having to prove to them what I've got." explains Efrat in a separate interview.
At 22, Efrat, regarded as Melody's biggest competition, is the youngest of three children after her brother Gal, 31, and her sister Adi, 28. "I've always been the youngest," she comments, "and now on the show I'm the youngest contestant."
The Oppenheimer children were raised in Jerusalem and, although Efrat now lives in Tel Aviv, she still goes home once a week to see her parents and pets. Efrat's parents immigrated to Israel over 35 years ago - her father from South Africa and her mother from New Zealand.
"I grew up in an Anglo-Saxon family where my parents spoke English and the kids answered in a sort of mixture, like 'Imah, can you please pass me the salat?'"
"I went to the High School for the Arts in Jerusalem, where I studied theater and loved it," says Efrat. "I'm sure that's part of the reason that I was drawn to the show... I love the tasks too. They improve your skills, but it's also a bit of a game - there's some acting involved."
At the age of 15, Efrat joined the international youth organization "Seeds of Peace" which brings together young Israelis and Palestinians committed to building a more peaceful future. She is still an active member today.
"It was the best thing I've ever done. It opened many doors for me and made me the person I am today... at the age of 15, it made me feel like I mattered, like I was doing something significant," she beams.
A first-year university student, Efrat began her studies last October at Tel Aviv University in the political science department. Finding it too dry for her taste, and perhaps too heavy a course load to handle while shooting a reality show, she decided to switch to Women's and Gender Studies. In part, her change of course is due to her experience a few years ago as a reporter for Army Radio, covering the Vicki Knafo story [as she led protests for the rights of single mothers].
"I marched with her the last few kilometers to Jerusalem. It was very emotional," recalls Efrat. She camped with the single mothers and their children outside the Knesset after all the other journalists had quit for the day. She remained with them and continued with live coverage throughout the night. Efrat started out as a reporter assigned to education for the station, and later became its welfare correspondent.
"At 19, I got a chance to interview Bibi [Netanyahu], and I was at the ceremony when the bodies of the Hizbullah hostages were returned to Israel. I was a part of that, a small part of history."
Last year Efrat worked for the Kol Ha'ir newspaper in Jerusalem. "I barely watched the first season [of The Ambassador]," she admits, "because it was on Wednesdays, which was when we had to finish the week's edition."
And with respect to her tasks on the show, Efrat affirms that Zionism is an essential focus. "Zionism is really not that sexy. I think The Ambassador made Zionism as sexy as it can be, which is important. In order to market the new Israel it has to be young and sexy.
"On the show we approach Israel on two levels. We have to show the world that it is not simply good guys versus bad guys; that the situation is complicated and many decisions are made out of necessity.
"And on another level, Israel is not only about the conflict. There are amazing things here [that we have to share with the world]. Our hi-tech industry, our agriculture, nightlife, beaches, our beautiful women and men."
For Efrat, the best experience on the show so far was the trip to Uganda early in the season.
"I loved being in Uganda. It's an absolutely beautiful place... We met with reporters from all over Africa, from Chad, Rwanda, Libya, Morocco. Sometimes I ask myself, how can this be? We're such a small country with a reality show and yet we met with the president of Uganda, we met with Gorbachev! It's quite an honor."
One of the most shocking turn of events also happened early in the season, when Efrat felt sabotaged by her fellow contestants after they nearly unanimously voted to kick her off the women's team.
"What happened at the end of that particular episode is that we split up, boys in one group and girls in the other, and each of us had to give two names for elimination. There were hidden cameras everywhere and my friends said they were going to vote for certain people, but they all lied, except for Melody."
The shock of the betrayal caught Efrat off guard, and famously sent her running tearfully off camera.
"I felt I was going to cry so I left the set. I started with a brisk walk and then it turned into running," she says, laughing in retrospect.
"It's problematic, something I still have to deal with on the show - revealing too much emotion... and that comes together with the fact that I'm the youngest contestant."
"I knew then and there that they wanted me out because I was a strong competitor. The fact that I've stayed on to the finals means that I did something right - but it was a very terrible experience," she acknowledges. "I was very upset because I lost close friends. I think in retrospect I probably shouldn't have cried. The whole episode was named after me and my tears, but I couldn't help it."
When asked how she might handle a potential loss on next week's finale, Efrat was quick to reply.
"I've already won, it doesn't matter if I get the job or not. If I win, then I get this amazing experience and if I lose I get my life back. That's good, because my life hasn't been the same since I started the show."
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