Don’t try to toy with her mind – she’ll outsmart you

“This time we wanted to do something different” said Federman as he introduced “reigning Eurovision champ” Netta Barzilai.

April 29, 2019 18:54
Don’t try to toy with her mind – she’ll outsmart you

Netta Barzilai. (photo credit: DANIEL KAMINSKY)

When the Foreign Press Association in Israel invites a guest speaker, it’s usually a politician or a general or perhaps a diplomat, said FPA outgoing chairman Joe Federman at the organization’s annual general meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Monday. He reeled off names of people who had addressed the FPA over the past year. They included Deputy Minister Michael Oren, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, Hamas leader Yihyeh Sinwar, Former housing and construction minister Major General (Ret) Yoav Gallant and Israel’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Danny Danon.

“This time we wanted to do something different” said Federman as he introduced “reigning Eurovision champ” Netta Barzilai.

Part of Barzilai’s image is wearing weird and wonderful apparel of a kind that generally tends to grace a somewhat slimmer figure. For her mid-day appearance before the FPA Barzilai did not disappoint. Beneath a multi-colored print jacket, she wore a cropped black camisole top, a very short black tutu skirt, black stove-pipe pants that hovered over the ankle and black, ankle high boots.

She said that she had never made a speech before in her life, but then proceeded to charm the jaded journalists, most of who had never previously encountered someone quite like Netta Barzilai who shared the story of a painful childhood in Nigeria where her father was working as an engineer for Solel Boneh.

Children can be very cruel, and the fat little foreign girl with the strange accent was taunted about her looks, her weight and the way she spoke. They made her feel that she was not worthy of love, not someone to be followed or to be accepted. They said ugly things to her, and she believed them.

The taunting was not confined to Nigeria. She experienced it again when she returned to Israel.

It was only at age 18, after she had finished school that she was able to choose to love herself and reinvent herself.

She was always interested in music. Her brother was a drummer, and she started out with the help of a looper, imitating the sounds he made when he played the drums, and then adding the bird and animal sounds for which she has achieved fame.

Talented as she was, fame eluded her until a little less than two years ago. She recalled a meeting with her accountant in which he told her that in a whole year, she had earned a sum total of $700.

She performed in bars and at weddings. Sometimes she was paid in money. Sometimes she was paid in food. Either way, she couldn’t make ends meet, and the day came when she made one of her frequent phone calls to her mother who said “I love you, I believe in you, but I can’t go on helping you. You have to come home and do something else. You love children. Maybe you’ll be a kindergarten teacher.” It was an option but not one that Barzilai would seriously consider. Her heart, in fact her whole world lay in music.

AND THEN when it seemed as if nothing was going to change, fate came knocking at the door, and she was asked to participate in a reality show to find Israel’s next star entertainer. Because she’s not exactly svelte, she was convinced that she would be ridiculed, just as she had been when she was a child.

She was wrong. The public and the adjudicators loved her. She went on from there to become Israel’s representative for the 2018 Eurovision contest, sang at the annual Eurovision in concert before a mammoth audience of 4,500 in Amsterdam, became even more popular and reached the finals in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon – and all the rest is history – well, not actually history, but continuity.

After she won the Eurovision song contest, she was approached by gays, straight people, fat people, skinny people and colorful people who told her: “I though I was alone, but you made me realize that I’m not.”

She finds this extremely rewarding. “I’m out in the open with my weirdness and my authenticity.”

The FPA is used to its guest speakers voicing criticism of the media. Thus it came as a pleasant surprise, when Barzilai addressing the members said: “You make the world a more beautiful and safer place when you spread beautiful messages.”

She spoke without notes, and without hesitation and during the Q&A which she conducted herself, paid attention to every raised hand and answered every question even while evading those that were pointedly political.

She proved herself to be articulate, intelligent and endearing.

When asked what she thought about attempts to have Eurovision boycotted, she replied that the Eurovision Song Contest was founded after the Second World War to heal a torn-up nation. Calling it a “festival of light” which embraces people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds and cultures, she said “To boycott light, is to spread darkness.”

Asked whether she was happy to represent an Israel that voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, she explained that she’s not a political person. “I represent Netta, who loves people.” If she was to go public with her political opinion, it would divide people rather than unite them, she said. She preferred to stick with music and to let the politicians do their work, she added. “My business is to make music and to share my gift.”

WHEN PRINCE William, the Duke of Cambridge, visited Israel last year, Barzilai was chosen to escort him along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. “It was very carefully planned,” she said. She was instructed not to address him, to wait until he addressed her first. She was a little worried as to whether there would be any conversation at all. But he immediately put her at her ease and told her that she was a positive role model for her people. No one had ever suggested that she might be a role model, and coming from the first British royal to pay an official visit to Israel, this was a great boost for her self-image.

Prince William may also have had an effect on her attitude. She no longer wastes time thinking about the parodies created at her expense.

She can do her own thing in that regard as evidenced by the explanation she gave for the difference between ‘Toy’ and her relatively new video ‘Bassa Sababa’ which features her as a pink rhinoceros. Toy is a song about being used, she said. “It was part of a campaign. Bassa Sababa is more personal,“ written because people used to make fun of her. “Yes, I am a rhino – a pink fabulous rhino.”

While she doesn’t advocate that people shed their beliefs for the sake of unity, she would like to see people united about positive things. “Culture should be shared more, because it makes the world a better place. When there is good energy, there are less problems.” Asked about whether she thought that Israel’s current Eurovision entry ‘Home’ was a good song, Barzilai replied in the affirmative saying that Golden Boy sung by Nadav Guedj in the 2015 Eurovision contest was also a good song because it was Israeli and universal.

One of the Eurovision hurdles, she said, was the difficulty in taking an artist who had no original song until that moment, and making him a world artist. “I think that ‘Home’ is good for Kobi. To get your (musical) DNA takes time.”

One of the final questions put to her had political connotations but she answered it anyway.

Did she think that Palestinians should be allowed to participate in Eurovision?

“Why not?” she said. “I think everyone who wants to be in Eurovision should go. They entered Australia – and that’s not Europe.”

When she won in Lisbon, she shouted “See you next year in Jerusalem.”

Is she disappointed that it’s in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem?

She’s indifferent, because Tel Aviv is only 30 minutes away from Jerusalem by train.

FPA members have been there and done that in exciting, controversial and dangerous situations around the world, but they were like a bunch of drooling teenagers as they crowded around Barzilai after she left the podium, and obligingly posed for selfies with many of them.

A celebrity is a celebrity, after all.

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