It’s hard to forget the way Noa Kirel burst into our world. It was four years ago, in a television item about a provocative music video that had been released by the then-14-year-old Israeli singer. The clip of her song “Killer” left viewers with one question: How could her parents have allowed her to be filmed this way?
In the clip, Kirel prances around in a miniskirt, her midriff bared. The pouty lips, pelvic thrusts, fingertip on her lips and seductive glances left little room for the imagination. This was eight months after the release of her first song, “Medabrim” (“Talking”). The two videos were as different as night and day. The first also showed off the dancing and singing skills of the photogenic teen from Ra’anana. But while in “Medabrim,” Kirel looked like another talented girl from a good family, with “Killer,” one could be tempted to fantasize.
What was the fantasy of agent Roberto Ben Shushan, of parents Ilana and Amir Kirel and, most of all, of Noa herself? For her to become a pop star of a scale never before seen in this country.
That video and the scandal it provoked are ancient history now for Kirel, who turned 18 on April 10. It’s a momentous birthday for her, not just because it means she will soon be drafted, but even more because she will officially become an adult who can take personal control of the fortune she has earned to date.
All those clucks of disapproval from 2015 have long since been forgotten. In 2019, Kirel is a cultural phenomenon.
What is it about this girl, what special qualities does she possess? How was she able to survive the usual skepticism about child/teen stars, the whiff of scandal, not to mention adolescence, to become a massive enterprise with a presence in so many areas – reality shows, music, dance, theater, commercials, film, fashion?
What is it that you like about Noa Kirel, I asked some of her legions of young female fans. I got a variety of answers. She’s “gorgeous,” “lovely,” “cute,” “sweet,” they said. Is she mainly a singer? An actress? A dancer? I asked. The answer was unequivocal. “She’s famous.”
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I followed Kirel over the last five months to try to really get to know her (maybe she’d open up and confess things to me?), to learn something about contemporary culture and to crack the secrets of her formidable success and fame.
October 2018: Filming ‘Kfula’
Kirel did not open up all that easily, even though at our first meeting she greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and a big grin, as if we’d known each other for years. Apparently she’d learned that that’s how you act with grown-ups. It was on the set of the children’s TV series “Kfula” (“Double”), loosely based on her own life, in which she plays the lead (dual) role. The show, dreamed up by talent agent Roberto Ben Shushan, is now concluding its third season and filming for a fourth will begin soon.
I brought along a few young girls when I arrived at the set, in an abandoned school in Ramle, so I’d have someone with me who knew how to behave next to a teen star. Kirel came out of her dressing room and the magic worked instantly. At first glance, she looks like a Disney princess – huge blue eyes; long dark fake eyelashes to enhance the effect; long straight hair; very tan skin; and cherry-colored lips. Beautiful, for sure.
Kirel came up to the girls and hugged them, huge smiles plastered on all their faces. I realized I had to react quickly. I pulled out my cell phone and took three pictures, only one of them in focus. The girls were speechless with joy. Noa didn’t have much to say either, and quickly disappeared back into the dressing room.
Kirel was the youngest person on the set. The production people explained that they no longer allow children to visit, because last season bus loads were showing up regularly, and the expensive days of shooting were disrupted. In the coming days, I felt confident enough to arrive without my pint-size bodyguards, and even to tried to talk to Kirel once in a while.
During one rather awkward conversation, I learned that Noa can no longer walk freely around shopping malls, and that when she goes to the movies, she keeps a hat on until the lights go down and leaves just before the credits. If anyone still manages to spot her, she says, the screening is over for her due to the resulting excitement. Also, her mother sends her to the set with cake, and the crew knows she likes toffees. At this point Kirel starts looking at her phone and I understand that the conversation is over.
November: Bat-mitzvah season
Just before the last annual Festigal extravaganza for children, which waylaid Noa from all her other pursuits for three months, there was one lucky girl who managed to hire her to perform at her bat-mitzvah party.
The event took place on a Friday afternoon at a fancy banquet hall in the Tel Aviv region. The space was decorated like an American diner, in pink, turquoise, black and white, including a vintage convertible in the center of the hall. American retro is a big design trend among adolescents these days.
Kirel arrived together with her brother Ofri and her quietly effective personal manager, Doron Harap, who always looks worried. His job is to manage the star’s impossible schedule and he is always there, with her, even if he is nowhere to be seen. One day, when I came to the set of a new video Kirel was shooting, I tried to break the First Law of Kirel and bring an outside photographer into the makeup room. Harap wasn’t there, but within 10 seconds I got a phone call from him firmly requesting that I retreat.
Noa was smuggled into the banquet hall through a side door; if any of the kids spotted her too early, they wouldn’t leave her alone. In a side room, she met up with her dancers, who were dressed like her, in clothing from a well-known sportswear company with which she has a commercial deal. Kirel, the dancers and popular singer-dancer Stephane Legar, who was also to perform with her, passed the time laughing together and eating hamburgers as they waited for the cue for their entrance. While she’d seemed a little tense on the set of “Kfula,” here Noa was totally in her element. The performance lasted half an hour. The children crowded around the stage, cell phones aloft.
Kirel charges 25,000 shekels ($7,000) for a private event like this. Roberto says they deliberately keep the price reasonable, because she is not just “for the wealthy.” “If someone has to take a loan out to hire Noa to perform, he won’t really enjoy it,” he says.
The price goes up to 100,000 shekels for performances at municipal events or before workers’ committees, and is twice that for Independence Day celebrations. But the price list is due to be adjusted soon, because Kirel is already working on a bigger, more grandiose endeavor: upgrading her show.
Wherever she goes, they’re there, the children. Like ants on the counter top in the summer, like Hitchcock’s birds. They wait in hallways, outside dressing rooms, at the entrance to concert halls, at movie sets. All they ask for (either by themselves or by means of a bashful parent) is just one tiny little selfie. At Festigal time, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of children. The yearly series of shows with top performance once took place just at Hanukkah time but the most recent one was extended over a three-month period, from November through January.
Though it seems like she was born for the Festigal stage, this past year was the first time that Noa “did” a Festigal. Some ascribed the musical spectacle’s huge success in 2018 – 116 performances sold-out ahead of time! – to Kirel’s participation and to the (real-life!) romance that was ignited during rehearsals between her and her partner on stage, 19-year-old Yonatan Margi.
The crowd went wild whenever Margi and Kirel sang a duet. The little girls in the audience who have no problem with Kirel’s provocative dancing and poses in her clips could barely stand to watch the kiss on stage and covered their eyes.
January: Filming ‘The Voice’
Kirel has not been a regular participant on “The Voice,” the competitive TV singing show, but did guest appearances for the coming season. Her dressing room door was closed and I wasn’t allowed to enter, even though other people were going in and out all the time. I eventually learned that there is her inner circle of staffers and then there are the outer circle made up of the millions of eyes that stare at Noa from morning till night.
One of the important people in the inner circle is Kirel’s stylist, Itay Bezaleli. He has worked with her for the past two years and now divides his time between her and another very busy client: Netta Barzilai.
Bezaleli: “I wanted to take this in the direction of an international star, I wanted to be bold. Noa is absolutely the biggest star in Israel. It’s like a show window. You have to create something that’s not accessible. I won’t deny that we sometimes take inspiration from Ariana Grande, with the ponytail, but mainly I want to believe that I’m creating the inspiration for someone else. Only Noa can look and dress like she does, she’s a fashionista. She understands the power of it all.”
Sexually, are there any red lines?
“I don’t see anything sexual about it. I see a cool girl with style. I would never dress her in something because it’s sexy. The word ‘sexy’ doesn’t enter the dressing room. We all watch out for her. I’m dying to see her in the army. You know how gorgeous she’ll be in uniform?”
One thing is definite about Kirel’s path to success: The ambition is not hers alone. She is surrounded by people who are just as motivated as she is, and together they have put together a well-oiled machine. They call themselves “Noa’s Army.” One of the first rules of this army seems to have been that everyone is to act at all times as if this teenage performer is a huge success until there is no other option but for this idea to become reality.
Should you doubt for one second that Kirel is the most perfect creature on earth, the machine will make you feel like a relic from the Middle Ages.
Whenever I tried to say that there was something provocative about her appearance for her young age, I was corrected: Not provocative, “current.”
If I wondered why there was no separation between working for commercial enterprises and what was once called “art,” I was told that artistic is essentially commercial – with a personal statement attached.
Anything that seems like a copy of world pop is “international” and thus different, and a recipe for success.
To describe the team that surrounds Kirel, one must start with the parents.
Her mother, Ilana, does not submit to interviews, but her father, Amir, is quite used to them. We met at Glassco Glass Warehouses, an imported-glass business headquartered in the Barkan Industrial Zone, in the West Bank. Kirel, the chief executive, sat behind a large desk and chain-smoked. Aside from a small picture of Noa on one shelf, the rather plain office gives no hint of her father’s other, more glamorous pursuits.
Amir and Ilana have been married 31 years. Noa is their youngest child.
They have two older sons. They named her Noya at birth, but then she was diagnosed with a serious kidney illness when she was three months old. Her parents sought a blessing from a rabbi, and he told them to change her name to Noa, so that the child would be able to move (lanu’a, in Hebrew) as she grew. He also predicted that she would become a famous dancer.
Kirel admits that at the start, the “Noa project” was motivated by a lot of ambition, or as he calls it – a principle. “Noa was in an after-school program for girls who wanted to become stars. I wasn’t one of those parents who try to fulfill their own dreams through their children.
And I also never wanted to be that dumb dad who’s certain his kid is the most talented one around just because she’s his daughter. I went to the program’s end-of-the-year show, and afterward she was crying because the teacher had put her in the back row on stage. I asked the teacher how come, and she said, ‘Let’s be real. She doesn’t move so great, she doesn’t look that great, she doesn’t sing that great. I don’t want to waste your time. When I’m putting on a big end-of-the-year show, girls like her need to be in the back.’ So I said, ‘Okay, fine, let’s talk in a few years.’”
Amir Kirel became a killer. His daughter was 11, but he was determined to prove to the teacher that she was wrong, big-time. Noa attended a hip-hop dance class and spent hours practicing. Amir also signed her up for private voice lessons. “For two years, I took her there every Friday. On the way, Noa would say to me: If I don’t become famous, it will be the country’s loss.”
For Noa’s bat mitzvah, they hired the Israeli rapper E-Z to perform and she sang a song with him. “She totally bowled him over. Afterward, he told me, ‘Listen, there’s something here.’ I said, ‘If there’s something, then let’s do something.’ Eventually he agreed, and that’s how the first song, ‘Medabrim,’ came about [E-Z wrote it for her].”
Noa auditioned for a bunch of television shows, including “Pushers,” a docu-reality show about parents who push their kids to chase fame, but she wasn’t accepted. But she didn’t relent. “She kept pushing me to take her to auditions,” her father says. “Eventually, she was hired as a dancer for a shampoo commercial.”
When Noa was offered the chance to be cast on the second season of “Pushers,” her father felt they were at a turning point. “I realized there was an opportunity to really do something with her talent, but I didn’t have enough connections. I ended up going to Roberto Ben Shushan. He saw Noa and saw the video – after half a glance, he said, ‘Awesome, I’m with you.’ And then the video for ‘Killer’ was made, which was deliberately provocative. Now I can come out and admit that the idea from the start was to make a lot of noise.”
You knew about it at the time?
“Roberto didn’t tell me about it because he was afraid I would say no, and then it would be just another video that didn’t lead to anything. He was right because I would have wrecked it for him, and my wife would have beat him up.”
During the filming of the video, Ben Shushan was caught on camera, in a report shown on Channel 2, saying, “She has to come out sexy here, so the news will do a report on how they let a 14-year-old girl become a sex symbol.”
Overnight, Noa Kirel went from being a talented kid to an object of disapproval by the whole country.
Was the scandal a price worth paying?
“It’s not a price, it’s a trick.”
How did the reactions make you feel?
“It made me mad, because I knew that Noa isn’t provocative. She’s a normal girl who behaved and dressed just like all the girls her age that I see. Nowadays, every 4-year-old girl makes sexy moves in front of the mirror. I was angry that people were saying that this girl’s father sold his daughter’s body. I’m the last person who would ever do something like that.”
You yourself just admitted that the video is provocative.
“The clip was seen as provocative because it was a new kind of thing that exposed Noa’s generation to the adult world. I don’t see it as having sexual content. It’s current. There is no sexual content with Noa. Hip-hop is a sexy type of dance, what can you do?”
One might have thought that the video would have disturbed the parents’ relationship with their daughter’s agent, but the opposite occurred, adds Kirel: “Roberto was a genius here. And not only here. He’s like a master chef who doesn’t need to measure how much salt he’s putting in.”
On the face of it, Ben Shushan and Amir Kirel couldn’t be more different. But their shared business sense and common goal has made them the best of friends, and Kirel trusts him with eyes closed.
The “Killer” clip certainly achieved its aim. Noa became very famous and it wasn’t long before her iconic status was sealed with an impersonation on “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”). Anyone who wasn’t familiar with Noa Kirel soon got to know the “Agas Kimel” character on the satirical show. And from there it was a short distance to the real Kirel.
Kirel’s third single, with a much more family-friendly video, was called “Yesh Bi Ahava” (“I Have Love”) and landed her on the playlist of the Galgalatz radio station. Among the achievements happily recited by the soldiers in Kirel’s so-called army is this one: “the youngest singer ever to get on Galgalatz,” which is immediately followed by: “the youngest judge ever on [the TV show] ‘Got Talent.’”
It’s not too big a load for a girl her age?
Amir Kirel: “She’s a machine when it comes to work. She’s diligent, goal-oriented. Sometimes it can be a lot, but she wants it. If there’s a day when she doesn’t have a show scheduled, she’ll say: Why should I get up at noon? Let’s slot in something in the morning. She’s worse than we are.”
Do you ever regret that she has stopped going to school, for now, that she doesn’t have friends her age?
“I do think about that. But what are friends? She has a life that any girl would dream about. And any parent would dream of being as close to their teenager as we are to her. I know that right now she’s somewhere recording or filming. She’s not hanging out in a park smoking a narghile or sipping vodka.”
How much money has she earned?
“I don’t like to talk about money. If you’re asking if she can afford to buy an apartment – yes. And that’s it. It’s not America here.”
Who shares in her earnings?
“Just Noa and Roberto. I don’t receive a salary. Ilana had a business for 17 years, a clothing store, and she closed it so she could be with Noa. It’s more economical and more interesting.”
Twists in the plot
One day, someone will probably make a movie about the life of agent Roberto Ben Shushan. As he recounts his career, all the right twists in the plot are already in place. He was born 49 years ago in Jaffa Gimmel, a poor neighborhood. His father owned a local mini-market. “My father wanted me to do the same as him, but I always had this fantasy that I would be something, that I would be someone,” he tells me.
At age 27, he opened a modeling agency, although he had no experience in the field. He discovered his first client, Sharon Ganish, at a club in Ashkelon, and it wasn’t long before she was hired for a Versace campaign. She was followed by a series of successful discoveries: Agam Rudberg, Rotem Sela and, of course, singer Maya Buskila: “I knew nothing about music or fashion, but I can look at people and know what’s good and what’s not.”
Ben Shushan readily admits that all the success went to his head and that all he cared about was his own fame. But the initial fame was followed by a big financial fall and his disappearance from the scene. Then luck came his way again about four years ago, in the form of two then-14-year-old girls: Sofia Mechetner, the daughter of a struggling immigrant family from the former Soviet Union who has become a highly successful model for Dior, and Noa Kirel – and her “pusher” father.
How did you feel after you were attacked because of the “Killer” video?
Ben Shushan: “I knew that the young audience doesn’t like its parents’ conservatism. You have to do things like they’re done abroad, and people here aren’t used to these things. She’s beautiful, she’s sexy – that’s Noa. You want her to make herself ugly so you can feel good about yourself?”
The agent is also annoyed by criticism of the lyrics to Kirel’s songs. Like when, for example, grown-ups feel uncomfortable hearing her shout lines like “I want you, I want you, all day, all day” with an audience of 12-year-old girls. “What do you want her to sing?” he says. “‘You soar like a bird in the sky and I want to soar with you’? We have to do what’s current. Rihanna, Beyoncé – that’s what she wants to be. We have so much more to do.”
This “more” includes conquering the space between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A first step was taken recently with the production of a song in English, called “Drum.” With his business wizardry, Ben Shushan arranged to have the song become the backdrop for a commercial, he used the commercial to make a video clip and made Noa the main presenter for, or representative face of, a certain clothing manufacturer – and all with just five days of filming in Thailand. The result is a bit odd. The song itself works, but the insertion in the video of images of different presenters for the clothing label is awkward.
It’s a new song. Didn’t you want it to have at least a minute of life without being connected to something commercial?
“All the good songs eventually become commercials. How is that different from spending a lot of money on a video clip so that people will know the song? The commercial side contributes to the art. Why are you impressed by a particular painter? Because a painting of his sold for $100 million.”
How much money have you made off her so far?
“A lot. And I intend to make a lot more. Thank God, I don’t have any more financial problems.”
Is there something particularly Israeli or original about Noa?
“What is Israel? It’s a global culture. There’s one who comes from Poland and one who comes from Morocco and one who comes from Ethiopia – and it’s all mixed together. We’re America, and we’re China and Japan. Stars also need to be just like what you see in the world.”
Another top lieutenant in Kirel’s army is her publicist, Shir Pinto, 24. He was actually still in the Israel Defense Forces when he started working with her. Pinto says that feelers are being put out to different branches of the army ahead of the star’s upcoming enlistment, probably sometime after the summer. “Noa Kirel in uniform, that has marketing value, publicity value… Let’s say that within this vast ‘corporation,’ the army, there are a lot of companies that want Noa as their presenter. Once she’s in uniform, the decision will become clear.”
After five months of one-sided wooing, it finally happened: Kirel’s team found time for me to interview her. As it turned out, she seemed well-versed in the talking points she wants to communicate; perhaps she composed them herself. She was quick to soften any strong statements so as not to stir up controversy. Her mother Ilana sat with us but did not intervene. Before the interview Ilana described an incident that made it clear why there is a need to protect her daughter. That morning Ilana had gotten into a taxicab and the driver immediately identified her and insisted that she sit next to him; he called his children on the phone, and demanded that she speak to them. Without a second thought, he then announced that he and his children would all show up at the Kirel home on Saturday to have their pictures taken with Noa. Just like that. Ilana was still shaken when we met.
Noa Kirel believes that with her colossal success comes national responsibility. Two days before our interview, she took a “private and personal” trip to Holocaust sites in Poland (that was organized and filmed by the Children’s Channel). National – yes, but political – absolutely not.
Kirel turned 18 this past Wednesday, the day after the election, so she didn’t vote. Anyway, her father made it clear that he won’t permit her to get involved in politics. She confirmed that she doesn’t follow politics and says she’s not at an age where she’s supposed to understand these things.
You do many different things. What is the most important thing for you?
“Music. Recently I’ve gotten to do other things like the Festigal and ad campaigns, but that’s not the same as a putting out a new song.”
What music has influenced you?
“Videos by foreign artists. I looked at the way someone like Rihanna combines dance and singing, and that’s something that really excited me. It’s something I hadn’t seen in Israel yet, so I said: That’s what I want to do. Today I love Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, pop and hip-hop, and quiet songs too.”
Kirel has 700,000 Instagram followers. While other famous folks use the platform for hidden advertising, Kirel says she is careful to separate the private from the commercial: “That’s not me. I won’t take a vacation at the expense of a company and post pictures. The audience relates to me because I look them in the eye and it’s important to me to keep it that way.”
But now you have a commercial that’s a video and a video that’s a commercial, so there is a combination of the commercial and the artistic.
“It’s a fantastic mixture here, because I’m representing the brand, but with my music. I’m a musical presenter, which is very special and unprecedented. I don’t think there’s anything bad in being commercial. In every supposedly commercial campaign that I do, I always put in a song or something that has added value.”
Do you define yourself as an artist?
And what does being an artist mean to you?
“That I have a say in everything that I do, that I bring myself into everything. That’s what artists do, I think. If I’m doing a campaign for something, I’ll be 100 percent involved. If it’s a song, I’ll be 100 percent involved. That’s why I think I can define myself as an artist.”
I understand you’ve also started to write songs. Do you want to convey messages through your songs?
“I’m more focused on making music that I relate to. It’s harder to convey messages in music than in an Instagram post. Nowadays, lyrics don’t have so many messages. It’s more about songs that have a beat and are happy and fun to dance to.”
Once she became so busy maintaining her thriving career, Kirel stopped attending school. She says she’ll complete her high-school matriculation exams when she has time.
Do you miss your old life?
“No, because there’s wasn’t anything special or interesting. In my life now there’s a lot of action. I can’t picture myself in any other situation. I feel that this is what I was meant to do.”
That reminds me of those Olympic gymnasts who work so hard from a young age and give up everything for their career.
“But I didn’t have anything to give up. The only thing I gave up was privacy, more or less.”
That’s a lot.
“It is a lot. It’s hard sometimes, because wherever I go people want me to give my all, all the time, and sometimes I don’t feel like it. I’m a 17-and-a-half-year-old girl who sometimes just wants to argue with her friend on the phone, but I can’t because someone will overhear us and someone will talk about it. It’s tough, and it’s also a lot of responsibility. I always have to be nice to everyone.”
You never say, “I’ve had it, leave me alone”?
“Of course I feel that way sometimes, but a kid has no idea what my day has been like. He is really excited to see me and wants to take a picture. So I try not to say no. After all, this is my audience, these are the people that love me, these are the people who keep my name known. But yes, sometimes there are people who go a little too far.”
Where do you go when you need to vent?
“I can do that with my family, because they go through everything with me, so that’s the easiest.”
Why are you going into the army?
Because up to now you haven’t had the life of a normal high-schooler.
“It’s good to have something normal too, something to balance things out. It’s not something I’m willing to pass up. We’ll do it the right way so it won’t hurt my career.”
What scares you the most?
“That it will all come to an end. It’s hard to be so loved and successful and then have it suddenly disappear. That’s very scary.”