Original Eurovision Diva Dana International Talks Netta, Girl Power and Chicken Madness

Transgender Israeli winner of 1998 Eurovision Song Contest says of her anti-Barbie successor 20 years later: ‘Our internal chicken calls on people to listen to us’

Dana International during the 'Israel Calling' concert in Tel Aviv. On PM Netanyahu not calling her after her victory: 'The insult of 20 years ago has long since melted away.'
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Dana International watched the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest from Moscow of all places. “To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it,” says Dana about the viewing experience in a country that for the first time didn’t make it to the finals. “I reached the conclusion that when Israel is an almost certain favorite to win, and you want so much for it to happen, viewing the entire contest isn’t really an experience. You can’t really enjoy any song, you only want to see Netta and to get to the awarding of points already.

“That part, the points, which is usually the nicest and most interesting part of the contest, was nerve-racking this time, tense and unbearable. In short, the evening ended amazingly for me, and filled me with happiness, but the entire three preceding hours were superfluous.”

Dana International celebrates her Eurovision victory in 1998. Chicken wings - courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier.
AP Photo/Louisa Buller
Maganuna by Dana International - check out the chicken sounds

Dana, who won the contest exactly 20 years ago with the song “Diva,” became a fan of Barzilai a month and a half ago, when she came to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in honor of the “Israel Calling” show, and declared that Barzilai would bring Eurovision back to Jerusalem. When asked if she really believed that Barzilai would win this year, she says: “When I first saw Netta, I fell in love with her. I was somewhat amused that they made a big deal of the looper [a vocal recording device], and all the excitement about it, as though the judges had just discovered a new musical invention. That looper was far less important than what they made of it, or than all the talent and charm and uniqueness that Netta brings with her.”

What worked in Netta’s favor?

“Producer Yoav Tzafir, who has become the biggest expert in Israel at deciphering the Eurovision contest, understood that the contest had entered a new phase and the familiar cookie-cutter songs – from Cyprus, for example – are less popular. On the other hand, a personal statement by an artist, which contains truth and uniqueness, would be more successful at capturing the audience. So already from the start it was clear that Netta has a strong suit, but only after I heard the song written for her by Doron and Stav [Doron Medalie and Stav Beger], which was as though they had sewn a made-to-measure haute couture outfit for her, I realized that there couldn’t be anything better. It was quite clear to me that Netta would win this year.

Israel's Netta poses with the trophy during the news conference after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018.
REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

“I’m really happy that this time we were spared the talk and the moaning, explaining the lack of success and the criticism of us by blaming politics and anti-Semitism and that everyone is against us, excuses that were already in the pipeline. Moreover, it was demonstrated that there’s no truth to them. When we deserve to win, to succeed, to be embraced, it happens. It’s a fact.”

Do you feel a special connection to Netta?

“Nu, what do you think?. Anyone who sings, ‘Look at me, I’m beautiful’ and ‘Wonder Woman don’t you ever forget, you’re divine,’ is already my sister in her thinking and her approach to the world. And when that’s accompanied by those charming chicken clucks, then really. As someone who clucked ‘Ku ku ruku’ [in the song “Magnona”] I feel that there’s something there that reminds me of myself. As though ordinary language isn’t enough for us, and there’s some kind of need to say things differently. The internal chicken in us is calling on people to listen to us.

1998 winner, Dana International, right, and hopeful Netta Barzilai meet backstage at the 'Israel Calling' show.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“I’m just joking, but the message that Netta brings with her, to be proud of who you are and not to give in to society and to love yourself as your are – that’s a message that’s very familiar and close to me. When I met with her I felt that Mama Chicken was meeting Baby Chicken.

“During the first stage, ‘Toy’ became a European hit that will be on the hit parades, will be heard on the radio all over Europe, and will be sold in large numbers. Not every winning Eurovision song manages to click with what’s happening in the world outside Eurovision, and to bring what Netta and ‘Toy’ are bringing.”

What did you feel when you saw Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulating Netta for winning? After you won, he didn’t say a word.

“Look, it’s complicated. The insult of 20 years ago has long since melted away. Really, it was a different period, and it wasn’t even surprising. I admit that for a moment there may have bit a little twinge that reminded me of that insult, but it was so marginal within all this joy and pride about everything that’s happening, that it wasn’t really significant.

“Since then, incidentally, the establishment and the embassies, and the Foreign Ministry and the Tourism Ministry have turned me into a kind of ambassador, and someone of whom they’re very proud. So that I prefer to look at it as a victory over what used to be, and not to become mired in insults.”

You promised that if Netta wins you’ll come straight to Tel Aviv's main square in a bathing suit and jump into the fountain.

“It’s unbelievable how many people ask me that since I blurted out that promise in some interview. In order to maintain my integrity, I’m forced to explain that on the night when I won, when they were celebrating in the square, I suffered and sat all night with journalists, while I was getting reports about what was happening there and dying to celebrate.

“I thought that this time I would be able to make up for it, but on Saturday night I was in Moscow, and that’s why I said in advance that the original plan was canceled, and I would come to celebrate in Red Square, and with a coat on. Well, that didn’t happen either. I promise it will happen next time we win.”