‘Arab in a Wig’: France Sends Barrier-breaking Provocateur to Israel's Eurovision

19-year-old Bilal Hassani boasts an androgynous appearance, a keen queer social awareness, a dazzling array of wigs. He has some choice words for critics who say he's 'denigrating his Muslim heritage'

Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut
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Bilal Hassani performing on stage in Paris during Destination Eurovision France, January 26, 2019.
Bilal Hassani performing on stage in Paris during Destination Eurovision France, January 26, 2019.Credit: AFP
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut

With his androgynous appearance, hundreds of thousands of followers and zero tolerance for critics who want him to “stop denigrating Islam,” 19-year-old Bilal Hassani will take the Eurovision stage in Tel Aviv to represent the LGBT community everywhere.

Some called Dana International’s 1998 Eurovision victory “the night when Eurovision came out of the closet.” Europe’s vote for the transgender singer, which was followed by Tel Aviv’s first Pride parade that same year, had a lot to do with the world’s biggest song contest being painted in the colors of the Pride flag, especially for the Israeli audience. And it has continued to make a statement in this area.

In 2014, bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst took first place, again underscoring the event’s all-embracing nature, as supporters booed during the performance of the song representing homophobic Russia. This year, French entrant Bilal Hassani will be the one most boldly waving the Pride colors.

Hassani, 19, was born in Paris to French-Moroccan parents. He came out as gay two years ago, at 17, when he released a song on Twitter called “Hold your Hand.” It contained the lyric: “I can’t stop all the angry eyes judging our love, but you know I’ll only smile when I get to hold your hand.”

He boasts an androgynous appearance, a keen queer social awareness and a dazzling array of wigs. This combination has proven to be a winning recipe – He’s become a viral web presence, often appearing at Pride parades that photograph well for Instagram, for one thing.

French singer Bilal Hassani poses in Paris on January 28, 2019. Credit: AFP

Even before he was selected to represent France at this year’s Eurovision, the singer had become a gay icon, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. He got his first taste of fame when he appeared on “The Voice – Kids” in France in 2015 and performed Wurst’s Eurovision song “Rise Like a Phoenix.” He didn’t win but he did gain a lot of fans.

In Tel Aviv, he’ll perform the song “Roi” (“King”), about the desire to escape barriers and expectations and to be true to one’s self. Hassani will sing the song in English – which is highly unusual for the songs that France sends to the contest. He wrote the song together with Madame Monsieur, the duo that competed in the 2018 Eurovision with the song “Merci,” a moving tale of a baby abandoned on the beach, meant to illustrate the refugee crisis. They finished in 13th place, much lower than anticipated.

But not everyone is cheering the industrious and multi-talented young man. In an interview last year with Billboard Magazine, he said that record companies in France tell him he’s “too different” and won’t sign him. “They tried to make me look like some kind of teen pop star, like a Justin Bieber format,” he said. “And I’m really not against that, I think it can be cool, but I always fought with that. So I sort of got blacklisted from everything.”

With the announcement of his selection for Eurovision, there was much furious reaction on social media, with many saying he should be boycotted for “denigrating his Muslim heritage” and others dismissing him as “an Arab in a wig.”

LGBT organizations have stood up for him, responding to the critics with posts and Tweets and reporting the hateful comments – with the aim of getting them removed and fighting homophobia.

In the Billboard interview, Hassani also said, “this was kind of a ‘fuck you’ to them when I wear the wig, because I know it’s going to piss them off.” He said that “it’s very important for me to try and break barriers, because in my country, France, it’s very rare to see a pop singer or any singer try different things. So I really wanted to showcase that, because I know that the community is big in France, but there is not much representation at all.”

This article was first published in January of 2019

Bilal Hassani applauding after winning the Destination Eurovision France contest, Paris, January 26, 2019.Credit: AFP

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