When Eliad Cohen steps out of his gym in downtown Tel Aviv, people walking by cannot help glancing at him. His enormous muscles are framed by a tank top with a neckline so low and broad that his huge, hairy chest is entirely on display, and his gigantic arms look like they were transposed from the Incredible Hulk and covered with tattoos. Although he attracts a lot of interest, most people do not know his name. Cohen manages to stay relatively anonymous in Tel Aviv, but in Manhattan’s Chelsea or Madrid’s Chueca neighborhoods, it would be impossible to find someone who did not know exactly who he was — the most famous gay Israeli icon of recent years.
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Ever since he appeared three years ago on the cover of Spartacus, the bible of gay tourism, Cohen has been a sought-after model. He is also the owner of the PAPA party line that has been successful in dozens of cities all over the world, the co-owner of Gay-ville, a gay vacation rental service, a star of gay-themed YouTube videos — and the fantasy of millions of men. Photographs of him in underwear, a bathing suit or an Israeli Defense Forces uniform have become popular, particularly on the Internet, receiving responses such as, “I want peace now with Israel after seeing u.” Cohen is the extreme embodiment of the contemporary Israeli gay man: He lives freely and openly, strives for success and self-actualization and makes no apology for his masculinity or sexuality.
These days, Cohen is launching a collection that bears his name with the Australian brand BCNÜ and an online store with PAPA merchandise. On June 12, he is holding the biggest event of Tel Aviv’s Pride Week — a huge pool party at the Shefayim Water Park that will go on from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. In the evening, partygoers will continue to yet another party he is arranging at the Oman 17 club in Tel Aviv.
Just two weeks ago, he celebrated his 26th birthday in Paris, right after landing there from Sao Paulo, in a celebration that would have made Kim Kardashian blush. At midnight, his French friends gave him an enormous cake topped with a huge black handlebar mustache, PAPA’s logo. From there he continued to another party in Madrid, where he walked around bare-chested among the drooling revelers. Not a month goes by without a PAPA’s party somewhere in the world. The next one will be called “Papa Don’t Preach,” as homage to Madonna. Cohen’s biggest dream is to have her appear at one of his parties.
My so-called deviance
Unlike Cohen’s tumultuous life abroad, when he is in Tel Aviv, he hardly ever goes out, preferring to spend his time at home. He lives on his own in a spacious apartment near the Azrieli Towers. His place is so clean and tidy that it is hard to believe anyone lives here: There are no shelves full of books, no magazines strewn about. The refrigerator is completely empty except for ten packages of frozen chicken breast in the freezer. Only a small room in the rear shows a tiny bit of his other life: black leather harnesses arranged on a rack and shelves full of gladiator masks, pointy metal bracelets, brown robes and tiny blue bathing suits. Party posters featuring Cohen bare to the waist are rolled up on the floor, and a large IDF backpack serves as a suitcase.
He tells me that he had to live independently from a young age, since his parents were more like friends than a mom and a dad. “If a tooth fell out, I would go to the doctor on my own,” he says. His father, a sailor, was hardly ever home. Cohen grew up surrounded by a group of neighborhood teenagers playing soccer, but he always knew there was something different about him. “I would look at men on the street in a strange way. I remember I would tell jokes and laugh with everyone, and then I would cry alone at night,” he says, “I made myself understand that I would marry and have children, and that no one would ever know about my so-called deviance.”
When Cohen, at 19, got up the courage to tell a female friend about his feelings, she decided they had to go to Tel Aviv. It was six years ago that they took a train from Acre to Tel Aviv and arrived at Evita Bar, a prominent gay bar in the city to this day. Cohen never got to see Tel Aviv’s old bars or secret meeting places from the 1990s and early 2000s — which, unlike the well-lit and magnificently decorated Evita Bar, were dim, underground places. Tel Aviv is now considered a very liberal city. “In other cities there are gay neighborhoods, where the community may be more visible. But in comparison, Tel Aviv in its entirety is open to gays,” he says. He came out to his mother when he was 20 years old, and after a sleepless night she accepted him with open arms — and even cooked dinner for him and his then-partner.
Friends from Lebanon and Syria
Cohen says that he likes the fact that people abroad recognize him as Israeli. “I’m the Israeli man who is rough around the edges, who served in the army and doesn’t shave his chest hair,” he says with a smile, “And I don’t think too much of myself — for me, that’s a real turn-off.” He says he has never encountered anti-Semitism. “I don’t get into politics or religion. I have many friends abroad, some from Lebanon, some from Syria, and it doesn’t matter where they’re from or what religion they are. We have an amazing connection.”
Many Israelis, including quite a few teenagers, see Cohen as a role model. Once, at the airport in Marseille, France, an ultra-Orthodox man invited him into one of the lounges. He sat in front of Eliad as he ate and told him that he belonged to a secret religious gay community in Jerusalem, in which most of the members were married to women. “He told me that they all follow me on Facebook. Suddenly he took out a cell telephone and said, ‘I need you to talk to a friend of mine from yeshiva.’ The guy on the other end said, ‘Eliad, you give us the strength to go on. You make us strong.’”
Many will be happy to know that Eliad is currently single, and that he does not think appearances are terribly important. “I have no preferences as to a particular type, not in terms of appearance or age. My first partner was 13 years older than me, and not at all muscular,” he says. “For me, sexy doesn’t mean how many times you go to the gym. My credo in life — about love, friendship, work — is that it’s all about the energy.”
When asked if he worries about getting old, he says, “I do think about the future from time to time. But my motto in life is to live in happiness. All the rest — older, younger, thin, fat, ugly, good-looking — isn’t important. If you are happy, nothing else is really important.”