Lights! Cameras! Azerbaijan! How I Lost My Life to the Eurovision Song Contest
When I left Harvard with a degree in experimental psychology eleven years ago, I had no plans to sacrifice my career, marriage, and sanity to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Earlier this year, during an afternoon in March, the Russian pop star Sergey Lazarev stood in the hallway of a Tel Aviv conference centre surrounded by a braying mob of journalists and Eurovision bloggers, myself among them. Muscle-bound and wearing a skin-tight grey polo shirt, he put on a pec-tacular display as he fielded questions about his love of dogs, political tensions between Moscow and Europe, and "You Are The Only One" — the insanely catchy if somewhat disposable pop song he'd sing for Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in just two months time.
I know his Euro-pop oeuvre well. I'd spent the preceding weeks playing his hit "Take it Off" on loop; a lively song with a music video that sees him wearing pink jeans and repeatedly grabbing his crotch. On this day, as I stand close enough to smell his floral musk, I can't help but picture him shirtless and thrusting.
With my camera poised and rolling, he tells me that he recently fainted at a concert in St Petersburg because he hadn't been eating enough. "I imagine you need lots of protein, because your body is so big," I say, flicking my eyes towards his torso. "I became a bit slimmer because I was on tour… no gym," he replies, flexing his biceps, each of which features a massive angel wing tattoo. In my bid to warm relations between Russia and the West, I reach out to squeeze his arm. "It's very big," I say, all the blood in my head rushing south. "It's like concrete."
Eleven years ago, when I left Harvard with a degree in experimental psychology, I had no plans to become a dedicated Eurovision blogger. I didn't even know what Eurovision was. But in 2007, a few months after I'd moved to London for love, my boyfriend — now husband — made me watch the show. He'd assumed my fondness for choreographed spectacle — pairs figure skating, the Miss Universe swimsuit competition, North Korea's synchronised dance shows honouring their Dear Leader — would translate into a love of competitive Euro-pop. And he nailed it.
With every questionable lyric — "Don't call me funny bunny, I'll blow your money, money, I'll get you to my bad ass, spinning for you" (Russia 2007) — and every dancer resembling a stripper in a hamster wheel (Ukraine 2009, Ukraine 2014) — the contest sucked me deeper into its glitter-smothered, spangly vortex.
In 2009, I decided to launch my own Eurovision website, wiwibloggs, for shits and giggles, and also because I thought it was funny the Romanian contestant that year was the daughter of a priest, yet wore dresses so short I could see her next child. Seven years on — and with a team of sixty correspondents from Australia to Croatia to Romania — it's grown into a gnawing obsession. Divas, drag queens, and the contest's endless dramas now define every second of my everyday life.
In the months leading up to the May contest, I criss-cross the continent attending Eurovision selection shows and obscure promotional events, getting up close and personal with fragrant pop stars, some of whom can actually sing. Since 2011, I've clocked around 85,000 kilometres, snaking through Azerbaijan, Moldova, Portugal, Latvia, Sweden and beyond. In the haze of hairspray, sequins and pyrotechnic lighting, I enter a trance-like state and frequently forget to eat and bathe, or at least delay said activities until well after 4pm. Last September, my mother had to delay my father's funeral because I'd forgotten the time of the service while editing blog posts. My husband calls it, "Falling into a wiwi hole."
From that hole springs the fuel that keeps me going: a story on the fact Greece's 2008 starlet is pregnant, a report on allegations that Ukraine's 2016 entry masks anti-Russian sentiment, a video tour filmed inside the house of San Marino's most popular jazz singer, and an interview with Norwegian lesbians who sing about Soviet space dogs. I live for this shit.
In a pleasant turn of events, some people have started to live for the blog too. I traveled to Israel as a guest of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who were hosting eighteen of this year's Eurovision acts in a three-day promotional event. They were keen for me to share "the beautiful face of Israel with the world" – and with my 20,000 YouTube subscribers. For these diehard fans, Eurovision is a religion, the lyrics of its songs their holy scripture.
At times it feels like I'm on a reality show sponsored by the pop music division of the United Nations. At my resort in Tel Aviv, I stand in a poolside shower filming a Moldovan starlet as she covers Jessie J. Later that night, at a red carpet event, I ask the Serbian contestant (a trained dancer) if she can lift her leg above her head (she can). And following a press conference, the Finnish singer Sandhja (her name means 'watermelon' in Spanish) shows me her best dance moves in a pair of leggings that cling to each of her contours. When she flaps her thighs together, emphasising her very prominent camel toe, I find myself chanting, "Crack that coconut, babes. Crack it!"
My husband is long-suffering. A classically trained musician, he's more into Renaissance choral music than Eurovision songs with titles like "Shady Lady" (Ukraine 2008) and "Cake To Bake" (Latvia 2014). He knows I'll always miss our wedding anniversary — it takes place in May, when I'm away covering the climax of the contest. And he politely bites his tongue when I playfully flirt with male contestants — like a strapping 6ft 2in Estonian, whose voice is deeper than the ocean, and who I interviewed while we exercised on side-by-side ellipticals on the beach. I remind my other half that I'm not actually a slut. I just play one on YouTube.
When I get out of the shower each morning, I re-watch Australia's Eurovision 2016 act on my iPhone while I'm completely naked and lathering up in moisturiser. In the three-minute extravaganza, Dami Im — the country's Korean-born singer — sits on a glittering plinth before an LED cityscape. She's surrounded by the city but sings of loneliness, showing off her silky legs in a white, open-front dress. She looks like a sultry, slightly unhinged bride — a look I adore.
"Why are you watching this tired performance again?" my husband asked me one day, trying to get to his toothpaste.
"How many times have YOU listened to Beethoven?"
"Are you really comparing Mimi Kim to Beethoven?"
Hell yeah I am. I grew up in America, in the conservative South, and came out when I was thirteen. At school, kids threw food at me like I was an animal and decorated my locker with female porn. Home life was worse and amid the stress of it all I developed a fascination with empowered women and songs of perseverance. Throw shade on Mariah Carey or Beyoncé and they'd turn on the lights. My Eurovision fascination is an extension of the same idea. When I loop my favourite tracks — this week it's Eleftheria Eletheriou's "Aphrodisiac" (Greece 2012) and Dana International's "Ding Dong" (Israel 2011) — I feel like the baddest bitch in Peckham (where I now live).
At times I've lassoed my husband into "night's out" only to reveal after we've arrived at the concert hall that I need him to hold a DSLR camera and follow me while I approach a former Eurovision contestant exiting from the back door. Recently, a romantic afternoon out involved us spending six hours at an Armenian Street Fair while we waited for Yerevan's most recent contestant to cover Sigala. "Who needs an army of Kardashians when you can have ONE Iveta Mukuchyan?" I ask him.
On some level he's come to love it, too, though. Rather than playing Pachelbel's Canon at our wedding, we opted for "The Balkan Girls" (Romania 2009). We agreed that the opening lyrics, like the start of a marriage, were celebratory: "It's time for me to unwind, I'm gonna start my weekend with gin, tonic and lime."
Over time, the blog has slowly restructured my social life. I find myself bonding almost exclusively with people who work on or read the website. Our pleasantries rarely include "See you later," but rather, "I'll see you in Latvia next week" and "Don't forget to book the hostel in Bulgaria." I like that when I say "Croatia 2016" they implicitly understand that I mean "Las Vegas showgirl dressed as a chicken who got in a fight with a fan."
On a recent Saturday evening, sometime past 1am, Deban — my dreadlocked Nigerian friend and fellow blogger — and I pushed our way to the front of the stage at a gay nightclub in London. The floors were sticky and the drunken crowd reeked of booze and sin. But Eurovision 2016 winner Jamala — real name Susana Alimivna Jamaladinova — was covering Whitney Houston and singing about forced migration in Crimean Tatar. I Instagrammed the performances while he filmed them for our YouTube channel. Our natural high matched the euphoria of the kids doing pills in the toilets.
We hadn't scheduled an interview with her, but after the concert we managed to locate the artists' secret back-alley entrance several blocks away, around a corner and behind a metal gate. We saw Jamala's London publicist whisking her into a van. I'd interviewed Jamala (and her dog Badu) on Skype months earlier. I was also wearing a t-shirt with a massive image of her face resting between my nipples — she'd given it to me in Stockholm — so when I shouted "Jamala, gurl!" she came gliding over.
"I have many gay friends in Ukraine," she tells us, perhaps prompted by my wrists which look permanently broken. "They are really so special. They have passion. They are free inside, like my birds."
My relationship with Eurovision really is chemical. On days like this I can feel adrenaline pumping through my veins. But, as any addict knows, the high is inevitably followed by the low. And on bad days that low is very low indeed. Every year after Eurovision, as the sight of confetti and glitter fades from memory, I find myself in a financial hole, struggling to pay off the accumulated debts of running a website and funding my romps through Europe, all the while feeling remorse and guilt for surviving on my partner's generosity. No one wants to feel like a kept woman.
My therapist has repeatedly told me I'm in an abusive relationship with my blog. She says it leaves me "adrenalised" and "running on the fumes of televised spectacle." At the end of May, as the applause dies down and traffic slows, I'm left feeling as empty as the Eurovision stage. As my body recuperates, I tell myself I can't live through another Eurovision cycle. I moan to friends that rather than living for the blog I should consider living for myself. Maybe I should recognise that I don't have to cancel my dentist appointment to write about a Dutch Eurovision singer who just survived a motorcycle crash, or fret over a Ukrainian Eurovision winner appearing in a local gasoline commercial. I imagine how nice it would be to go to a music gig without carrying my tripod, camera, spotlight, and battery packs.
On bad days, the negative voices lead me to compare-and-despair. Scrolling through Facebook I see my Harvard classmates taking selfies with Hilary Clinton and setting up charities in Uganda. I can't even talk about Mark Zuckerberg. At summer parties — as Brits sniff each other's asses like dogs, making the lawn stink for everyone — revealing I'm a Eurovision blogger is like coming out all over again. Burrows frow and people politely move onto a different subject.
I calm myself down by remembering my personal achievements, like that time we photographed the San Marinese Eurovision contestant having a meltdown in the Baku Airport because the coffee was too expensive, and the fact I know San Marinese is the term for someone from San Marino. And singing karaoke in Chisinau with the Moldovan diva who dressed up as a lava lamp at Eurovision 2013. And consoling a Portuguese singer after naysayers wrote on YouTube that they hoped she'd die of a venereal disease so she couldn't compete. And eating a hamburger with Conchita Wurst backstage at a gay bar — before she was famous — and watching the grease run down her beard. "Somebody in Israel once asked me if I have dinner before the show and, if yes, what am I gonna eat," she told me. "I said, 'Well, I eat nothing because otherwise, I may throw up because of my excitement'."
From afar, Eurovision appears like a freak show — replete with the bearded lady — but up-close and on-the-trail these people and their followers have become my community and their songs my reference point for nearly everything.
One night in September, as my father lay dying of colon cancer and vascular dementia in an Atlanta hospice, I sat by his bedside holding his cold, freckled hand. I'd cancelled my place on the Eurovision cruise from Helsinki to Tallinn to be with him. Throughout that very long night, he had mumbled conversations with his dead sister and screamed for me to get the toothpaste off his teeth. There was none there, but I rubbed his lips and told him it was gone. When a nurse came in to empty his bag of urine, I pretended to sleep so she wouldn't see me poised to lose it. A failed Eurovision song about loss, regret and forgiveness came on my iPhone and the dam broke.
A few hours after I'd watch him slip away, I sat in bed sobbing into a pillow. Among other things I remembered how, when he was still healthy enough to use a computer, he'd visit my website, completely confused by it all, and strangely proud I'd created something people actually read. Once he told me he wanted to "bone" Germany's Eurovision 2010 singer Lena. I shared a sanitised version of that memory with my blog mates, who were the first people I wrote to in my fuzzy state of mourning. They sent me positive vibes and links to dated Eurovision songs.
A year on from that, the blog thrusts harder than ever. It also continues to eat away at my free time as we speculate about entries for the forthcoming season – which is slowly heating up, as former contestants perform an elephant dance at a Polish awards show, give birth to babies out of wedlock, come out as bisexual, and release music videos with implied cunnilingus. And that's just in the past week.
Some days I view this blog as a cage of my own creation, and other days a warm womb where I can swim around to the beat of Svetlana Loboda with my tribe of misfits. I try to focus on the latter. In doing so, I call on the wise words of Ruth Lorenzo, who sang on the UK X Factor before competing at Eurovision for Spain. "With the universe and with life, it doesn't matter what you want," she once told me at a Latin-themed sushi bar. "It's what the universe wants for you. So you just need to let go and go with the flow."
Of course, she told me that after she'd already landed a record deal.
You can follow William on Twitter.
Illustration by Dan Evans.