Attention Noa Kirel! Here's a story that illustrates that there's truly no stardust among us in Israel: In May 2018, the entire nation was in a trance as Israel's representative to Eurovision Netta Barzilai won first place with her song "Toy" in the contest held in Lisbon, Portugal. However, reality hit hard when El Al security personnel conducted a thorough search through Barzilai's underwear as she returned home.
"Before I boarded the plane to Israel," Barzilai recalled, "I went through the questioning process where they ask 'Did you pack alone?' I pause for a moment, remember that I packed with two of my friends in a drunken haze, and said hesitantly, 'I don't know.' The woman informs me that they need to search my suitcase. They take me aside and start taking out item after item. They remove my kimono, and underneath it, the tucked-in trophy. The security guard holds the trophy with shaking hands, making sure nothing happens to it. They unpacked every last piece of my luggage, down to my last pair of underwear. It was a crazy inspection."
It's unclear why Barzilai chose to tell Kirel this story ahead of the Eurovision competition in which she will compete this week.
"Noa came to my house and we talked. I told her, 'Winning Eurovision is not the most important thing," Barzilai told Ynet.
"This performance will stay with you for the rest of your life. The question is not whether you win or lose, but how much energy you manage to bring, how much intimacy you manage to create with yourself and with the audience, and how much of your character you manage to infuse into this moment. Winning is made up of a thousand and one things, like political timing. The Eurovision is just one of the many wonderful things you'll do. Life is built on highs and lows. Our careers are a crazy roller coaster ride. If it's all highs all the time, it will be boring as hell,'" she emphasized.
What do you think of the song "Unicorn"? "It's a very powerful song, and Noa is an amazing performer. I'm looking forward to her performance, to see what she will do on stage and how it will look."
Five years since her epic win, Barzilai, 30, has released 20 songs, each of which received millions of views worldwide. She has two million followers on TikTok, as well as hits that she created and performed with other Israeli artists. But to this day, "Toy" is still the song most commonly associated with Barzilai. She has now learned to embrace this, but it was tough at the beginning, apparently very much so.
"Already the morning after winning 'Rising Star,' I told my musical partner, Avshalom Ariel, who is still with me to this day, that I need to stay in control, that I need the song I perform in Eurovision to be mine. We went to the Alma hotel, set up a makeshift studio, and wrote 'Bassa Sababa.' The committee received 200 songs, and five made it to the final, including our song, another song by (Israeli songwriter) Doron Medalie, and an amazing song by Marina Maximilian Blumin."
And what happened then? "Yoav Tzafir (Israeli director and writer) honestly told me that the song was not good enough and that it would not be selected. I didn't sleep for three days, we just worked and consulted with everyone possible to see how we could improve the song. When I had to record the songs that made it to the final so that the committee could hear them, Doron Medalie came to pick me up, and when I got into the car, the first thing he said to me was, 'You're invited to join me for our win at Eurovision.'
"I looked at him as if he were the devil. Here comes a guy who wants to control me. I thought 'Toy' was a hit, but it had nothing to do with me. I wanted my first song to be mine, to be involved, to feel a part of it. We entered the studio, and I sang the song with a crazy lack of desire. When they told me the chosen song was 'Toy,' I burst into tears in front of the committee and, while crying, I assured them that I was sure 'Bassa Sababa' would be a hit, that I stood behind it and that I would not be able to emotionally sustain 'Toy.' I wouldn't stand for an identity card that isn't mine. I arrived at the committee with fake eyelashes, and they ended up getting left on the table."
Today, you sing the song in your performances. You made peace with it. "I begged then to give me a chance to put myself in it. I added humorous bits like the chicken and the 'stupid boy' that replaced the words 'watch up, boy.' Today, I love the song. It's no longer the ugly duckling. 'Toy' is mine, and I won't let anyone take it away from me."
Because she is in the middle of some hectic days, we met at Barzilai's home. She's currently working on an international album that will be released by S-Curve Records, which is also the record company for Disney Music. Before we could even say goodbye, she had already sat down for a Zoom interview with a foreign journalist to talk about her performance as a guest artist at Eurovision in Liverpool. By the way, she's not allowed to reveal anything about the new song she's going to perform.
Later that week, she rocked the stage in Brazil on the eve of Israel's Independence Day and the next day she flew "to chase Independence Day around the world," taking advantage of the time difference to perform in front of Jewish communities celebrating in other places, such as Palo Alto and Las Vegas.
"I was on the 'Bumble' app for a bit, met great people and went on dates, but I didn't have that feeling of 'wow, he could be part of my team.'"
She lives in Jaffa, in a large gallery apartment that has been converted into an unconventional abode. Her cousin, designer Moshik Galamin, lives one floor above her. "He brought me here and said, 'I found you a powerful and amazing space,'" she explains.
It's not a trivial decision to live in Israel when you have an international career. "It is definitely not a career-driven choice. And to say that it is always easy to be an Israeli in terms of public relations? No. But I think that I'm worth nothing without the place I came from. I don't erase it or hide it. I speak Hebrew, and in my music I highlight my accent, without apologizing. I also include Hebrew in my songs and expressions from here. I have 'Nad Ned' (an Israeli children's song) in one song, and in another 'Kwa Kwa De La Oma' (an Israeli game). But in the end I have to aim outward. Musically and professionally, I belong more to abroad. Right now, I'm very happy with the breakthroughs, but I'm considering spending a longer period of time there in the future."
Barzilai has been single for a year and a half, after breaking up with her partner of almost three years. "After we announced our separation, we were on and off for another six months. It was very difficult for me to make a break, but it's behind me now."
What's up with your romantic life ever since then? "I lived with my parents for a while, recovered, and then moved to Tel Aviv. I fell in love with a guy who didn't even realize I wanted him. It was blindness for about six months. I took space from him, and now we're good friends. I wrote about this experience in 'I Love My Nails.' I scare certain people with my fame. It's not for everyone. I was on the Bumble app for a bit, met great people and went on dates, but I didn't have that feeling of 'wow, he could be part of my team.' I need someone who's a do-or-die kind of person. I love living life to the fullest."
"What can I do? That's how I live my life," she responds. "I want to be able to say that I'm going away for four months to a writing retreat and that the guy will say 'cool,' or that he'll say he's coming with me or that he'll compliment me. I need my freedom and for people to understand my life. But honestly, I don't need anything. I just need him to be cute. And to understand me. Understanding me is not easy."
"Until I was 24, I would tell guys that it wasn't going to be serious. I wanted to avoid meeting the parents, the conflict that could arise when they saw that I was big."
So can I write that you are currently single? "Recently, I've been working on Netta, trying to make things better for myself. I'm on a content diet, paying attention to what I listen to, what I eat, where I go, when and with whom. I'm very focused on being a better person. I don't have space at the moment for a romantic relationship. It wouldn't be fair. "
Eurovision changed her life from an additional angle: "When I was 15, I had a secret romance with someone. I really wanted to tell people I had a boyfriend. When I told him, he told me that he walked with his mother on the street and she pointed out fat people and said he shouldn't be with someone like that. Until I was 24, I would tell guys that it wasn't going to be serious. I wanted to avoid meeting the parents, the conflict that could arise when they saw that I was big."
What changed? "I became famous. I could no longer hide. It was a process of exposure, like coming out of the closet. Before that, I didn't have any videos on YouTube. It was a very dark period, and then I came out and showed myself publicly. When I was little and imagined myself as a star, I saw myself thin in my imagination. It took years until I realized that it was not going to happen.
"In the end, I realized that what I have left is to be compassionate toward myself and do the best I can. I exercise, eat right and do face treatments. As far as I'm concerned, I'm doing my best. Starving, abusing, thinking negative thoughts, punishing yourself, doing unnatural and dangerous things to the body, that's not the way. Being whole with myself is not physical, it's mental and emotional."
Did you go to therapy to reach these insights? "I have been to several psychologists in my life. I have to admit that my friends are much better. Talking to my friends helps more. But it still happens, I still have to clean up after these habits of mine. I realized that my name and my actions are bigger than my appearance. I released the fear that someone's mom would meet me and that all she would see is a fat girl. I realized that people meet me and they don't see that. I have times when I feel glamorous and that only my presence exists when I enter a place, and there are times when I can feel so thin, small, petite that I can fall between the cracks of the pavement. It's not static, but I'm no longer fat in my head."
First published: 17:16, 05.08.23