The Divine Miss Dana
May 10, 1998
Perhaps nothing describes Dana International better than the opening line of the song that she belted out to the world last night, to win the Eurovision Song Contest: "There are some women who are simply larger than life."
While she has long since achieved icon status in the Tel-Aviv nightclub scene and national notoriety through her string of hit songs, Dana's fame has multiplied thanks to the magnifying glass of international publicity. But when she brought home the trophy last night in Birmingham, England, the colorful and flamboyant singer also won first place in the race for media attention.
Never before has there been so much interest generated in an Israeli artist -- or any artist, for that matter -- for so many months preceding the big annual competition for the best European song.
But then again, never before has an acknowledged transsexual competed for the Eurovision crown.
The choice of Dana International, born Yaron Cohen, to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition, was instantly an irresistibly attractive story for the world press, since it comes from the Holy Land, and quickly managed to stir up a healthy dose of local controversy.
When Dana's selection as the Israeli entry was announced in November, members of the religious Shas Party objected. There were even murmurs of threats to overturn the government over the issue.
Shas Party deputy health minister Rabbi Shlomo Benizri made a comment that grabbed the most headlines worldwide: "As a son of the Jewish people, this offends me," he said. "The choice is disgraceful for me as a Jew. The Jewish people has always been a light unto the nations. They will now be a darkness unto the nations. Everyone abroad will say: 'Look at those Jews and what they are sending to perform, some kind of crossbreed.' Dana is an abomination. Even in Sodom there was nothing like it."
Despite the political waves, the Israel Broadcasting Authority stood solidly by its selection of Dana and her song, "Diva," arguing, in the words of committee chair Gil Samsonov, that "We should be seen as a liberal, free country that chooses songs on their merits, not on the basis of the body of the man or woman."
Yoav Ginai, who wrote the lyrics to "Diva," said that, in his view, Dana's participation has had a positive effect on Israel's image. "Most people around the world only hear about us in the context of our wars or controversies over religious coercion, hence we have a very conservative image. The idea that Israel, of all countries, is sending a transsexual to the competition has made huge waves and is greeted in most circles with approval."
Ginai wrote "Diva" with Dana in mind. "I thought that a song that celebrated great women suited her, considering her personal story -- she is someone who has fought so hard to become a woman and a singer. It was a very appropriate statement for her to be making."
Ginai turned to Zvika Pik to write the music. Pik had penned an excellent hit for Dana several years ago, "I Can't Make It Without You" ("Ani Lo Y'chola Bil'adecha").
Pik, a staple of the Israeli pop scene, tried his luck as a performer in the Israeli Eurovision trials five times, but never managed to get to the Grand Prix singing his own tunes.
On the eve the delegation departured for the Eurovision, Pik clashed with Dana and with the IBA over whether or not he would receive a free ticket to Birmingham as part of the official Israeli delegation. In previous years, composers were brought over to conduct the orchestration of their tunes. But this year, with Dana's music being pre-recorded, the IBA decided that there was no need for him to come. Pik insisted that his presence was necessary behind the scenes to coordinate the performance; but when the IBA checked with Dana's entourage, they denied this, and said his presence would be an unwelcome distraction. In the end, Pik decided to fly to Birmingham to share in the glory.
Ginai says he was pleased both with the song and the way it was presented. The song was performed with four female backup singers, each one representing a different style of female singing, from opera to traditional Middle Eastern. He was not concerned that the issue of Dana's sexual identity would overshadow the song. "I think all the fuss is a good thing, because it draws attention to the song. Obviously if it was a bad song, the attention wouldn't do a thing for it; but the combination of Dana and an excellent song is a different story." Although the song was favorably handicapped among Eurovision insiders, Ginai was wary about its chances of winning, particularly since Eurovision voting had changed this year, relying on telephone voting by viewers instead of pre-selected committees in each country.
Ironically, in Israel "Diva" was chosen by a less democratic method than in the past. It was chosen by committee instead of the traditional "Pre-Eurovision" competition which, until this year, was televised nationally, and the winners were chosen by groups of local celebrities and citizens from different parts of the country.
Israel first participated in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973 and since then has competed 20 times, winning twice before last night. For three of those years, Israel did not participate because the dates of these contests fell on Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day. Twice, Israel failed to make the final cut.
If name recognition was a factor in this year's new, more popular voting style, it apparently worked to Dana's advantage: the singer has been featured prominently in the media across Europe.
In stark contrast, Dana has been far more elusive as far as the Israeli press is concerned. But most local readers are familiar with the story of Yaron Cohen, the effeminate young Yemenite boy who loved music and grew up idolizing Ofra Haza, a fellow Yemenite who brought the song "Hai" to the Eurovision song contest in the 1970s.
At age 16, Dana discovered the gay nightlife scene of Tel-Aviv and soon met manager Ofer Nisim, who first realized her potential and put her in a drag show, performing, among other things, impersonations of Ofra Haza.
In 1993, Dana underwent a sex change operation and set her sights on stardom, gradually climbing to the top of the dance music scene. Her name makes her international ambitions clear. She enjoys singing in Arabic as well as in Hebrew, French, and English. Her provocative songs in Arabic have become bootleg favorites across the border in Egypt. Nisim, still her manager, claims that more than half a million copies of her records have been sold there. She has been accused in some circles there of being a hostile Zionist agent bent on corrupting Egyptian youth.
Dana came close to representing Israel in 1995, with her rendition of "Layla Tov Eropa" ("Good Night, Europe") -- also written by Ginai. At the time, she speculated that Israel's sending a transsexual to the Eurovision could cause a "scandal." Not only the international press has become fascinated by Dana. She has become admired not simply as a performer, but as a symbol of free sexual expression and the epitome of chic androgyny.
Several months ago she received a fax from internationally acclaimed designer Jean-Paul Gaultier offering to design her dress for the contest. Dana graciously accepted. Dana has also been invited to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Gay Games, the homosexual Olympic contest that will be held this summer in Amsterdam. She has refused to make a commitment as to whether to appear until after the Eurovision, though it is almost certain that, with her new high profile, a European tour and an international album will be in the works soon after her contest triumph.
After that, no one who is familiar with Dana's global ambitions will rule out her next step.
Hollywood, perhaps? Madonna, watch out.
by Allison Kaplan Sommer, The Jerusalem Post