Facing the Music, Transsexual Diva Returns to Storm of Controversy
May 12, 1998
JERUSALEM (AP) -- She looked fabulous: slinky, sleeveless top, tight black pants, masses of dark hair, dazzling smile. And she sounded well, as fabulous as is necessary to win the Eurovision song contest, a sugary but hugely watched pop event.
So why on earth was Israeli diva Dana International fielding earnest questions Tuesday about religious coercion, civil liberties and artistic freedom?
Because up until a sex-change operation five years ago, Dana whose name is pronounced DAH-nah was a man, one Yaron Cohen.
And since her weekend Eurovision victory, she has reluctantly become a symbol of the increasingly bitter rift between Israel's secular majority and its ultra-religious minority.
The country's Orthodox establishment has denounced her as an abomination, unnatural and decadent, a disgrace to the Jewish state. The secular side responded with a volley of complaints about narrow-mindedness.
Dana herself is trying to stay above the fray. At her first news conference since her return from Britain, where the song contest was held, not a harsh word crossed her bee-stung, cherry-tinted lips.
"I want everyone to be happy," she sweetly told a jostling mob of journalists and gawkers who came to see her welcomed home by Israel's tourism minister. "My victory was a present to all of Israel."
Dana's popularity is seen as a sign of increasing acceptance of gay and alternative lifestyles, even in Israel's highly macho culture. With word of her victory, raucous late-night celebrations broke out Sunday in Tel-Aviv's central square.
Dana's appeal clearly cuts across lines of gender and sexual preference. Female staffers of the Tourism Ministry some looking eerily like the diva, with elaborate makeup, tight skirts and lots of hair pushed their way into the news conference, clambering onto chairs and craning their necks to get a glimpse of her.
"Just look at her nails!" one exclaimed. Asked about her role in the religious--secular rift, the singer said religious pressure concerns her, but "I'm just so proud to represent my country."
Even so, the role of secular symbol seems to fit almost as snugly as one of Dana's feather-and-sequin dresses.
The controversy comes on the heels of a battle over a modern dance troupe's planned seminude performance at Israel's 50th anniversary celebrations last month. In that skirmish, religious forces triumphed: the dancers refused to perform after being ordered to cover up.
Even before Dana's return, controversy erupted over plans to hold the annual Eurovision contest which consistently draws an audience in the hundreds of millions in Jerusalem next year.
Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Deputy mayor, Haim Miller, said Monday that events like Eurovision should "stay in the land of the gentiles." An irritated Mayor Ehud Olmert called his deputy a blabbermouth.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said the contest would "absolutely" take place as planned in Jerusalem.
Israeli commentators, meanwhile, embarked on an almost Talmudic dissection of what Dana's win said about Israel's standing in the world. An opinion piece in the Ma'ariv newspaper suggested that her transsexuality outweighed what might have otherwise been a predisposition against an Israeli singer.
"According to the scale of political sympathy for Israel in the world, we had about a zero chance of winning," wrote commentator Sarit Fuchs. "But the politically correct is stronger than the political."
The Associated Press