(Wo)man of the summer: Dana International
Caroline Sullivan gets past the girl talk with Eurovision winner Dana International
June 26, 1998
Most male-to-female transsexuals -- the ones you see in the press, anyway -- have the misfortune to look like rugby forwards. Dana International does not. If she didn't so relish talking about it, no one would ever guess she started life in Tel-Aviv 26 years ago as a little boy named Yaron Cohen. Her features are so delicate, her hands so graceful, her figure so enviably curved in all the right places, that the wild thought occurs that perhaps she's a natural-born woman pretending to be a transsexual.
But what woman would choose to cope with the abuse Dana encounters? Ever since it was announced last year that Israel's Eurovision entry was a girl who used to be a man, she's been denounced as "a message of darkness", "a pervert" and, oh yes, "an abomination". And that was just the opinion of her own country.
Since her victory with the aptly-titled Eurodisco tune Diva -- Israel's first win since 1979 -- the country's ultra-Orthodox minority has maintained an ominous silence.
But if the religious right's wrath is the price that has to be paid for the first interesting Eurovision since time began, so be it. Who wasn't thrilled when her flashy, trashy rendition of the aptly-titled Diva beat the usual well-behaved naffmongers? Her finale in a befeathered Jean-Paul Gaultier gown was prime television, equaled only by Bucks Fizz's 1981 skirt-ripping episode.
"It's getting worse with the rabbis since I won, because it threatens their authority," she says, her voice husky but jaw-droppingly female. "It's the ultra-Orthodox Jews. Any community as extreme as they are is dangerous, don't you think? They claim I'm an insult, corrupt, doomed to death. Well, then," she sits bolt upright on the hotel bed on which she's been lounging and the voice rises a few decibels, "Let God do his work if I'm so bad. Let God deal with me. But if anyone laid a finger on me, millions of people would murder him. You cannot comprehend how important I am in Israel."
No, we can't. The Israeli music scene is a mystery to most of us, our only exposure to it coming in the form of earnest Eurovision ballads that just about scrape into 11th place, or thereabouts. There has never been reason to suppose anyone like Dana existed, let alone that she was one of the country's top stars, with five million album sales (mostly pirated cassettes) throughout the Middle East. Israel's population is only five million, which indicates just how big she is. She's their Madonna and Beatles combined.
The idea of war-torn Israel producing not just Dana but around 1,000 other transsexuals (and "many thousands" of transvestites, she claims) is astounding, I tell her. Mine is the typical Western reaction, which greatly irks her. "Why does everyone only talk about guns and the Palestine situation? That's only a small part. We are normal people with normal lives who do everyday things, but you never read about that." She folds her arms across a regrettably pert bosom and harrumphs crossly. Ms International (the name comes from a song she popularized before her operation, when she was a successful drag artist), it quickly emerges, is a girl of some volatility, with a Mediterranean inclination to treat life as a drama.
For instance, inquire whether she did compulsory national service and she responds as hotly as if you'd asked her to disrobe. "How could I do national service? What would I do, carry an Uzi and go to Lebanon? Sit and type in some government office? What do you think?" We'll take that as a no, then.
In almost the same breath, she demands: "Are you Jewish?" Suddenly she's all smiles. "I can always tell. I always feel warmer toward Jewish people, because we..." She searches for the word. "We empathize." The Cohen family were secular (non-practicing) Jews, but she believes in God, whom she frequently invokes. "God doesn't care about whether we are male or female or what we look like, or else why would He have made fat people or ugly people? He just cares about what your soul is like, because when you rot in your grave only the soul is left. We'll all meet in heaven or hell with no flesh, just soul, and souls have no gender."
Dana is different from many trannies insofar as she was always comfortable with her sexual identity. There's a photo of her at age five, an uncommonly pretty child clutching a well-worn doll, which typifies her early years. She never fought her female feelings, or compensated with macho behavior. She experimented briefly with life as a gay man, but her feminine looks made her unappealing to other gays. "I had no choice [about becoming a woman]. Look at me -- I was skinny, I had this face, these hands. If I had had a masculine body, I wouldn't have chosen this kind of life."
She moved to Germany for six months of hormone treatment, then went to London four years ago for the operation, for which she paid ?7,000. She could have had it free in Israel, but preferred not to go through that country's rigorous counseling process. "You have to see a psychiatrist for three years. If you pay for your own, you don't need counseling. The hospital in London was a factory -- a psychologist says to you, 'Did you play with dolls?' and you say, 'Yeah', and that's it." And, presto, Yaron became Sharon.
Sharon is now the name on her passport, though legally she's still male. "You can change the sex on your birth certificate, but first you have to go to a pathological institute and they film you all over. Between your legs, and they measure you everywhere and touch your breasts... It is too humiliating. I will never let them possess me."
Frankly, she needn't go to the trouble. Of the five women in this West End hotel suite, she's easily the prettiest of us all. A trifle flashy, perhaps, in skin-tight jeans and heavy eyeliner, but a knockout nonetheless. She reveals that her metric measurements are 95-67-95, which is impressive whether you understand centimeters or not. No wonder she was invited to audition for the Spice Girls (she maintains their PR people approached her as a publicity stunt, but she refused to play along).
Did she expect to win Eurovision? "I never thought about losing. I couldn't imagine going back to Israel without this trophy." I suggest that the newly introduced telephone voting must have helped given the program's huge gay audience. She shakes her head vigorously. "I got most of my points from Spain, France, Slovenia, and only a few from the major gay communities like the UK and the Netherlands." So what's instant fame like? "I was famous already," she says, a bit huffily. 'I have gold and platinum albums [she's released four LPs so far, on which she sings in English, Arabic and Hebrew]. I don't like being famous. People think it's so much fun to go on TV and be with famous people, stay in fine hotels and have a driver, but it's so hard. You have no time for yourself."
Which is why she's currently unattached, despite the odd fling. She laughs, "I don't have one man, but I have several men." (Prospective suitors wishing to shower Ms International with gifts should note that her favorite perfume is Paloma Picasso, she's a size 10 and her musical tastes run, rather surprisingly, to the Lightning Seeds and the Fugees.) There is a temptation, encouraged by the overtly sexy appearance and carefree philosophy ("God put us here to have fun"), to underestimate Dana ... But that would do an injustice to a woman whose principal wish is to be left in peace. "If I'm considered a real woman or just a transsexual by society, I don't mind, as long as I'm left to live my life." Diva is out now on Epic records.