The year is 1998 and the Eurovision is set to land in Birmingham after Katrina and The Waves romped to victory with their now celebrated anthem ‘Love Shine A Light’. While the UK pin all their hopes on the now much forgotten, but strangely credible Imaani with ‘Where Are You’, Europe’s eyes were on Israel’s selected artist, the transgender songstress Dana International. Born Yaron Cohen, Dana International first experienced success as Israel’s first drag queen, before being signed by the DJ Offer Nissim and scoring a hit with the Whitney Houston parody ‘Saida Sultana’. By 1993, International had decided to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, which she had in London, before returning to Israel, where she was rapidly becoming a household name and platinum selling artist.
Having been a lifelong fan of the Eurovision Song Contest – International often cited Israel’s 1983 Eurovision entry ‘Chai’ by Ofra Haza as inspiration – she first trialled for the competition in 1995 with ‘Layla Tov, Eropa’. While the song failed the selection process, ranking second and losing out to Liora’s ‘Amen’, International’s home reputation was rapidly on the rise. By the time International re-entered the race to represent Israel in 1998, her household name status easily secured her the chance to head to Birmingham with the euphoric ode to powerful women of history, ‘Diva’.
However, 1998 was a world that found it hard to accept the possibility of a transgender act being taken seriously on a global stage, with International’s appearance being hailed as some kind of freakshow novelty act. To make matters worse, Israeli opinion was divided on her selection. With Orthodox Jews distinctly against her selection, her role within the Eurovision was constantly questioned. However, a determined Dana International rode out the wave, and took to the stage eighth, slotted between Poland’s Sixteen and Germany’s Guildo Horn.
After a sensational performance, the race was a tight one. With Malta’s hopes pinned on their first ever Eurovision win, their balladeer Chiara proved immensely popular, with the UK’s own Imaani also soaring ahead in the polling. However, the ultimate victor was an overwhelmed, ecstatic Dana International, who shocked audiences by making them wait for her reprise performance and award acceptance until she had changed into her elaborate Jean-Paul Gaultier bird feathers.
With ‘Diva’ a surefire international hit, landing at the number 11 spot in the UK (despite many radio stations refusing to playlist the controversial act), Dana International quickly released her first ever English language album – the aptly titled Free. While International became victim of death threats, she continued unperturbed in her quest for global acceptance for the transgender community.
Though the UK audiences were never fully exposed to the pop mastery of the Rob and Ferdi Bolland produced Free, hopefully a retrospective glance at the dance driven celebration will reap post-release praise upon the album. Cleverly infusing the traditional with explosively contemporary, International manages to fully explore and expose her identity within the confines of a pop record. While seen by the public as a purveyor of sexual fantasy and deviation, the woman behind the act, Sharon Cohen, is in fact a traditionally charged, humble soul in touch with her roots. From the pointed ‘If You Don’t Love Me The Way I Am’ to the celebratory ‘Glamorous’, the ancestral ‘Dror Yikra’ to the euphoric ‘Ani Ohevet (I Love)’, Free is an album that encompasses every element of the performer and projects them unassumingly into the audience’s realm. Free may not have been a major chart success, but Dana International is one of the few acts in history to successfully make a mark on an audience and ask them to change their way of thinking. As she so strikingly states with her Stevie Wonder cover, the only way to be ‘Free’ is to be happy with who you are.
Free is available to download from iTunes.