International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is marked on March 8 every year. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements – And for that we are celebrating “Women at Eurovision”
Where does one start? Well back at the very first Eurovision Song contest itself. Can you believe it all began in 1956 in Switzerland when a stunning woman by the name of Lys Assia walked onto the stage of the Teatro Kursaal in Lugano,Switzerland. Organised by the European Broadcasting Union it was unclear if the contest would be a success – history and female singers have proven that. 7 countries participated and each act performed 2 songs on which the Juries from the 7 countries voted. The winner was Lys Assia with the French song “Refrain” which is a firm favorite among Eurovision Fans and thus began the Eurovision Song Contest.
1966 is an important year in our celebration of Women at Eurovision. This was the year that the first black female singer entered the Eurovision Song Contest. Milly Scott represented The Netherlands that year. Milly was an extremely successful Jazz singer with her own television show in The Netherlands – “Scott in de Roos”. Milly performed the song “Fernando en Filippo” and placed 15th out of 18 songs receiving points from Ireland and the United Kingdom. Milly has spoken out about some of the racist comments that were made towards her at the time but that would not deter her from taking to the Eurovision stage. Female empowerment at it’s best.
The United Kingdom have the record of coming 2nd the most times at Eurovision – 15 at last count. The early years of the contest saw the UK send some of the world’s biggest names in Music to Europe looking for a Eurovision Victory – like James Bond singer Matt Monro and Ronnie Carroll. However their first Eurovision win came in the form of barefooted Sandie Shaw with her song “Puppet On a String”. She was the runaway winner on the night and went on to conquer the charts worldwide.What we didn’t know were the struggles that she was hiding from her family and the media and for this strength we salute Sandie Shaw.
1970 saw many political troubles on the island of Ireland with harsh conflict erupting on the streets of Derry/Londonderry. However a young girl from “The Bogside” was to capture the imagination and votes of Europe at Eurovision that year. Derry born Dana (Rosemary Scallon) won the Eurovision Song contest for Ireland. This was the start of Ireland’s wining success at the contest. However what is most notable about Dana winning was that it was a time when political and religious beliefs were put to one side on the Island and the young woman managed to unite the nation in celebration on that night in Amsterdam.
Turning from Ireland we go to Norway who had scored zero points at Eurovision too many times to mention. However it would take 2 women to break that spell in Gothenburg Sweden in 1985. Bobbysocks!’ win for Norway was the country’s first. Host Lill Lindfors, upon Norway’s win, congratulated Hanne Krogh and Elisabeth Andreassen of Bobbysocks! by saying, “I must say I am honestly very happy that this happened because Norway has been last on so many times that you really deserve it!” Krogh replied, “You’re happy? What do you think we are?!” After an energetic reprise, the two women embraced to a standing ovation from the audience. Elisabeth Andreassen went on to represent both Norway and Sweden again at Eurovision and came second when Norway hosted the contest in 1996. However we return to that night in Gothenburg when 2 women broke the spell on Norway’s bad run at Eurovision.
Now we cannot mention the 1985 contest without talking about the presenter for the night – Lill Lindfors – who to this day is regarded as one of the best presenters the contest has ever had along with Katie Boyle from the UK. Lill had a wonderful sense of humor throughout the show and this one scene is classed as a Eurovision Gem and it isn’t even a song. Yes it was the Eurovision wardrobe malfunction that for it’s time was so risqué and still to this day is shown on many TV compilation shows. You get the feeling that Lill came up with the idea of doing it herself. I can still remember the yelp at the tv while looking at the contest with my parents – totally unexpected.
For our next celebration we turn to 1998 for 2 completely different reasons. You cannot mention 1998 and not talk of Dana International. Born Yaron Cohen she had released eight albums and three additional compilation albums, positioning herself as one of Israel’s most successful musical acts ever. Born male, Dana discovered that she was transsexual at an early age, coming out when she was 13 and undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1993. For this reason she had received both positive and threatening reactions from parts of Israeli society. Despite death threats she was determined to represent her beloved Israel at Eurovision in 1998 in Birmingham. The media attention that descended on her was unseen at Eurovision for many a year. In one of the closest Eurovision voting sequences ever, Dana emerged triumphant and went on to have a European hit with her song “Diva”. She did use her winning of the contest to highlight transsexual issues across Europe in her media interviews. For this we salute you Dana International.
Also that year we have to celebrate the efforts of Chiara from Malta. In the voting of the contest Chiara was neck and neck with Dana International and the Uk’s Amani. This was by far the best result that Malta had at the Eurovision Song Contest ever until then. Winning the contest is a dream of the Maltese population and to have the victory snatched from her hands on the last vote was truly hear breaking. However Chiara handled herself with poise and elegance and returned to Malta to possibly one of the biggest welcomes in the nation’s history. Not content with this Chiara picked herself up and brought Malta to second place in the contest in 2005 and the finals of 2009.
Turkey had been an overlooked country at Eurovision and had only appeared in the Top 3 once in 1997. However that was all to change in 2003 when Sertab Erener came to Eurovision in Latvia. Sertab was and is a huge star in her home of Turkey, but nothing could prepare her for what was going to happen in 2003 with her entry “”Everyway that I can” that she co-wrote. In a voting section that had the lead change hands between Russia, Belgium and Turkey it came down to the very last jury of Slovenia to decide the winner. Winning the contest brought Eurovision to Turkey for the very first time which was a social and cultural achievement for the country. Many have seen the contest that took place in Istanbul the following year as one of the best in the contest’s history for the hospitality and production values of the show. Again it took a woman to win the contest for the country.
Apart from having the second highest winning score in the contest’s history and one of the biggest commercial successes in the contest for over 2 decades – Loreen has to be commended for her stance that she took on human rights during the run up to the Eurovision final in Baku. This could have been seen as competition suicide and Reuters actually questioned her on it after her semi final qualification at the winners press conference. However Loreen has never shied away from her political stances and also has redefined the potential success of Eurovision participation. She has teamed up with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, where she is particularly interested in children’s education and went to Afghanistan (See HERE). We applaud you Loreen.
Where to start writing about Conchita Wurst? Goodness, what a presence and influence she has had both at Eurovision and beyond. I write this as Conchita is on her way home to Vienna from Australia having just sold out the Sydney Opera House for her headline show with the Sydney Symphonic Orchestra, now not everyone can say they’ve done that! It’s now almost two years since the beautiful, strong, powerhouse stepped on to that huge stage in Copenhagen and won not only the contest but the hearts of many around the world, mine included. I cannot now imagine a world without her, nor do I want to.
A quick summation of her many achievements since winning Eurovision does not really say what she means to so many people, and in particular her female fans who make up the biggest percentage of her fan base. I think many of us see ourselves reflected in her. She (or rather Tom as it were) was bullied very badly in school and she has overcome this, well maybe I should say she is overcoming this, and that is something many of the female fans identify with. Since 2014 she has gone on to inspire many people to live authentically, with respect and love. She has inspired people, men and women, to accept their own sexuality, come out and be true to themselves; she has given courage to so many to follow their dreams; she has motivated people to speak out on, not only LGBTIQ rights, but human rights.
As for Conchita now, she is very different than when she won Eurovision. Personally I am loving the way she is playing with gender these days, creating a much more androgynous look and style. She’s still the bearded lady who won Eurovision, but oh, she is so much more than that. And as for me, well, there are not many people (in fact there is no one else!) I would fly 800 miles one afternoon to see in concert only to get back on a plane the next morning to be back at work the next day, but I’m not missing that first concert in Vienna for anything!
One cannot deny the social and political affiliations that Eurovision has across the continent and how it supports the establishment of a nation’s culture and global perception. It is a chance to break down stereotypes and share values and beliefs. This should never be ignored or under estimated and should be celebrated and on this International Women’s Day we salute the women who have traversed that social chasm.