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NettaThe Israeli singer on life after Eurovision

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Michael Segalov
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Since winning the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Netta has won over fans in her native Israel and beyond with her bubbly persona and Day-Glo fashions. But four years on, she’s ready to reintroduce herself to the world on her own terms—not as a competitor, but as an artist. From her home in Tel Aviv, she spoke to Michael Segalov about her musical past and her plans for the future.

Photos by Liam Woods.

Sprawled out on the sofa in her Tel Aviv apartment, Netta Barzilai—known mononymously as Netta—is exhausted. 

“I’m making the most of this rest time,” the 29-year-old performer says, pausing to yawn. “Being home for a while is so welcome.” 

That’s not to say, Netta’s quick to add, she has any complaints about her still relatively newfound stardom. Adjusting is just taking a while. It’s mid-July, and her non-stop schedule shows no signs of slowing. Recently, she’s played shows across the United States and in the UK. There’s been a visit to Nigeria, and there’s another to Brazil coming up. 

Since winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2018, Netta has been catapulted into the spotlight. Abroad, she’s become a cult figure among the camp competition’s legions of dedicated followers; while back home, she’s a national treasure in the making, with a steady stream of Israeli number ones. Both her music and avant-garde aesthetic defy easy categorization. But whether she’s beatboxing, rapping, or singing, Netta can be counted on to match her otherworldly visuals and quirky outfits with empowering ideas. 

Her first release, the Eurovision-winning “Toy,” set the tone. The lyrics harnessed the power of the unfolding movements around #MeToo (“I’m not your toy/You stupid boy”) and body positivity (“Look at me/I’m a beautiful creature”) while Netta performed  her “chicken dance” in a fluorescent kimono.

Her latest offering, “I Love My Nails,” is a post-breakup self-love-affirming anthem. After experiencing a romantic rejection, Netta dealt with it the only way she knew how, turning to music and the absurd to find a way through. “I spent so long learning to love myself that I never thought I could feel small again. But we’re all human, it happened again,” she says. “I thought it was a funny metaphor, rebuilding yourself afresh like you do with your nails.” 

Netta has always been something of a nonconformist. “I’ve always been strange, someone who doesn’t fit in properly,” Netta says. “That comes through in my music.” But while today her individuality is very much a trademark, she hasn’t always been comfortable with her inability to fit in with the crowd.

It started young. After spending the first six years of her life in Ibadan, Nigeria, where her father had taken a job working in water infrastructure, she remembers struggling to adjust to her surroundings when the family moved to Hod HaSharon, in Israel.

At the cosmopolitan, United Nations-funded school she attended in Nigeria, “everybody was different, so nobody was different,” she recalls. “In my first grade class [in Tel Aviv], all the kids were white, dressed the same and had stuff in common… I quickly understood that I was the fat, sensitive, unibrowed kid with the funny accent. I was different from them, inside and out.

“Until then, my imagination had never been limited. When I look at videos of me back in Ibadan wearing a leotard, I was this tiny little drag queen filled with confidence dancing and singing.” That carefree girl soon disappeared. 

“The first dance class I went to in Israel was my last,” Netta says. “I was shamed for my body, vocally. People laughed at me. I still struggle with choreography to this day, I think, because of the trauma.”

Each day, she returned from school crying. Netta’s parents felt helpless and despaired. “At first mum tried sending me to several classes to help me with weight loss,” Netta explains. “It never worked out—these weren’t environments suitable for children. But she didn’t know any better. Mum just wanted the problems to go away.”

Thankfully, Netta’s parents then tried something different. Maybe, they thought, the school choir might offer Netta a safe space. Right away, she started to feel happier. One day, when she was only seven, the choir’s conductor suggested Netta sing a solo. When she opened her mouth, everyone in the room sat in silence as their heads turned. “From then, I started to get positive attention,” Netta explains. “When I was singing, I was untouchable. Music became my way of surviving.”

Through her teenage years, Netta’s voice was a shield she clung to. “It became a defence mechanism,” she says. “Whenever I needed friends, I would sit down with my guitar and sing.”

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I wanted to find a way where I chose to sing and create out of passion, not out of necessity.

Through her teenage years, Netta’s voice was a shield she clung to. “It became a defence mechanism,” she says. “Whenever I needed friends, I would sit down with my guitar and sing.” 

It was then that Netta’s unique musical style started to develop. “As I got older, there were other people who could also sing… So, I needed to make my music more unique, more extreme, in order to have a niche, a spot that made me untouchable,” she says. “I started trying to sound, look, and create like nothing and no one else.” That’s precisely Netta’s approach to her artistry now. 

At times when she couldn’t hide behind her voice, however, Netta continued to feel out of place. After graduating high school, aged 18, she was determined to build a new relationship with both her body and her voice.

“Something was also wrong with the way I presented and thought about myself,” Netta says. “At that stage I was only wearing oversized black sweatshirts, which covered my belly. I wore no color. I’d become a miserable misfit not looking at my body as if it was a part of me.

“I decided to stop singing for a year,” she continues. “I wanted to find a way where I chose to sing and create out of passion, not out of necessity.”

In Israel, most Jewish citizens face mandatory military conscription at 18. Rather than head to basic training, however, Netta first signed up for a year of community service. She headed to the city of Tiberias to live and work in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, teaching children how to play guitar. She lived with other artists, but fell into old habits. “I’d been an outsider for so long,” she reflects, “that I couldn’t see myself as part of their group, even though at first they tried to welcome me.” Soon, they gave up. 

Within a matter of months, her housemates were done. Netta was told she was unbearable to live with, and was asked to move out. It was the catalyst she’d been waiting for to turn things round. “I understood then that I needed to let people back in again, to allow people to love me,” she says. “It’s a door I had shut a long time ago.” 

She packed up her things, left, but then went back. The conversations which followed were difficult and filled with emotion. But something shifted. “It was a reset,” she says. “By allowing them to love me, I started to learn to love myself.”

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By allowing them to love me, I started to learn to love myself.

By the time the year was up, Netta was ready to sing again. She spent two years performing in a military band, before moving back to Tel Aviv in her early twenties, and later enrolled at the Rimon School of Music. To make a living, she waited tables and sang covers at open mic nights, before landing a gig selling tickets to a rock music bar. 

Week on week, Netta was drawn to the bar’s Sunday jam sessions, but she was struck by the lack of singers showing up. When she asked her boss why that was, he sent her a long text “about how singers do not know how to improvise, they can’t do this and won’t do that, and some other bullshit,” she says. “‘Won’t let it happen,’ was the end of his reply.”

The following Sunday, she built up the courage to prove her boss wrong. “I drank a lot,” she says, “then got up the message he sent on my phone, grabbed the microphone, faced the band, and started singing what he’d said over and over… Then I started to jokingly trash talk him. And then other people.”

From then on, Netta was a regular fixture at the jam sessions. And after a while, this improv band began to tour, calling themselves The Experiment. She purchased a looper to use on stage, learning to manipulate her voice into music—now a key element in her approach to performance. “There was never a show planned,” she says. “We just went with the vibe.”

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For me, life isn’t comfortable. It never has been. I know to create, I need to feel.

Slowly but surely, Netta was becoming the artist she is today. Still, that’s not to say her road to success went smoothly. At the age of 24, she was close to giving up. “Mum clearly thought it was time to call it a day,” Netta says. “She said it was time to move home, forget music, and find a profession.” And maybe, Netta thought, she was right. 

That’s when Netta received the phone call that would change her life forever. It was from the producers of “HaKokhav HaBa”(Rising Star)—the TV singing competition that selected Israel’s Eurovision entry. For the 2017 incarnation, they wanted Netta involved. 

“I’d always been afraid of reality TV,” Netta explains. “I assumed they’d paint me as a weirdo but not on my own terms, or create a narrative about me being miserable.” Netta’s family warned against it, her bandmates, too. “But it came at a desperate time,” Netta says. “Things just weren’t happening for me and I was about to throw in the towel. So, I went along.”

Netta arrived at the studio holding on tightly to her treasured looper. She hoped that auditioning with it would allow her to stay in control. Before she performed, Netta set out her position: “I’m going to do this thing my way,” she told producers. “If you want it, we’ll do it. If not, then I’m out.” 

As she sang, Netta channeled that moment she first performed a solo at her grade school choir practice. Once she’d finished, there was silence, only broken when an exec spoke up. “That was spectacular,” he said, “and you’re going to win Eurovision.” On May 12, 2018, at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, he was proven right. 

For Netta, winning the contest was certainly special. But the fact she did it on her own terms—with a performance that embraced her eccentricities, and unapologetically celebrated her shape and style—made that success, and all that has followed, all the more sweet.

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I’m making space for my true self in the mainstream. And I reckon that tiny, carefree drag queen I was as a child would think that’s pretty cool.

Since then, Netta has refrained from diluting that spirit. For now, she’s saying little about her upcoming collaboration with Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi, except that this too will see her dig deep and reflect on more challenging times. 

Because, through her music, Netta continues to explore elements of her identity that were once a source of embarrassment, shame, and isolation. Where will that lead her? Well, she’s still working that part out. And as for whether she’s adapted to fame and success, she’s still uncertain. “I guess I have,” she says. “But is it comfortable? For me, life isn’t comfortable. It never has been. I know to create, I need to feel.”

Still, recognition does provide her assurance. It’s much harder, she says, to feel lonely now. “Now when I step out of my door in my pyjamas to get orange juice,” she says, “I’ll be hugged by strangers. I’m so lucky for that. On bad days, I get out of my house just to remember I am loved. And that means a lot, because I’m still this fringe, quirky weirdo.” 

Netta is emotional, and clearly proud. “I’m making space for my true self in the mainstream. And I reckon that tiny, carefree drag queen I was as a child would think that’s pretty cool.”