ROTTERDAM (The Netherlands) • The kitschy glamour of Eurovision is back, with the Dutch hosting a scaled-down, coronavirus-safe version this week after the song contest was cancelled last year.
Around 3,500 Covid-19-tested fans will be allowed to attend the final in Rotterdam on Saturday as the return of the pageant injects some glitz into Europe's cautious reopening.
French singer Barbara Pravi, dubbed a modern-day Edith Piaf, is the bookmakers' favourite to end her country's 44-year Eurovision drought, followed by Italy and Malta.
Performers will be in a special "bubble" under strict rules imposed by the Dutch government to allow the contest at the port city's Ahoy Arena to go ahead.
"We don't take lightly the responsibility of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest at this challenging time," said Eurovision executive supervisor Martin Oesterdahl.
Known for its flamboyant costumes and cheesy songs, Eurovision is watched by more than 180 million people in over four dozen countries.
But the pageant was scrapped for the first time in its six-decade history last year as the pandemic began sweeping the globe.
Last Saturday, organisers announced that one of the members of the Polish delegation had tested positive for Covid-19 and that the whole delegation, including singer Rafal Brzozowski, has gone into quarantine.
This means they will not be able to perform live at Thursday's second semi-final when a recording of their last rehearsal will be shown.
Last year's cancellation was a bitter disappointment for the Netherlands, which won the right to host the contest after Dutch crooner Duncan Laurence won in Israel in 2019.
At the peak of the pandemic, the Rotterdam venue was repurposed to host 88 beds for Covid-19 patients. But it will now host live audiences not only for the final, but also for two semi-finals tomorrow and on Thursday.
Under the Dutch government's Fieldlab programme of trial events, each show will allow an audience of 3,500 people, around 20 per cent of the venue's capacity.
For viewers used to glammed-up artistes hugging and celebrating, the Eurovision Song Contest will, however, be different this year.
Artistes from most of the 39 countries involved are travelling to the Netherlands, but some, like Australia, will take part via pre-recorded video.
National delegations have to follow strict protocol, remaining separated from the audience and testing every 48 hours.
"The numbers have been scaled down considerably. Delegations are much smaller," said executive producer Sietse Bakker.
Organisers "politely reminded" participants of the rules last week after photos and videos showed artistes embracing journalists, while Ukraine's entrant tested negative after a scare.
They said they expected "very few" fans would travel from abroad due to Dutch travel restrictions, including a 10-day quarantine and a polymerase chain reaction test requirement. "We want to keep the coronavirus out as much as possible," Mr Bakker said.
Despite recently easing some restrictions, the Dutch government is still struggling with a slow vaccine roll-out, in a country of 17 million people, where 17,000 people have died and 1.57 million have been infected.
But Eurovision's unique mix of kitsch and simmering national tensions remains much the same despite the pandemic.
France's Pravi carries her country's hopes with her moody number Voila. "It's not pressure I feel, it's impatience and joy," said the 28-year-old.
France has been waiting for a Eurovision champion since 1977 when Marie Myriam won the competition.
Malta's singer Destiny Chukunyere, 18, singing Je Me Casse (French for I'm Outta Here), has attracted attention, as well as body-shaming trolls, for her bold wardrobe choices, including a bubblegum-pink fringed number.
"This is a dream come true and a testament I am on the right track and that hard work pays off," said the singer, who won the second edition of X Factor Malta, when the deal was announced.
Weird and wonderful Eurovision stories have emerged, as with any other year.
Russia's entry, Russian Woman, performed by Manizha, has upset conservatives at home with its anti-sexism lyrics.
Cyprus, meanwhile, has stood by its controversial entry after the Orthodox Church accused it of advocating "devil worship".
And while the pandemic has made for a very different Eurovision this year, it is not the first time the event has collided with reality.
The 2017 edition held in conflict-hit Ukraine was marked by tensions with Russia, while the last show in Israel in 2019 sparked protests by pro-Palestinian activists and artistes.