STOCKHOLM (AFP) – Belgium’s Laura Tesoro brought a dash of silver sparkle to Stockholm on Saturday as she kicked off the 61st edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, the continent’s annual music extravaganza, with Russia the hot favourite to win.
The upbeat performance of What’s The Pressure by 19-year-old Tesoro, who bounced on stage in a shiny silver jacket with matching shorts, was followed by the Czech Republic’s first-ever appearance in the final with Gabriela Guncikova performing the emotional ballad I Stand.
Bookies were tipping Russia as the winner, the country’s hopes pinned on a former child celebrity who has spoken out against homophobia in his home country.
With US pop star Justin Timberlake making a guest appearance, this edition of the love-it-or-hate-it kitsch fest is expected to be the most-watched in the show’s history since the event was first staged in 1956.
Characterised by critics as a potpourri of bizarre performance antics, special effects and cheese, the contest is being hosted by Swedish public television for the second time in four years.
Throw into the mix a good shot of politics – Russia and Ukraine are both finalists – and rest assured, this year’s show will have die-hard fans and political analysts with a soft spot for pop on the edge of their seats.
For the first time, Eurovision will be broadcast live in the United States on the Logo channel, which is aimed at the LGBT community, while Timberlake is to perform his new single Can’t Stop The Feeling.
“The Eurovision Song Contest is now a truly global phenomenon,” producer Jon Ola Sand said, amid expectations that the show will push last year’s record of 197 million viewers worldwide.
Bookies are betting on a star who came in from the cold to win the contest between 26 finalists – 25 Europeans and one Australian.
Russian performer Sergey Lazarev, popular in his own country and eastern European nations, has built an eventful career as a singer, actor and TV host.
The 33-year-old has all it takes to go down in Eurovision history with his catchy You Are The Only One.
He has also drawn admiration from gay rights campaigners with his sympathy for the LGBT cause.
This month he told Sweden’s QX gay magazine that he was happy for fans to wave rainbow flags at his performance, saying he respects his gay fans and they respect him.
His main competition comes from Australia, France, and Russia’s arch-rival Ukraine, whose entry took a decidedly political turn this year.
Kiev is represented by Jamala, who will sing 1944, a song inspired by her great-grandmother’s story.
It recounts the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin, and she sings partly in the Tatar language, she says, because “it’s in my blood.”
The song has resonance for contemporary Ukraine, where memories of that horror were revived by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and Jamala’s poignant lyrics tell the story of a people with a history of persecution that continues to this day.
Political leaders in Moscow and Crimea protested against the song for, they say, criticising Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014.
But the jury approved the lyrics nonetheless, setting the stage for a monumental confrontation.
Australia meanwhile takes the stage full of ambition in its second year of competition, with a performance by 27-year-old Dami Im, who was born in South Korea.
A talented trained pianist, she entered the spotlight in 2013 when she took the Australian X-Factor crown.
Adam Herd, an Australian fan originally from Brisbane who came over from Helsinki to watch the final in Stockholm, said he believed Im had a good chance of taking the trophy Down Under this year.
“But we’re not sure we want to (win)... Eurovision is about silly costumes, failed acts, and Dami Im is way too good! Too slick I mean. But we’re learning, it’s only our second time,” he told AFP ahead of the show.
France, which hasn’t won for almost four decades, has tried to boost its chances by following the Australian formula: pick an artist with a proven record on the small screen.
The country picked 31-year-old French-Israeli Amir Haddad, a 2014 finalist in the French version of The Voice singing competition, who also appeared on Israel’s “Pop Idol”.
Gone are the days however, when the antiquated voting system made it obvious who would win long before the show ended.
That was “not good TV,” organisers admit.
Scores will be decided by national juries and viewers, a system that intended to give fans the final say and give the outcome a more democratic feel.
The show was streaming live on YouTube, giving Google a piece of a pie once reserved for European public broadcasters.