TEL AVIV—Like many another chic Parisian, Bilal Hassani landed in Tel Aviv wearing big Jackie O frames, coiffed in an impeccable blond bob, with eyebrows sculpted to perfection and matte, pale pink lipstick freshly applied.
Fellow passengers asked him for pictures as they disembarked in the Mediterranean sun.
Who is Bilal Hassani?
According to French Glamour, he’s “the singer and influencer who seduced Janet Jackson.”
In September 2018, the month he turned 19, Jackson revealed her fandom for Hassani in a tweet of all-caps “LOVE” for his dance-playlist, which featured her 2018 single “Made For Now.”
For the rest of us, he is France’s greatest Eurovision hope in over 40 years.
What is Eurovision?
It is the oldest, greatest reality TV talent show. Depending on who you ask, the annual frenzy known as Eurovision is either an irresistible festival of patriotism and pop, or an unbearable display of chauvinism and kitsch.
This year it will be held in Israel and run from May 14-18.
Hassani, an unabashed French patriot, is cheerfully, openly queer. His parents are Moroccan immigrants to France. Add to that hot-button nation Israel, and the combustible equation places the slender, previously unknown 19-year-old squarely at the vortex of almost every social stress tearing at the fabric of Europe: immigration, identity, national affiliation.
Since January, when Hassani’s “Roi” was chosen to represent France, Hassani has been assailed by right-wing nationalists who protest that he is not French enough, attacked by French North Africans who claim his queerness is an offence to their Muslim identity, and threatened by pro-Palestinian activists who accuse him of capitulating to the Zionist cause because he’s coming to sing in Israel.
French law enforcement had to get involved and his mother, Amina, 52, now carefully inspects all packages delivered to her suburban apartment building.
The latest menace came in the form of an unsourced rumor, widely reproduced in Israeli media, that France would withdraw from Eurovision over an Israeli miniseries called Douze Points (“Twelve Points,” or the top score a competing nation can receive from other participating), which is scheduled to begin airing in May.
In a bizarre coincidence, the protagonist of the three-part series, scheduled for more than a year, is a gay, Muslim-French Eurovision contestant who is actually a terrorist from the Islamic State terror group planning a massive on-air attack in Israel.
“Oh, we are definitely participating,” Hassani told Israeli media after his arrival on Tuesday.
He is in Israel to film a video clip that will accompany his stage performance.
The buzz surrounding him is almost deafening. France last won the Eurovision in 1977, 22 years before Hassani was born, and one year before Israel’s first victory at the contest, in 1978, in Paris.
He remains nonplussed.
“I’m not going to Eurovision to win,” he said, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I am going because—even if this sounds weird—I believe it is my destiny to live a truly magical moment on that stage, and even if I end up last, I will be the best loser.”
Then he confides, “I want to make even my haters dance. That is my goal.”
Under Eurovision rules, the victorious country hosts the following year’s competition, so this year’s contest will take place in Israel, the home country of last year’s winner, Netta, who won with a screwball double-bun hairdo reminiscent of Minnie Mouse and TOY, a chicken clucking track.
“Roi,” (pronounced “rwah”) is a soulful anthem of stalwart individuality.
“Roi,” meaning “king” in French, is sung in the same Franco-English dialect Hassani speaks naturally. The metaphor of each individual being the sovereign of his or her personal realm speaks to him. His Twitter handle is @iambilalhassani. With two friends, he wrote the song in under an hour.
It opens “I am me, and I know I will always be/Je suis free, oui, j’invente ma vie,” (yes, I invent my life).
As if addressing the haters, Hassani sings “You put me in a box, want me to be like you… At the end of the day you cannot change me, boo! So let me fly away…”
Following his coronation as France’s standard-bearer he expected pushback, he says, but he did not expect people to threaten his life.
In September 2018, as the buzz surrounding the chances of “Roi” reached fever pitch, his mother Amina, in a stylish black strappy top, joined Bilal, who was inaugurating a long-haired pink wig and sailor hat, to film a video responding to haters for his YouTube channel.
Hassani’s parents divorced when he was three and for most of his life he has lived with his mother and Taha, his 23-year-old brother.
In the video, Amina calmly tells a talk-backer called “Rayya” that he should avoid Bilal’s YouTube channel if it bothers him, and, to be honest, that the only “unnatural” one—one of the slurs hurled in a social media post—was him, “for speaking to your peers like this, with so much meanness.”
It is not hard to see where Bilal gets his poise. In the video, Amina, an IT project manager, twirls an elegant finger by her temple to indicate Rayya is unbalanced before whistling and calling out “Next!”