Until I met my Israeli coworkers, I didn’t exactly care about Eurovision, the annual song competition. I’m not even sure I knew what Eurovision was before I met them (though I do have a deep and abiding love for ABBA, the Swedish band that won Eurovision in 1974 with “Waterloo”). All this is to say, my conception of Eurovision shifted, dramatically, when I joined the Alma team. What I do remember in spring 2018: the absolute joy when Netta won Eurovision in 2018 — sparking my newfound love for this Israeli singer and her chicken noises and her amazing attitude.
Cut to two years later, and there I was video chatting with Netta herself — me from my parents’ house in the suburbs of NYC, and Netta from her producer’s home studio in Israel. “We’re your biggest fans,” I gushed. “All my co-workers were so jealous I got to talk to you.” She demurred — saying she is just a normal person. (Do normal people win Eurovision!?)
Like many of us, Netta has been stuck in quarantine for the past couple months. Things in quarantine are “very weird,” she says. She’s gearing up for the release of her second album — “I’ve been working a lot, [but] it’s very difficult to find inspiration these days. Everything’s about the pandemic. All of the [news is] a count of how many people are sick and people are losing their jobs and it’s very sad. I’m a very, very positive person. I find inspiration in positivity and in laughter, and I’m having a very hard time finding [that] now.”
Like many of us, Netta’s been experimenting with some cooking to pass the time. “I’m cooking a lot, in a very mediocre way. I’m not a very successful cook. But fortunately, my boyfriend has no taste buds.” She tells me she made a shepherd’s pie that was moderately successful, and a stuffed vegetarian cabbage that she was also very proud of. But baking anything is a disaster.
“You can’t really follow your heart [while] baking,” Netta explains. “It’s like science, and I don’t do that well.”
Netta — her full name is Netta Barzilai, but like all great pop stars, she goes by one name — follows her heart. She was born in Hod HaSharon, a city in central Israel. Her mom is a Sephardi Jew and her dad is Ashkenazi. Growing up, her family lived in Nigeria when her dad was working on an engineering project.
“When I was a 6-year-old girl, we moved back to Israel from Nigeria,” she explains. “All of a sudden, I figured out that I was the chubby girl with a unibrow, no longer the social leader that I was. And when kids label you, it sticks. So, I was trying to be a grown-up, because I didn’t want to be a kid anymore. And I shoved that kid — that very imaginative, very loud, very creative little girl — away. I started wearing only black, being interested in my teachers more than I was interested in the other kids, and spending most of my time alone. And now I’m giving that little girl freedom.”
On her upcoming album, she’s trying to be “very open and very exposed.” When I ask if it’s hard being so open in her music, she says, “It’s the only choice.” She elaborates, “It’s the only choice for me to be open and revealing and true and authentic. It’s a thing about us artists — we need to do that in order for us to be believable. In order for us to make a difference. To do something original, I always listen to my inner child. To a lot people, most of my music sounds very juvenile, but I think [that’s] the magic. Because I let the little girl speak.”
Netta didn’t actually mean to be a role model, or an inspiration, for so many young people in Israel and abroad.
“When I got ‘Toy'” — the song she performed at Eurovision in 2018, which won her the competition — “I was begging the creators [Doron Medalie and Stav Beger] to turn ‘Toy’ into something that has humor in it. Because when you have humor, when you laugh a little bit about yourself, you’re inviting people to join in. It wasn’t part of my plan to be a voice for all these young little girls. I was just trying to do the most authentic, true thing that I could possibly do. And when you are trying to be the most authentic version of yourself, you accidentally inspire other people.”
Eleven months after winning Eurovision, Netta released her second single, “Bassa Sababa.”
“We shot a crazy big video in Ukraine,” she tells me, “and all of a sudden I saw like 200 [people] working on this, my silly cause, and I was moved. I was so moved, to my very bones, to see my dream coming true.”
Netta just released another single, “Ricki Lake” — yes, named for the Jewish actress and TV host.
“When I was about 10, Ricki aired in Israel. It was actually the first time that we were exposed to American trash culture — at its worst and at its best. Ricki gained and lost weight through the eyes of the camera and that was very talked about. People commented on that, and basically I took a lot of inspiration from this culture, [one] that we’re still in. Like we’re all seeing, how do we get an ass like Kim Kardashian? How do I lose five pounds in 10 days? How do I get into my high school jeans? How do I lose a guy in 10 days? How do I make guys like me? How do I retouch my pictures so people won’t notice?”
The song is a response to all of that: “Basically, the song says to all these people asking ‘how do I get to be so confident?’ It’s telling them: There is no easy answer.”
Netta then starts to sing on our call: “Baby I dance to my own damn-drum / And if they don’t then they dumb-dumb-dumb.”
She continues, “It’s silly, because the answer is pretty silly. There is no quick way to happiness — it’s just loving you. If you don’t love you, then you have a big problem. I really can’t solve your problems. I can barely solve mine! Everybody thinks I have this all covered, but I really don’t. It’s a long process [of] self-love.”
For example, Netta shares, a few months ago, she posted a picture of herself in a bathing suit. “And people were telling me I was brave,” she says, incredulously. “The last thing you want to hear when you post a picture in a bathing suit is that you’re brave.”
After winning Eurovision, Netta walked in a fashion show in Tel Aviv wearing a bathing suit. “It was a big thing for me, because I didn’t go to the beach all throughout my childhood and my adult life because I didn’t like the way I looked in a bathing suit. I didn’t think it was okay for me to go to the beach, or to swim.”
“The girl who offered me the job is the biggest swimsuit model in Israel,” Netta tells me, speaking of Neta Alchimister, who runs the Israeli swimwear brand Banahot with Noa Beny. (Banahot is a brand that, from a quick glance at their site, is not very size inclusive.) “We were just having a drink when we were toying with this idea of me joining them. Like they’re size zero and I’m a size… I don’t know…” Netta jokes. “The minute they said it, I was thinking that we could look equally hot, wearing the same bathing suit.”
“We’re all wearing a yellow one piece. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my entire life, very empowering. My heart was pounding very, very hard because I felt like I was doing something for little 9-year-old Netta, and for a lot of Nettas around the world.”
Whether she’s in a bathing suit or not, Netta is a fan of the water. When she wants to feel calm, she goes to her favorite place in the world — a dolphin reef in Eilat, Israel.
“In Eilat, they built something resembling—” she pauses. “Can you imagine the place where Wendy and Peter Pan and the lost kids would live?” Neverland?, I ask. “Yes, there is like a tree house built on the water. And in the water, there are free dolphins who can swim to the sea and back. Swim to the open seas, and they just come back because there’s food there. It’s like from a book. You visit, and everybody’s kind of a hippie. It’s the [most] peaceful place on Earth. One of the most beautiful [places]. And whenever I need some quiet, we go there.”
“He was very charming,” she recalls. “It was a very weird weird six minutes. It felt normal, but not normal. It was fun. He was Prince Charming. We drank a very purple sparkling drink, and we talked about being a role model for people.”
“I kind of felt bad for him, because he’s not a normal human being,” Netta says. “Although he really wanted to be. There were these guys playing volleyball, and he was telling me that he wished that he could play with them — like take off his socks, and [join].”
Netta, like Prince William but not like Prince William, has been in the public eye for the last two years. What’s one thing she wishes people knew about her?
“Apparently, they know everything! They know everything. They probably don’t know how little I think I’ve done. I’ve revealed so little of myself — even to myself. I feel like I repress so much, and push so much, just not to feel. I can’t wait to reveal what I’ve been working on. And I can’t wait to find out, by myself, what’s to come.”
I can’t wait either, Netta.
Header image design by Grace Yagel; image of Netta by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.
Many thanks to Maddy Albert for help with transcription, and to my lovely Israeli coworkers Grace Yagel and Lior Zaltzman for informing me on all things Israel, Eurovision, and Netta.