Chris Higgins has been reporting on the Eurovision Song Contest for the British magazine Gay Times nearly every year since 1998, when the Israeli transsexual Dana International stormed to victory in Chris' home city of Birmingham with the show-stopping disco anthem "Diva." For Chris, and for many others like him who travel at their own expense, on vacation from their regular jobs, the contest serves as an annual random holiday generator.
Among the convivial tribe of full-time fans and part-time journalists who meet just once a year, hailing each other like long-lost friends, the announcement of the winning song carries an added frisson of excitement, since it determines the location of next year's contest. In the bars and cafes around the Athens Olympic complex, and within the makeshift tent inside the press enclosure that has been charmingly named the "feed station" (what are we, cattle?), speculation is already rife.
Will we be off to Berlin next year? Bearing in mind some of the organizational absurdities that have beset us all week, a touch of seamless German efficiency would be most welcome.
Or will the Finnish hard-rockers Lordi send the circus up to Helsinki? No area of Europe takes Eurovision more seriously than Scandinavia, and the after-show parties would be second to none—particularly with regard to the supply of alcoholic beverages, which have been rationed to an absurd degree this week by our Greek hosts. (Upon entrance to last night's post-semi-final after-party, we were each handed a single drink token, to be redeemed at a string of empty bars that had no facilities for accepting cash. Never was the cultural clash between Greek moderation and Northern European indulgence more clearly illustrated. Some predictably ugly scenes ensued.)
Most intriguingly of all, could Sarajevo be Eurovision's host in 2007? This year's Bosnian entry—a classy ballad from Balkan superstar Hari Mata Hari—has been a strong contender from the start and duly confirmed everybody's predictions by sailing through last night's semi-finals.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's chances will also be assisted by the ever-controversial phenomenon of "political voting," in which neighboring, friendly countries vote for each other regardless of merit. (Greece and Cyprus have been awarding each other maximum points since time immemorial, for example. This annual ritual used to be roundly booed. These days, it is more likely to elicit ironic applause.) This former Yugoslavian territory has a particularly staunch set of allies who will ensure that Hara Mati Hari places highly on Saturday night.
These allies include Serbia and Montenegro, whose citizens will be voting despite being unrepresented in Athens this year, after a political row that proved impossible to resolve.
The selection process for the 2006 Serbian entry was dogged by controversy, climaxing in a near-riot on live television when the winning song was announced. The victors, a boy band called No Name, who also represented their country in 2005, hail from the minority state of Montenegro. Their song was widely interpreted as a thinly veiled call for Montenegrin independence, much to the annoyance of the majority Serbian population. (On Sunday—just one day after the Eurovision final—Montenegro is holding a referendum on independence from Serbia; a "yes" vote will result in the country formally splitting in two.) After taking to the stage in Belgrade for the customary winner's encore, a storm of abuse from the studio audience—accompanied by a barrage of bottles and chants of "Thieves! Thieves!"—brought No Name's performance to a swift halt and sent them fleeing the venue under the protection of security guards. Immediately afterward, the second-placed Serbian act commandeered the stage for their own reprise, claiming victory by default. The incident relegated even the death of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to second place in the following day's news. And you thought that Eurovision was just some campy little piece of light-entertainment nonsense? Wars have been waged over less.
Even as I write, the first dress rehearsal for Saturday's final is taking place next door in the Olympic Indoor Arena. A live feed is being beamed through to the press center, and clusters of fans-turned-hacks are assembled in front of the screens, offering instant opinions on the show as it progresses.
The United Kingdom's Daz Sampson is looking stronger than ever, with every nuance of his schoolgirl choir's witty choreography being picked up by the cameras. Ireland's Brian Kennedy is through—much to the relief of several Irish fans who dared to doubt his chances. Greece's Anna Vissi—a massively popular star and a ubiquitous media presence—is giving it the full diva treatment, sinking to her knees at the end of her impassioned power ballad "Everything" and causing more than a few giggles among some of the more hardened hacks. But the loudest laughter is reserved for France's Virginie Pouchain, who scarcely hits a correct note throughout, several times veering so wide of the mark that a collective wince ripples through the room. It has been this way all through rehearsals week. Virginie has a lot of work to do, or she will be gracing "Eurovision's Funniest Moments" clip shows in perpetuity.
The next time you hear from me it will all be over, and people like Chris Higgins and me will be starting to research accommodation options in Berlin, or Helsinki, or Sarajevo … or, more likely than not, since Eurovision is rarely predictable, somewhere else entirely.
If you do manage to secure viewing access to Saturday night's extravaganza, then I guarantee you nothing but solid-gold entertainment from start to finish. And if you happen to spot me, on the far right of Row 6, dressed in school uniform to show support for Daz Sampson, then do please let me know. We Eurovision fans live for such brief moments of glory.