Eurovision Über-Fans Down Under

Dami Im represents Australia in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest
Dami Im represents Australia in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest | © Giles Park

For decades, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) has been one of Australia's most popular entertainment shows; fans in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth excitedly look forward to the finale. 2016 marks the second time Australia has been allowed to field a candidate. You might be forgiven for wondering why non-European countries are admitted to this European spectacle. Where does the enthusiasm for the ESC at the far end of the world come from?

A large projection screen, a beamer and litres of coffee are right at the top of Sharleen Wright's list of things to organise. The 38-year-old is the president of the Eurovision Song Contest Fans of Australia Network; together with 50 other fans, she's going to watch the finale live in Sydney. The show screens during European prime time - which means it'll be 5am in Australia. "We are über-fans," says Sharleen Wright. "We want to watch it live, and we want to vote for the candidates."

The ESC is one of the most popular entertainment shows on Australian television. In 2015, about six million Australians saw the finale. An incredible rating, given that Australia has 23 million inhabitants in total. Sure, only the most dyed-in-the-wool fans like Sharleen Wright watch the ESC live. But for almost forty years now, broadcaster SBS has been screening the contest the following evening; since 2009, well-known hosts Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang have been commenting on performances and scoring.

Sharleen Wright with Lithuania's 2010 entry: funk band InCulto Sharleen Wright with Lithuania's 2010 entry: funk band InCulto

In major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, Australians meet for public screenings in cinemas, public squares or private parties. Many dress up in their national colours or those of their favourite artist and celebrate all weekend. Where does this enthusiasm for a contest on another continent come from, especially one that is several thousand kilometres away?

AUSTRALIANS LOVE A COMPETITION

For one thing, Australia is a multicultural country with a large proportion of immigrants. Even today, many Australians still have relatives in Europe. Actively following the ESC may make them feel a little bit closer to home.

SBS German journalist Trudi Latour has been following the Australian hype around the ESC for years and explains: "Australians love a contest. Rugby, tennis and other competitions have a very high profile here, and the ESC provides yet another opportunity to back a team."

Dami Im represents Australia in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest Dami Im represents Australia in the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest | © Peter Brew-Bevan That's why Australians are thrilled that in 2016, they are allowed to field their own candidate for the second time in a row. This year, Dami Im, winner of the fifth Australian season of popular casting show The X Factor, is competing with her song Sound of Silence. Last year, Guy Sebastian participated as Australia's first-ever candidate and came in fifth.

A COSMOPOLITAN ATTITUDE

The fact that non-European countries may participate in principle is nothing new, with Israel, Azerbaijan and Morocco competing in the past. "The deciding factor isn't geographical location but membership in the European Broadcasting Union," explains ESC spokesperson Paul Jordan. With Australian broadcaster SBS an associated member, this formal requirement is fulfilled. Admission is then decided on a year-by-year basis.

When the ESC celebrated its 60th birthday in 2015, the organisers wanted to showcase the ESC as a global, cosmopolitan event – and what better way to do that than admitting a participant that was geographically so far away? Spokesperson Paul Jordan, who has written his PhD thesis about the contest and has been privately blogging as Dr. Eurovision for years, explains: "The motto was 'Building Bridges'. The intention was to emphasise the original goal of the contest – bringing Europe together after World War II. Continuing this idea, we aim to unite people from all over the world."

FRIENDS ALL OVER EUROPE

That is precisely what fan network president Sharleen Wright finds so fascinating about this contest: "You see so many different nationalities at the ESC. Ever since I saw the show for the first time, I wanted to get to know all these different cultures." Since then, she has travelled to Europe more than 20 times and seen the ESC finale live in arenas in Düsseldorf, Oslo, Baku, Malmö and Moscow. "Today, I have friends from all over Europe."

Latvia's 2016 ESC entry: Justs Latvia's 2016 ESC entry: Justs

An Australian win is secondary to her. "Of course it would be great if Dami won. Then we'd be seeded for next year and could promote the contest as co-organisers in a European country," the 38-year-old says. However, she thinks it's much more important that the best musical achievement prevails: "I have a new favourite every time, entirely independent of nationality."

This year, Sharleen Wright is backing Latvia. For the finale, she has already bought a huge Latvian flag to wear as a cape. And regardless of whether Latvia wins or not: In the evening, Sharleen will sit down in front of the TV in her Latvian cape and re-watch the entire show with Australian commentary. Just like the true über-fan she is.