Words: Will Stroude
From France's Bilal Hasani to Iceland's BDSM-inspired Hatari, this year's Eurovision Song Contest looks set to be one of the best for LGBTQ representation in years - even by the annual music competition's incredibly gay standards.
But it's not just the contestants who are repping it for the global LGBTQ community on stage in Tel Aviv this week: Viewers have already been won over in the first semi-final by the show's dashing co-host Assi Azar, one of Israel's most famous television presenters and most prominent openly gay public figures.
Born in the city of Holon just south of Tel Aviv, 39-year-old Assi was just rising to public prominence when he came out back in 2005, charting his personal experience of coming out in documentary film Mom and Dad: I Have Something to Tell You.
The announcement made him one of the first public figures in Israel to come out as gay, and despite warnings from friends and colleagues about the impact it could haveon his professional life, his career flourished as he went on to host the Israeli version of Big Brother and Israel's Eurovision's national selection competition Rising Star.
Assi's visibility is not silent either: as well as announcing he'll be donating his salary for hosting Eurosivion to the Israeli Gay Youth (IGY) organisation, he made sure to mention his own coming out to an audience of millions ahead of Dana International's performance during Tuesday night's live Eurovision semi-final.
From serving in the Israeli military as part of the country's national service programme while he was still in the closet to marrying his husband Albert in 2016, Assi represents a new generation of Israeli's who are helping transform attitudes in this part of the Middle East - but despite all the positive change occurring in Israel, there's no excaping the fact that the ongoing Israeli-Palenstinian conflict has cast a shadow over preparation for the competition, with international calls for a boycott over the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Lucikly, nothing is off limits as Attitude mees Assi ahead of the Eurovision Grand Final in Tel Aviv this weekend, and whether he's discussing the LGBTQ youth who'll be watching him represent his country on one of the world's biggest stages, or discussing accusations of 'pink-washinhg' by the Israeli government, Assi is keen to stress that he lives by Eurovision's ongoing message of unity and tolerance over division....
So how did you come to be Israel’s Eurovision co-host?
Well I was a fan of the show from a very young age - ever since I can remember really. Growing up and playing with my sister’s Barbie’s I used to pretend that I was Eurovision host and the Barbie’s were the singers. I used to record the songs from the TV and play them in my room, and the Barbie’s would compete again each other! So from a very young age I loved the competition. And when got older I started hosting Rising Star, which is the competition to choose Israel’s Eurovision singer each year, so I’ve very much been involved with Eurovision for the last five years.
How does it feel to know you’ll be fronting the show as an openly gay man, being broadcast to millions of viewers around Europe where LGBTQ rights and visibility might be incredibly poor?
I think it’s extremely important. Eurovision is so LGBTQ-oriented anyway, and many of the songs are about equality and loving life, being open about who you are, [so] it makes sense that at least one of the hosts will be a part of the LGBT community. You know, when I came out of the closet at 24, my agent told me in those days ‘You’re career will be over, no one will hire you’. And times have changed, especially in Israel. I’m hosting the biggest show in the world! I think it’s so important for every kid who’s still in the closet sitting and watching Eurovision have that on screen.
You came out publicly almost 15 years ago now - how’s the landscape for LGBTQ people in Israel changed in that time?
Before me there’d been one singer who came out the closet. I was the second, and actually I don’t know if I was just stupid, but I did it without even thinking. I fell in love with a guy, kissed him for the first time, my career was starting and after six months I went ‘I don’t care what people say, I have to share my story’. I was hosting a show for kids back then and I thought ‘I’m not lying to these kids, they look up to me’, and I don’t want to try and hide information from reporters. To every person that told me I was making a mistake, [that] people aren’t coming out for a reason, I said ‘You can go to hell - I’m talented and I’m going to survive’. I don’t know if I was stupid or smart, but it worked. And today in 2019 so many more people are out of the closet.
In 2005 you produced a documentary about coming out to your family - were you from a conservative background and what was their reaction?
I didn’t grow up in a religious family, but they were conservative. Growing up and not seeing any LGBT people was very difficult. I didn’t know what being gay was - when I was growing up there was no internet - and I used to pray to God each night to make it go away. When I told my parents they took it very hard - they didn’t throw me out, they said ‘you’re our son, we still love you, but don’t bring this into our home. Don’t bring your boyfriend here. Maybe you can try and change, maybe you can go to a doctor’. What I learnt from the documentary I did is that the more time you give your parents, the more they will understand. My psychologist told me ‘It took you 24 years to come out of the closet and you’re expecting your parents to understand everything in one minute? Give them time.’ That’s what I did, and today they accept me and my husband 100%. My father have a speech at my wedding, and he loves my husband. It’s really a story with a good end, and that’s how the process should work.
Can you tell us more about your husband and how you both met?
[gasps] Of course I can, that’s my favourite topic! My husband is the most gorgeous, sexy, sweet, intelligent, talented man on Earth. His name is Albert and he’s an architect from Barcelona. We met in Barcelona and he’s the only guy I’ve ever made a move on: I don’t know how to flirt with people face-to-face - I’m very shy - but I was so drunk when I met him! I was at a pool party at a hotel, someone told me he was straight and I thought ‘Oh damn, what a waste’. But I approached him at the bar and said ‘Even though you’re straight I just wanted you to know you’re the hottest guy in this place’, and he goes ‘I’m not straight...’ And here we are now, married three years and together almost seven years.
I bet you’re glad you made that move now.
I always encourage people now and am telling everybody 'Make a move!' Look what happened to me!
Truly an inspiration.
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39 years old today. חוגג 39 היום, אבל במקום לחגוג נוסע לצלם נינג׳ה (עד שש בבוקר) בנמל חיפה 😣😣😣 עם השותפה שלי רותם סלע, שעדיין לא טרחה לסמס/ לצלצל/ לשלוח פרחים ולאחל מזל טוב. נרשם. נ.ב - תיכף היא תכתוב לי שהיא ישנה עד מאוחר (כי יש לנו צילומי לילה) אבל יש לי צילום מסך מהוואצאפ שלה שהיא היתה ערה!!!)
Israel, like a lot of places, has come a long way in a short amount of time and does have better a far better LGBT rights record than other parts of the Middle East, though it’s yet to introduce marriage equality. Do you think it’s generally an accepting place for LGBTQ people in 2019?
Well I’m from Tel Aviv, and obviously it’s easier to be gay there and in the suburbs it’s much more difficult. Maybe it is harder to be gay in certain parts of Israel but we are progressing. If you’d told me when I was young that I’d be able to be with my husband in Israel, where they acknowledge our marriage – he’s going to get an Israeli passport in a few months and be an Israel citizen – or that there’d be Pride in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem I’d have told you ‘No way, Israel is too conservative for that’. But then all of those things happened. It’s like with US, if you’d told me a few years ago that some states would allow equal marriage, I’d have said ‘It’ll never happen’. But there is big change [and] gay marriage in Israel and surrogacy laws will happen. It just needs time. Israel is a very young country.
There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding this year’s Eurovision because of the political situation in Israel, and there have been calls to boycott the event this year. How difficult does that make your job, having all that going on in the background?
I mean, I see myself as a TV host and an entertainer; I try to put politics aside. I can tell you from where I stand that I love my country and I support my country 100%. I’m a proud Israeli. I have my criticisms of Israel but I’ll never talk bad about my country because we are castigated from every corner. Every coin has two sides. When it comes to boycotting Israel, of course I think it’s stupid – I don’t think you can create a dialogue, and in order to understand the other side you need to create a dialogue. Nothing is black and white. It’s Eurovision, it’s about saying to the world ‘We are one. Let’s celebrate love’. Why bring politics into that? Why bring hate into that? In Israel we are eight million people and we are human beings before politics. We have good people and bad people among us, same as everywhere. I think it’s better to come and enjoy the show, and every person that will come to Israel or turns on the TV will see that we are just like everybody else. Also, one of our hosts is Arab-Israeli.
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Israel is obviously considered a beacon for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East, but the government has often faced accusations of ‘pink-washing’; using progressive gay rights legislation to deflect from other human rights issues. What do you make of those accusations as an Israeli gay man?
I think that whenever I’m asked to go and ‘pink-wash’ I will do it gladly. I think they’ve been talking too many years about only one aspect of Israel. We are not only the Palestinian-Israeli discussion. We are more than that. I think if I can show to the world another side of Israel, and how we are the only country in the Middle East that actually respects the LGBT community and gives them rights like everybody else, it’s important to say it. I cannot open the TV when I’m abroad without seeing that my country only suffers bad criticism for things that might be right or might not be right, but we are also other things. You cannot only talk about one thing all the time.
It’s certainly interesting to get your perspective. You also served in the army as part of your national service. As a young gay man coming to terms with your sexuality, how did you find it being in that sort of military environment?
I was in the closet before I went into the army and I was extremely afraid of it. I didn’t know what I was going do in the showers; I’d never showered with other men before! I wasn’t afraid of dying, I was afraid of the showers. But I have to say that I had the most amazing time. Instead of serving just three years I signed for another and did four. It made me who I am today and I think it made me a better TV host because I was performing every day in front of the other soldiers; pretending to be a tough guy when I actually I see myself as a clown. I was deep in the closet when I was in the army, but I learnt that if you do come out it’s completely accepted. Some of my soldiers came out in front of me, and in the army they just don’t care. If you want to serve your country, you can be gay, lesbian, transgender.
Ok you’re a Eurovision fan so I have to ask, why do you think the UK has done so poorly in recent years?
No no no, you’re not going to put me in that position my friend! laughs[ I’m not going to say anything bad about the signs you are choosing. All I can say is one of my favourite Eurovision songs comes from the UK – ‘Save All Your Kisses for Me' by Brotherhood of Man [from 1976]. I think you should go and find what was god back then with that song and then try and repeat it. I think this year you might have a good chance. I saw your selection competition this year and [Michael Rice] sings beautifully.
Well here’s hoping – we’ve got everything crossed. Thanks so much for speaking to us Assi.
I think we’ve talked about everything apart from my dog! He’s a big Eurovision fan – and he wants to the UK representative to win [laughs]. Actually can I send a message through you?
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14 years I am out of the closet. 14. Thank god I was brave enough to do it. I didn’t know how it will effect my family/ my friends/ my career, but I just felt It was the right time to scream to the world “this is me”. And the world accepted me with open arms. 14 years. 🏳️🌈❤️❤️ לפני 14 שנה יצאתי מהארון. ארבע עשרה שנה וחודש אם רוצים לדייק. כמה פחדתי לפני, חוסר הידיעה של מה יקרה הטריף לי את המוח. איך יגיבו ההורים? החברים? האם זה יפגע לי בקריירה שרק החלה? לשמחתי- העולם חיבק אותי ועטף אותי באהבה. כל הפניקה שהיתה לפני נראתה לפתע מוגזמת וחסרת פרופורציות. היו קשיים, כמו בכל מסע חדש, אבל איזה מזל שלא ויתרתי בעצמי, שלא נתתי לפחד לנצח אותי- שנאבקתי על להגיד לעצמי ולעולם ״זה אני וזה ממש אחלה״. כל מה שנותר הוא להיות אסיר תודה, על כל מה שיש לי, על אלה שסביבי, על מי ומה שאני. לא הייתי משנה דבר.
Ok, maybe you could include this in the piece: ‘Graham Norton, I’m a huge fan of yours for many, many years and I watch your show online. I think you’re amazing and if I’m excited for one other reason besides hosting Eurovision it’s because I know you’re coming this year and I can’t wait to see you! I’m going to give you a big Israeli hug.’
We’ll make sure he gets the message.
[laughs] Thank you!
The second Eurovision semi-final airs Thursday 16 May at 8pm on BBC Four, with the Grand Final to set to air on Saturday 18 May at 8pm on BBC One.