The Eurovision Song Contest is often called the "Gay World Cup" despite only involving countries from one continent (plus neighbouring Israel and, um, Australia). The football World Cup has to involve countries from six continents to be called the World Cup, so that should tell you something about how amazing Eurovision really is.
Still, here in the UK, Eurovision has an image problem. Years of withering commentaries from the late Sir Terry Wogan, before Graham Norton took over hosting duties in 2008, kind of took their toll. The UK's woeful recent form doesn't help, either: we haven't won since 1997, or finished in the top five since 2009. So whenever someone compiles a Eurovision montage, it always seems to be Cliff Richard and ABBA and the women from Bucks Fizz having their skirts ripped off in 1981.
But for a new generation of Eurovision fans, it's much more than a once-a-year exercise in camp nostalgia. Contest organisers the European Broadcasting Union says that, in 42 markets, Eurovision's viewing share among 15 to 24-year-olds is around four times higher than the national channels' average for this demographic. Thanks to the internet and social media, young Eurovision stans from across the globe can chat to each other all year round.
"The young Eurovision community is absolutely diverse and extremely open-minded and well-informed," says Jayde Gray, a 21-year-old student from Melbourne, Australia who's travelled to Tel Aviv (via London, where I meet her) for this year's contest. "I think the Eurovision community is based on the idea of acceptance of everyone, which is why anybody can get into it. I’d say LGBTQ people make up the majority [of fans], but it’s definitely for everybody."
Gray became a Eurovision fan four years ago when she "came home really drunk and turned on the TV to see Dami Im singing her heart out for Australia – it was the most magical thing I'd ever seen!" Soon, she became "obsessed" with the contest and found friends across Australia, and the world, to discuss it with. "With social media making everything so accessible, you can literally spend hours on end keeping up with the latest Eurovision news," she says. "There’s just so much to lose your head in and research and dream about – national finals, competitors, staging, host cities. I think it really inspires you to learn about something bigger than your own little world."
Fellow super-fan James Sayer, a 23-year-old barman from London, says that even Eurovision Facebook groups founded by older fans to reminisce over 80s and 90s performances have "kind of evolved with this new generation of fans – just like the contest itself has".
Sayer concedes that "the majority of my generation still look at Eurovision as a fun night rather than a serious music competition", but says: "I think the contest is going in a direction that will attract an even bigger young audience as we go forward. And eventually, this might persuade everyone in the UK to take it more seriously."
What does he mean by this new "direction"? "The fact that the majority of countries are sending credible artists with songs that fit in with the modern music scene in those countries. Look at the performances with all their LEDs and pyro – they're very much on a level with what you might see at the VMAs from the world's biggest artists".
It's hard to disagree with him: last year’s runner-up, "Fuego" by Cyprus's Eleni Foureira, is an absolutely massive pop banger performed with dance moves and hairography Little Mix wouldn't look down on. This year’s Australian entrant, Kate Miller-Heidke, will sing "Zero Gravity" swaying on a giant two-storey pole. These days, many Eurovision acts have innovative staging ideas, and the budgets to make them happen.
At the same time, Eurovision encourages us to expand our ideas of what modern pop music looks and sounds like. "It's introduced me to so many new genres of music – schlager, ethno-pop, Middle Eastern pop, joik," says Tom Clift, a 24-year-old TV researcher from London who worked as a runner on this year's UK selection show. "I think growing up as a little gay boy, you look to camp things as an escape and a way of expressing yourself, and Eurovision was mine. Rather than having one diva to be obsessed with, I had, like, 40 camp divas every year to get to know, from all different cultures."
The contest also has a well-deserved reputation for progressive LGBTQ representation. Israeli trans woman Dana International won in 1998. Bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst claimed victory for Austria in 2014. Ireland’s 2018 performance featured a sweet depiction of same-sex love that was censored by a Chinese broadcaster. This warmth and inclusivity is incredibly appealing to younger fans.
"The first Eurovision I watched was in 2014, when Conchita won, and it resonated so much with me because I'd been bullied in the past. It made me feel like I could now 'rise like a phoenix', like Conchita sang in the song," says Nifemi Wilson-Adu, an 18-year-old A-level student from Basildon. As she delved into Eurovision’s 62-year history, she became more enthralled. "I'm a big advocate of nonviolence and peace, so I started loving it even more when I found out it was set up using TV, which was then in its early stages, to unify a war-torn Europe. I mean, that is simply amazing. And in among all the fun and dramatic performances, it’s still a great platform to make change and air opinions. Look at Netta's [winning song] 'Toy' last year: most people see the chicken dance, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s about female empowerment."
Eurovision's core values of unity and respecting cultural differences feel especially important at a time when the UK is making such a mess of the Brexit process, and toxic populists like Nigel Farage look set to clean up at at this month's EU election. But at the same time, the contest feels like a bottomless source of light relief. "It's just such a beautiful escape from all the terrible things that are going on in the world," says Jayde Gray. "It actually encourages the celebration of other nations. And it's a chance for the extra, the weird and the emotional to shine through. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing so many amazing stage costumes?"