This weekend, the Eurovision Song Contest — one of the most most-watched TV broadcasts on the planet, with an average annual audience of 200 million —was supposed to take place in the Netherlands, but it was called off for the first time in its 64-year history due to coronavirus concerns. Netta Barzilai, who won Eurovision representing Israel in 2018, understands and agrees with the decision to not proceed with a remote version of Eurovision, but says the cancelation is a “shame,” because for her the competition was “the weirdest, cheesiest, corniest, most amazing, colorful, sensitive, exciting ride that I had in my entire life.”
Perhaps the only phenomenon cheesier — literally — than Eurovision itself is Netta’s absolutely bonkers new clip for “Ricki Lake,” a Warholian celebration and send-up of Western capitalism and consumerism that’s a top contender for video of the year. The sensory-overloading, nightmare-fueling spectacle stars an orthodontically challenged, Bjork-bunned Netta frolicking like a kid in a candy store (or more specifically, a Costco) filled with toothpaste-slathered hot dogs, hormone-plumped turkeys, exploding jellybean jars, fistfuls of pills, and gallons of mayonnaise and plain-wrap diet soda; in other eye-popping scenes, she even reclines in a bathtub of Pepto-pink donuts and eats French fries out of her ingenious basket-hat.
“I made ‘Ricki Lake’ as a big love show for the American culture: big jars of mayo and ketchup and industrial stuff and capitalism, which I celebrate, because I believe that the criticism comes with love,” says Netta. And while she is obviously an international phenomenon, the entire video was inspired by two of her quintessentially American obsessions: the TV hostess for whom the song is named… and Cheez Whiz.
“When I was about 10 years old, the Ricki Lake show aired in Israel, and it was the first time I was exposed to American reality culture,” Netta, age 27, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “It was the first time the underdogs became America’s sweethearts, the first time real people were shown on [Israeli] prime-time television. It was a big hit, obviously. And I idolized Ricki. There was even one show about bulimia and anorexia that really helped me at that time.”
Four years later, Netta and her older brothers got the opportunity to visit the U.S. via an exchange student program, and No. 1 on Netta’s tourist-destination wish-list was a grocery store. “I asked the tour guide, ‘Listen, my big brothers and me both have been obsessed about something we saw on TV called Cheez Whiz. Are you familiar with that? Because I need like about 20 cans of this if this is real.’ We couldn’t believe that there was, like, cheese in a can. The guide was so embarrassed, but he took me to the supermarket and I was so excited. You don’t know how much of a fan, how obsessed, we are of this [American] culture. We almost cried out of happiness. I brought [the Cheez Whiz] home and we had had a little celebration over that,” Netta laughs.
“I was seeing donuts and I was seeing cupcakes — all this ‘miracle food,’ I call it, which wasn’t allowed in our house. As you can see me, genetically, my brothers and I are all kind of the same. We all have this chubby little appearance and we all have a sweet tooth, so our mother really tried her best to forbid this kind of stuff in our house,” Netta confesses. “And when I was a 10-year-old, I was dreaming about this food. I was imagining it. I was wanting it, craving it, having a secret affair with it, hiding it under my bed. So, I did a big closure with it in a big, expensive kind of way [with the “Ricki Lake” video]: I filmed myself bathing in doughnuts and ketchup and celebrating with four-pound jars of mayo. And it was amazing.”
When Netta, who’d been playing music in local bars and getting “paid in beer,” decided to compete on an Israeli TV talent show called HaKokhav HaBa (after her mother gave her an ultimatum about pursuing a more serious career path), she knew that her “chubby” looks would turn off a lot of viewers. But she carried herself with such confidence that, despite never “daring to dream” that she could actually win, she did just that — a victory that led to her representing her country at Eurovision. In Israel, this was nothing less than revolutionary.
“I knew that I was the poorest girl in the world with the most expensive asset ever. I walked like nobody could tell me anything,” says Netta. “I got a lot of hate because this attitude. It’s not considered amazing. I was a big girl considering herself beautiful, which is in conservative Israel had never been seen. And I was wearing very eccentric clothing; I knew what I wanted from the first moment, and whenever I went onstage the whole beauty crew around me were afraid because they never did such a thing. … I got a lot of hate but as we went on, I saw the TV people less of an enemy and more of a friend, and we worked together.”
Netta won over Israel’s viewing audience and dominated the real-time voting with her dazzling artistry, as she used a looper to create trippy, beatboxed, experimental, EDM deconstructions of cheesy pop hits like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” Haddaway’s “What Is Love,” the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” But she was hoping to perform one of her own originals at Eurovision, and was disappointed when she found out she’d been assigned a pre-written song called “Toy” instead.
“It was a female empowerment song influenced by the #MeToo movement, written by two wonderful men, which is very funny — like, men putting words in a girl’s mouth, making her say that she’s ‘independent and strong,’” Netta chuckles. “I went into that studio feeling very, very low, saying, ‘This is not me. I have to make this me. This is too serious. It sounds like a big hit, but it’s not mine. I can’t own this s***.’” But Netta was able to adapt the song to her own style, with a Pikachu twist — and then, she won Eurovision too. “I changed the whole entire game,” she says with a sly smile. “It became my game, my court. … I’m not playing any other game.”
Although Netta initially resisted being some sort of “female empowerment” role model, she realized that by just being herself, that is what she had become. This didn’t always sit well with her. “I’ve been asked so much, ‘Netta, how are you so confident?’ Like last year, I’d been given an offer by a very big top model in Israel to be in a fashion show. She’s a size zero and I’m a size I-don’t-know. She’s like, ‘Let’s wear the same bathing suit and walk together!’ And I didn’t hesitate for one minute, because I knew that I could be beautiful as she is. But I’ve been asked a lot after that, ‘Where did you get the guts?’ And you know, after posting a picture in your bathing suit, that is the last thing you want to hear from people.”
But lately Netta has realized that kids in Israel can look up to her, in the same way that the pre-teen Netta looked up to Ricki Lake — and that’s a good thing. “I was walking in the street with my boyfriend, like carrying a microwave like a regular couple, and there was just a little chubby girl,” she recalls. “It was just her coming back from school with her backpack, and it was like me stumbling upon 9-year-old me. And she was just so overwhelmed [when she saw me]. She ran up and started crying and she was scared and she couldn’t speak. All she could say was, ‘Thank you.’ After that moment, I met so much of ‘me.’ I didn’t know how much the struggle is real in so many places, and in so many children, no matter how they look or where they come from. Everyone can feel like that.”
Netta has yet to make inroads with her music in the U.S., despite her love of American culture; a recent Stateside tour was postponed because of COVID-19. But she just released a decidedly more somber and introspective single, “Cuckoo,” to coincide with what would have been Eurovision weekend; she premiered the music-box ballad, which perfectly captures the feeling of pandemic-era isolation, on Saturday’s Eurovision: Shine a Light remote live-stream special. She also hints that she’ll be involved in Netflix’s upcoming movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga starring Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan, and Demi Lovato.
And Netta knows she already has one big American fan: Ricki Lake herself, who got in touch after watching Netta’s bizarre music video. “I think she’s a little embarrassed by all the attention,” Netta laughs. “But she’s written to me that she’s very into it, and that she’s flattered.”