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Politics and pageantry meet as song contest kicks off in Tel Aviv, Israel

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“It’s difficult but I thought deeply about the decision to come here and I stand by that decision,” Miller-Heidke said.

“Eurovision was created with a spirit of togetherness, the spirit of breaking down barriers between people and using the power of music and art to come together and be open. I am glad I am here,” she said.

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Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke arrives for the opening night of the 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest.Credit:Andres Putting/Eurovision

Though Australia is not geographically located in Europe, we joined the competition four years ago to much fanfare from competing countries who welcomed the shift in the six decade old status quo.

We have subsequently locked in a five-year agreement to stay in the competition through to 2023.

“I am getting so many amazing messages from Australians, but also from people around the world,” Miller-Heidke said. “I do feel buoyed by it. It’s incredible.”

The official opening of the event comes ahead of two semi-finals and a grand final which will be staged this week at the Expo Tel Aviv arena.

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Last year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner Netta Barzilai arrives on the “orange carpet” in Tel Aviv-Yafo.Credit:Andres Putting/Eurovision

Australia is competing the first semi-final on Wednesday morning, Sydney time, along with Cyprus, Montenegro, Finland, Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Belarus, Serbia, Belgium, Georgia, Iceland, Estonia, Portugal, Greece and San Marino, competing for ten slots in the grand final.

The second semi-final, two days later, will see Armenia, Ireland, Moldova, Switzerland, Latvia, Romania, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Croatia, Malta, Lithuania, Russia, Albania, Norway, Netherlands, North Macedonia and Azerbaijan competing for another ten slots.

Those 20 countries will then join the host country, Israel, and the so-called “big five” – the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – who automatically book places in the grand final next weekend.

Among the highlights of the event is a planned performance by pop icon Madonna during the grand final; the 60-year-old pop legend is expected to arrive in Tel Aviv later this week.

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The group Tulia, representing Poland, arriving at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.Credit:Andres Putting/Eurovision

Though the Eurovision Song Contest frequently finds itself in the midst of the gentle friction of pan-European politics, this year’s competition is being staged with a far more complex backdrop, just 70km from the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

An activist group Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is running a campaign against the event, urging a boycott. In response a group of prominent artists, including actor Stephen Fry, have advocated for the non-politicisation of the annual event.

“Unifying events, such as singing competitions, are crucial to help bridge our cultural divides and bring people of all backgrounds together,” their statement said.

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Though this is Australia’s fifth year in competition at Eurovision, our national delegation has retained strong affection from countries across Europe, and early fan polling suggests Miller-Heidke and her song Zero Gravity are strong contenders.

Miller-Heidke said she was confident in her performance, which features her and two acrobats on single flexible stilts engaging in an aerial display.

“Brave slash terrified?” she said. “I feel really good up there. I think to be honest all of the contestants are brave. It’s a scary thing to do, performing in front of 200 million people for your country. Everybody here is braver.”

The 64th annual Eurovision Song Contest airs live Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 5am, and is repeated Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 8.30pm, on SBS

Michael Idato travelled to Tel Aviv as a guest of SBS

Michael Idato is entertainment editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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