From the moment they stepped off a train from Moscow into a mob of screaming fans and TV cameras, provocative Russian duo tATu has stolen the show at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
Eighteen-year-old Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina are certainly bringing a bit of controversy to tomorrow’s spectacle in the Latvian capital Riga.
The self-proclaimed teenage lesbians are odds-on favourites to win the event.
While organisers are sure the attention has reaped tons of free publicity for the heavily-watched, widely-jeered glitzfest, in conservative Latvia, it has also resulted in controversy.
Created in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union, or EBU, Eurovision has become one of the continent’s most popular music events and through the years has become the biggest pop music pageant of its kind in the world.
At least 150 million TV viewers are expected to watch the live, four hour show with singers performing from 26 countries. Others can follow it on the Internet.
Few winners, except Swedish supergroup Abba in 1974 and Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion who represented Switzerland in 1988, have been propelled to international fame and fortune.
But if tATu wins, ratings, and condemnation, could go through the roof.
The duo – known for their passionate on-stage kisses, have hinted that they might be even more provocative when they sing Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear, Don’t Ask.
Their manager asked if the rules prohibit performers from taking the stage in the nude. While nudity is not specifically outlawed, the rules do bar anything that would tarnish the show’s family image.
The Geneva-based EBU has stopped short of forbidding certain actions, but if they cross the line, tATu will be disqualified.
Sarah Yuen, of the EBU, downplayed any hint of controversy around the duo.
“They are the bad girls of pop,” she said “We shouldn’t have expected them to come here and be nice and pleasant.”
Latvia, a former Soviet republic fiercely sensitive about its perception worldwide, is counting on a smooth event. Many officials in the country of 2.4 million call the broadcast a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It is important for us as a small country to prove we can do something like this,” said Solvita Vevere, a spokeswoman for Latvia’s Eurovision organising committee.
The second ex-Soviet bloc country to host the contest (neighbouring Estonia was the first, hosting the show in Tallinn last year), Latvia’s government has paid half of the £6.8m (€9.46m) bill to host the concert.
It has also spent hundreds of thousands more sprucing up Riga’s city centre famed for its Art Nouveau buildings. The city’s 6,000-seat Skonto Hall, where the contest will be held, was renovated from the top down.
Latvia won the right to host the event when 22-year-old law student Maria Naumova won the contest last year. The winning country is tapped to host the next year’s event.
Aside from tATu, the event features both the best and the worst of European pop.
This year’s hopefuls include Ireland's Mickey Joe Harte with a ballad called We’ve Got the World, Spain’s Beth singing Dime (Tell Me) and Estonia’s Ruffus singing Eighties Coming Back.
Among the more urbane performers are Alf Poier of Austria, a 36-year-old cabaret singer and comedian who bills himself as the “anti-Eurovision, Eurovision contestant”.
“If Europe is willing to give in to collective decline and trade its soul for cheap Hollywood crap and hamburgers, it deserves nothing better than me winning Eurovision,” he said.
But it is tATu who are the darlings of this year’s show.
The four letters – t.A.T.u. – is the acronym Russian words meaning “this girl (loves) that girl.”
Created in 1999 by a former child psychologist who wanted to produce a sexy, provocative group led by teenage girls, the duo had hits in Russia and Europe, but their recent single All the Things She Said topped the British singles chart earlier this year and climbed to number 20 on the US Billboard chart.
That success – so much in contrast to most of the other performers who are barely known outside their own countries – has led many to question why tATu showed up at Eurovision at all.
“Our fatherland has called us,” Volkova said.
But one factor may count against them winning tomorrow: No Russian group has ever come close to winning Eurovision before.