Julia Zemiro has more than filled the giant shoes of Eurovision compere
First published on 10 Apr 2012. Updated on 14 May 2013.
When Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang took over the commentary gig for SBS’s Eurovision coverage in 2009, they knew they had continent-sized shoes to fill. Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan had fronted the BBC’s coverage for 29 years, and his booze-doused cynical patter was a hit with Aussies watching through SBS – Wogan famously dismissed the competition as “rubbish” a year after he left. But Pang and Zemiro had a plan to win fans over.
In the lead-up to the event in Moscow, the new comperes had t-shirts made unbeknownst to their producers: hers said, ‘Terry Wogan isn't doing it this year’; his said, ‘Yeah, we miss him too.’ During a sneaky off-screen moment in their booth in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, they slipped on the shirts. “It was just a way of saying to the real fans back home, 'We’re doing our best and we hope you’ll be with us,'” says Zemiro.
Australian Eurovision fans have certainly done that. Ratings have jumped from 427,000 during Wogan's last show to 503,000 last year – proving it was a wise call for SBS not to just broadcast the BBC’s Wogan replacement, Graham Norton. And Pang and Zemiro are off to Azerbaijan at the end of the month to host and commentate their fourth Eurovision song contest.
Zemiro, queen of the Rockwiz domain and one of the country’s best (and funniest) TV presenters, was particularly suited to preside over the competition. Not only was she born in southern France – one of the seven countries to compete in the first Eurovision, held in Lugarno, Switzerland, in 1956 – but she “loves variety”. She jokes that her first Eurovision was 1967’s, when she would have heard Sandie Shaw win for the UK with ‘Puppet on a String’ from her mum’s womb; her first concert was 1974 winners ABBA; and she participated in Seven’s long-dead Eurovision-like celeb-singing comp, It Takes Two.
Her affection for the form means she takes the job very seriously. Each year, Zemiro and Pang study the 42 song entrants, their writers and performers, and take a fat file with them to the competition. This year, most of their time will be spent waiting backstage on rehearsal days trying to nab interviews with performers flitting about the bowels of the just-built Crystal Hall in Baku, Azerbaijain (last year’s winner always plays host). She enjoys the rush, quizzing lithe Swedes and Spaniards between glitter applications, but the role has its downside for an enthusiast. “Unfortunately, when you’re compere, you never have the delight of just sitting down and watching the songs for the first time.”
Zemiro will leave a few weeks earlier than usual this year to shoot The Road to Eurovision, a documentary that sees her travel the continent in a campervan talking with previous winners and visiting former host cities. Part of the motivation was simply that when they announced that the 2012 contest was going to Baku, she – like most people watching – had little idea what a Baku was, and wanted to find out. But mostly, she says, she’s searching for “the E-factor”, what makes a Eurovision star. It’s something that’s always eluded Zemiro, who says she’s “terrible” at predicting winners. “The songs I love never even make the top three! I loved Serbia last year, Nina singing ‘Carobun’, but it placed 14th in the final.”
Of the man drawing much of 2012’s attention, UK representative Engelbert Humperdinck, Zemiro says ‘famous’ entrants have had mixed results at Eurovision. “He could blitz it because everybody knows who he is – everybody’s parents or grandparents at one stage had a cassette or LP of Engelbert. The song is quite good and if he sings it as well as he does in the YouTube preview video, and if he works the camera, he’s in with a shot.”
Speaking to Zemiro is like reading the encyclopaedia about this European oddity. She talks of the ’50s and ’60s contests, where (relatively) plainly dressed artists performed loungey songs in front of a band or orchestra; she laments the Americanisation of some of the more recent years; and she’s on top of the controversies – the Moscow mayor’s ban on gay parades prior to Eurovision ’09, Jordan’s refusing to broadcast Israel’s entry in ’78 and this year, claims the Azerbaijani government forced the eviction of residents from redeveloped areas near the Crystal Hall. But there can be a powerful and positive political message in Eurovision too: “For a new country like Bosnia-Herzegovina, being in your fourth Eurovision is a big deal.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Zemiro and Wogan is that she would never call Eurovision "rubbish" – she’s one of its biggest defenders. “I always get annoyed when people say it’s silly,” says Zemiro. “Look at Katy Perry: she’s got the wig on, the big eyelashes, the crazy costumes. How in the world is that any more normal than what you see at Eurovision? Someone does it in Dutch, and all of a sudden it’s weirder.”
Julia's songs to watch at this year's Eurovision:
1. 'Echo (You and I)', France, Anggun: "Patriotism: I was born in France. Indonesian-born French citizen Anggun has an Annie Lennox sound to her fabulous voice. Combine that with French dance pop, she is a serious contender to take out the big prize. Her lyrics are in English and French, so everyone can sing along. Disappointingly, since the rules changed, more and more songs at Eurovision are just in English. And it has a big key change. And that spells winner."
2. 'Party for Everybody', Russia, Buranovskiye Babushki (the grannies): "The requisite ‘weird’ act everyone loves to see in a Eurovision. They are a granny folk group from the Udmurt Republic, Russian Federation. The eldest of the ladies group is 76. They have been covering Russian and Western popular songs by the Beatles and Queen. They are hilarious and delightful. And not all of them have teeth."
3. 'Never Forget', Iceland, Greta Salóme and Jónsi: "Right. Gonna declare my hand: Whoever wins Eurovision has to host the whole shebang the following year. I want Iceland to win it every year ‘cos I wanna go to Iceland! I am obsessed with it: The Landscape, Bjork, the language and their mythology. That said, I have always loved Iceland’s entries. This year it’s a power ballad by beautiful Greta and handsome Jonsi. Eurovision in Reykyavik 2013!"
The Eurovision Song Contest for 2013 airs May 17-19 on SBS One at 7.30pm.