Kitsch, glitz and politics as Russia slated to win Eurovision
Bookies are tipping Russia to win Saturday night's Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm, with hopes pinned on a former child star who has spoken out against his country's climate of homophobia.
With US pop star Justin Timberlake making a guest appearance, this year's edition of the love-it-or-hate-it kitsch fest is slated to be the most-watched in the show's history.
Promising its usual potpourri of bizarre performance antics, special effects and cheese, the contest is being hosted by Swedish public television for the second time in four years.
Throw into the mix a good shot of politics -- Russia and Ukraine are both finalists -- and rest assured, this year's show will have die-hard fans and political analysts with a soft spot for pop on the edge of their seats.
For the first time, Eurovision will be broadcast live in the United States on the Logo channel, which is aimed at the LGBT community.
"The Eurovision Song Contest is now a truly global phenomenon," producer Jon Ola Sand said, amid expectations that the show will push last year's record of 197 million viewers worldwide.
Pop heartthrob Timberlake is expected to perform his new single "Can't Stop the Feeling".
Bookies are betting on a star who came in from the cold to win the contest between 26 finalists -- 25 Europeans and one Australian.
Russian performer Sergey Lazarev, popular in his own country and eastern European nations, has built an eventful career as a singer, actor and TV host.
The 33-year-old has all it takes to go down in Eurovision history with his catchy "You Are the Only One".
- 'In my blood' -
On a more serious note, his sympathy for the LGBT cause has drawn admiration from gay rights campaigners.
This month he told Sweden's QX gay magazine that he was happy for fans to wave rainbow flags at his performance, saying he respects his gay fans and they respect him.
He appeared at a British gay pride event in 2008, at a time when Moscow's then-mayor openly called such demonstrations "Satanic."
His main competition comes from Australia, France, and Russia's arch-rival Ukraine, whose entry took a decidedly political turn this year.
Kiev is represented by Jamala, who will sing "1944," a song inspired by her great-grandmother's story.
It recounts the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin, and she sings partly in the Tatar language, she says, because "it's in my blood."
The song has resonance for contemporary Ukraine, where memories of that horror were revived by Russia's seizure of Crimea and Jamala's poignant lyrics tell the story of a people with a history of persecution that continues to this day.
Political leaders in Moscow and Crimea protested against the song for, they say, criticising Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014.
But the jury approved the lyrics nonetheless, setting the stage for a monumental confrontation.
- Eurovision down under? -
Australia meanwhile takes the stage full of ambition in its second year of competition, with a performance by 27-year-old Dami Im, who was born in South Korea.
Once a talented pianist, she entered the spotlight in 2013 when she took the Australian "X-Factor" crown.
France, which hasn't won for almost four decades, has tried to boost its chances by following the Australian formula: pick an artist with a proven record on the small screen.
The country groomed 31-year-old French-Israeli Amir Haddad, a 2014 finalist in the French version of "The Voice" singing competition, who also appeared on Israel's "Pop Idol".
Gone are the days however, when the antiquated voting system made it obvious who would win long before the show ended.
That was "not good TV," organisers admit.
This year, scores will be decided by both national juries, who will speak first, and viewers.
The new system will feel more democratic as it gives fans the final say.
And you don't need a TV to watch the grand final: the show will be streamed live on YouTube, giving Google a piece of a pie once reserved for European public broadcasters.
The winner will be announced shortly before 2230 GMT. So get your snacks, tissues and flags ready.
© 2016 AFP