Russia's Eurovision dream rests with gay-friendly star
Russia's Eurovision hopes this year rest with Sergey Lazarev, a former child star with a hipster quiff who has spoken out against his country's climate of homophobia and says he welcomes the support of gay fans.
Lazarev came to fame as a squeaky-voiced pre-teen with a group called Neposedy (Scamps) at the age of 12. He went on to form a boyband called Smash!! before going solo in 2004.
On Saturday night in Stockholm he will face off against 25 other hopefuls in the grand final as Eurovision marks its 60th birthday.
Lazarev has been chasing the Eurovision dream since 2008, when he lost in the national heat to rival teen idol Dima Bilan -- who went on to win the contest.
Lazarev has performed many of his songs in English, and Russian state television says he is the country's first contestant to speak the language confidently enough to give interviews.
Unlike many Russian pop stars who like to mime, he's a confident live performer unafraid of taking on a daunting schedule to satisfy his army of teenage fans.
In March alone he performed solo concerts in 16 different cities around his vast homeland -- including far-flung Vladivostok.
At a rehearsal for his energetic Eurovision routine earlier this week, Lazarev took a dramatic tumble on stage, prompting fears he could fail to pull it off in Saturday's grand final in Stockholm.
But the 33-year-old sailed through the semi-final and is among the favourites to win the competition, along with Ukraine's Jamala -- bringing a familiar geopolitical edge to the annual celebration of glamour, sparkle and showmanship.
- Brave stand on gay rights -
Eurovision has long enjoyed a huge cult following in the gay community and Lazarev has given his backing to same-sex rights -- a brave gesture for a singer who depends on access to Russian state television shows for his public profile.
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."
After Russia's parliament in 2013 initially backed a highly controversial bill -- later signed into law by President Vladimir Putin -- banning homosexual "propaganda" to minors, Lazarev wrote a protest message on Facebook.
"It's terribly frightening and stupid when Russia's ruling structure does not unite the country but instead pits its citizens against each other, whatever their ethnic group or orientation," he wrote.
"Those who rule our country: come to your senses, where are you dragging the country?"
In another controversial move, in a 2014 interview with Ukrainian television after Moscow annexed Crimea, when asked if he saw the Black Sea peninsula as part of Russia, Lazarev said: "For me, no."
"This joy that everyone -- or the majority -- feels that Crimea has returned to us, I don't share this euphoria," he said, adding that he had refused to take part in concerts celebrating Crimea's annexation.
This outspokenness has earned him criticism from the youth wing of Putin's ruling United Russia party, which launched a stinging diatribe accusing him of forgetting "what country he was born in."
It also slammed him for often singing in English and for his "active support of the LGBT community."
In his own personal life, Lazarev was dating popular Russian television presenter Valeriya Kudryavtseva for four years but the pair broke up.
He is currently single but has dropped hints of a new relationship, saying that his Eurovision song, the dance-inflected pop ballad "You Are The Only One" is dedicated to a particular person.
Away from the stage Lazarev has an unusual culinary sideline: an online bakery making savoury cakes for dogs -- called Poodle-Strudel.
© 2016 AFP