Singers who are already huge pop stars in their country usually don’t participate in the Eurovision Song Contest—it’s considered too much of a risk. The fear is that if a local star enters the Eurovision and does badly, it might taint their reputation in their home country. This is why singers who enter the contest are usually either newcomers, has-beens or novelty acts—three categories without much to lose. This is the general rule of thumb ever since gigantic British pop star Cliff Richard lost in 1968, an event so shocking that it gave rise to conspiracy theories claiming that Generalísimo Franco had orchestrated Spain’s narrow victory over Sir Cliff.
But rules do not apply to Noa Kirel. Yes, she is a huge pop star in Israel. Yes, she is representing Israel this year at the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool, U.K. (the two semifinals are taking place this week and the final is on Saturday). But in her mind, and the minds of her advisers, she has nothing to lose. Maybe that’s because she’s not just a big pop star but Israel’s biggest pop star, or maybe it’s because she is fearless and invincible. Even if she scores poorly at the Eurovision, she’ll still be a winner. Why? Because she says so.
Like many other young female pop stars, Noa Kirel’s persona is that of the queen bee. Kirel is nice in interviews, but in her songs, music videos, and photos she is the “mean girl.” She exudes the confidence, sexiness and aggressiveness of the most popular girl in school, which is why preteen girls idolize her. To them, she’s the popular friend they never had, or the popular girl they wish they could be. Perpetuating this kind of stereotype is obviously problematic, but it works, as proven by her 1.4 million followers on Instagram, equivalent to about 15% of the Israeli population.
Kirel is probably the first Israeli pop star who has got hip-hop swagger down to a T. She struts, brags, and parades her wares like the best of them. And what she professes to be, in her lyrics, is a cool, hot, strong, independent, sexy rebel. A “pop rebel” might sound like an oxymoron, since being a mainstream pop star means playing by the rules. But in the artificial world of pop music, you can play the rebel if you like. All you need to do, apparently, is to profess to be one.
Take Kirel’s hit “Pantera” (not like the American metal band, but female panther in Hebrew), for example, in which she embodies the ultimate predator. The lyrics, which she co-wrote, boast (excuse my basic translation): “How I hate conventions—I break them / If they put limits on me—I transgress them / And everything they do, I do—differently.” Does she really? No, of course not. Then, in the song’s hook, she goes: “I am a panther / I’m awake while everyone else is asleep / They say I’m weird / I say they’re regular.” Does anyone say she’s weird? Nope. But that right there is the pop game. Noa Kirel can tell her audience that she does her own thing—even though she does a thing that has been tried and tested (maybe not in Israel, but certainly overseas). And since she says it convincingly, people believe her. And boy does she say it convincingly. Kirel has one heck of a poker face. This girl never flinches.
Noa Kirel was born and raised in the central city of Ra’anana, not far from Tel Aviv. She started in showbiz at a very early age, with the help and support of her parents. Her first modeling gig was in a campaign for an Israeli cosmetics company at the age of 13. She began her musical career at the age of 14, singing and rapping in Hebrew to hip-hop beats. Her breakthrough was her second single, “Killer”—a word play on her family name—which received backlash for being too sexual for her age. In the video she is dressed provocatively and dances seductively, and the song starts with the words “What’s your favorite number? Mine is 69,” uttered with a suggestive moan. This dirty little intro, which is in English and not in Kirel’s voice, has no connection to the song. Further investigation led to the discovery that the song’s producer, Omri Segal, is nicknamed 69 and this was a self-referential shoutout, as customary in the world of hip-hop. When Kirel’s father, businessman Amir Kirel, was asked about this at the time, he said that he asked the producer to remove this sentence, because of his daughter’s age, but was refused. After that, he didn’t give the subject another thought.
In 2015, Amir Kirel appeared with his daughter in the reality TV series Pushers, which followed parents who push their children to success. As opposed to other parents in the show, it was apparent he was no stage dad. He was never vicariously living out his own dreams through his offspring—he only enabled his very ambitious young daughter to fulfill her own dreams, inappropriate as they might have been, and seized the financial opportunity.
Guided by her famous manager, Roberto Ben Shoshan, who has been a leading force in Israeli talent discovery and model management from way before this star was born, Kirel has a very busy career as singer, actress, dancer, model, media personality, and social media influencer. She has acted in films, on TV and in stage musicals for kids. She released endless singles and videos (progressively more pop and less hip-hop), recorded duets, did campaigns, opened her own beauty line, and probably much more. In Israeli terms, Kirel has been a megastar for quite a while now; the kind of celebrity that elementary school girls buy official Purim costumes of.
In 2020, she graced the cover of Forbes Israel’s “30 Under 30” issue. The subheading read: “She advertises no less than 17 brands and brings in millions of shekels a year just from Instagram. Noa Kirel is an 18-year-old financial empire.” Last summer she played her full debut solo show, in front of no less than 33,000 people (mostly girls and their chaperones) in the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, where Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga, to name but a few, played before her. Only a handful of local artists ever graced this huge open-air venue—most of them established veterans. In recent years, as local contemporary pop grew in popularity, a few younger Israeli artists performed there, too, but Kirel broke two records: She was the youngest Israeli singer to do so, and the first woman as well. And the amazing thing is that this was her first ever full solo concert.
But Israel, obviously, is not enough. Noa, her dad, and Roberto set their sights much higher. In August 2020, Kirel signed a deal with Atlantic Records, and in the summer of 2021, released her debut international single in English, “Please Don’t Suck.” More international singles followed, including “Dale Promo,” in which she sings in Spanish together with Puerto Rican artist Metro the Savage. So far, the plan to conquer the U.S. hasn’t materialized, and has been put on the back burner. Kirel’s next target is Europe. She is hoping the Eurovision Song Contest will open the door to European success, which she then intends to leverage further. “There are many artists who broke into the U.S. through Europe, like Dua Lipa,” Kirel recently explained in an interview to Israel HaYom.
So, now she’s on her way to the Eurovision. What started in 1956 as a nice and polite European song contest, with catchy tunes, has turned into an over-the-top display of campiness, aimed directly at gay audiences. Admittedly this was also fun for a while, but in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to enjoy the glittery dance-divas, grotesque novelty acts and general flamboyant craziness thanks in part to the seizure-inducing strobe lights that dominate the Eurovision stage, no matter where the contest is held.
But even though the Eurovision is not what it used to be, it is still a big deal. The final is televised live everywhere in Europe (and in the non-European countries participating, such as Israel), and winning the Eurovision is still perceived as being a launchpad to an international career, just as it was for ABBA after their triumph in 1974.
The song Kirel will be attempting to impress Europe with is “Unicorn.” In 2023, unicorns, just like Noa Kirel herself, are a kind of deception, a mind game: a corporate uber-trend that is supposed to symbolize uniqueness, misunderstood outsiders, childlike innocence and queer culture. It must also be noted that Kirel jumped on the unicorn bandwagon a little late (according to Google Trends, searches for “unicorn” peaked in 2017 when Starbucks launched its unicorn frappuccino), but maybe the assumption is that continental Europeans are a little slow to catch on, which would mean that unicorns are all the rage there now.
The song was written and composed by Kirel in collaboration with an entire team, including Doron Medalie, who knows a thing or two about writing Eurovision-winning songs, as he co-wrote Netta Barzilai’s “Toy,” which won in 2018 (as well as co-writing three other entries that didn’t win). “Unicorn” is a Sia-like empowering anthem with a soaring and dramatic chorus. At one point the singer asks the audience, “You wanna see me dance?” which reminds us that pop music nowadays is much more about visuals than it is about music. Kirel’s visual side is obviously strong. In the video for “Unicorn” she changes various exaggerated crop-topped outfits, slithers around on a red ceiling like a snake (not a unicorn), does some Jennifer Lopez/Beyonce/Shakira-style dance routines, and briefly turns into a centaur (another equine creature of mythology, and again not a unicorn).
Except for her Israeli looks, there is nothing Middle Eastern or unique about Noa Kirel. She is just like any other contemporary female pop singer from anywhere in the world. Her sound and look are formulaic and her voice is far from recognizable. A few of her songs, including “Unicorn,” incorporate an Oriental beat, and one video contains a camel, but that’s about it in terms of letting her Israeli identity shine through.
It is unclear what she thinks she has that the international pop world needs, and it seems like she’s trying to sell ice to Eskimos, but who knows? When she first launched her musical career in Israel, people were also skeptical. It took some changes and a bit of trial and error for her career to finally blow up. She doesn’t lack the patience, drive, stamina or the resources for the long haul. She is a hard worker, and doesn’t mind adapting to different trends. Whether she will dominate the Eurovision or not, it’s safe to say that Noa Kirel will continue to do whatever it takes to try to become the next Dua Lipa.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.