For Russia's leaders, Eurovision is no minor frivolity. When Russia won the contest for the first time in 2008, Vladimir Putin himself made a surprise entrance at one of the rehearsals, to reinforce the music competition's priority status in bringing Russia's cultural ascendance to the world. And when Azerbaijan didn't award points to Russia in 2013, even though Russia had extended the gesture, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "This does not makes one happy. We will agree on a unified course of action so this outrageous action will not remain without an answer."
In Saturday's final, Russia finds itself once again on the verge of victory, and it's pulling out all the stops. According to Daniel Gould, a Eurovision-obsessed former journalist interviewed by the BBC: "They have hired every top Eurovision person in their particular field to work on the Russian entry — two composers, a Russian called Philip Kirkorov and a Greek called Dimitris Kontopoulos, who've both written many Eurovision songs before. They've got the vocal coach, a Cypriot called Alex Panayi, who has worked on numerous successful Eurovision entries. They've hired the best Swedish backing singers. So basically they've put everyone in place to try and win it this year."
All this is pinned to Sergey Lazarev, a pretty-boy pop singer who was in boy bands as a kid and whose acts presumably haven't changed much since then — except to include more ... adult themes. His entry, "You Are the Only One," is comparatively mild.
But for the patriotic fervor the contest inspires in its viewers, Lazarev is a highly unlikely conduit. He has consistently and publicly spoken out against two of Russia's most internally popular policies: exclusion of LGBT people from full rights as citizens and the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. And the song he intends to win with is sung in English, like a good number of his previous hits.
When a Ukrainian television station asked him whether he saw the Black Sea peninsula as part of Russia, Lazarev said, "For me, no," and added, "This joy that everyone — or the majority — feels that Crimea has returned to us, I don't share this euphoria."
Ukrainian artist Jamala is also considered to be very much in the running for the Eurovision finals, which will mark the contest's 60th anniversary. The geopolitical tension is high; despite Lazarev's sympathetic statements, the director of Ukraine’s national TV channel, Zurab Alasania, said Friday that "if Lazarev wins, I think next year Ukraine’s First TV channel will skip the contest."
This month, according to Agence France-Presse, Lazarev told a gay interest magazine in Sweden that he was happy for fans to wave rainbow flags at his performances, and that he respects his gay fans and they respect him. He has appeared at gay pride events and even taken to social media to protest a bill that Putin signed into law in 2013 that banned homosexual "propaganda" to minors, which has since been used to justify numerous arrests and hate crimes. That was the same year a survey found that 84 percent of Russians thought that homosexuality was unacceptable in their country.
"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?"
If Lazarev wins, then Russia gets to host next year's competition.
The singer has amassed a large gay following, and, beyond his advocacy, it doesn't take much imagination to figure out why.
One of his most popular songs on YouTube — called "Take It Off" — is the kind of club anthem that gets tons of play in the gay world. The music video features Lazarev belting out beyond-cheesy lyrics in an adolescent's falsetto. He wears a spaghetti-strap leather tank top that leaves most of his impressive pectoral muscles bare. And hot pink pants. And then he, well, takes it off.
Lazarev is reportedly single. When he isn't performing, he apparently has a side business: a company that bakes cakes for dogs and is called Poodle Strudel.