Last night at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, Netta Barzilai snatched victory for Israel with her powerful anthem “Toy.”
It was an astounding moment, but it wasn’t the first time Israel took home the top prize: In 1998, Israeli singer Dana International wowed audiences worldwide with her Eurovision winner, “Diva.” And she did it as an openly transgender woman, the first—and only—in the show’s 63-year history.
It was a decade before RuPaul’s Drag Race and 16 years before Laverne Cox became the first trans actor nominated for an Emmy Award. Even in the West, understanding and inclusion of the transgender community was almost nonexistent.
Wearing a glamorous feathered Gaultier outfit, Dana electrified the audience at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena. And millions of viewers at home were entranced, too: 1998 was the only year that the winner of Eurovision was decided entirely by call-in votes.
“My presence [showed] a different side of Israel that the media doesn’t hear about,” Dana told the Guardian. “It’s not a big achievement—it’s only natural. I represent the gay community, a big part of Israeli society.”
While Eurovision is often dismissed as just a bit of camp fun, it brings wildly diverse communities together in a way that not even the Olympics can approach. Dana’s win was a big step forward for LGBT visibility—and trans visibility in particular.
“Eurovision is about the music, but it’s also about diversity, particularly for countries that aren’t Number One on your list of places to go if you’re gay,” Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills told the Guardian. “Dana International massively paved the way. It was an extremely brave thing to do at the time, gave a lot of people courage and raised important issues in countries where tolerance has been low.”
Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst, who won Eurovision in 2014 with “Rise Like a Phoenix,” has nothing but praise for her queer forbearer. The two performed “Waterloo” together in 2015.
But Dana, who transitioned in 1993, is a bit more modest.
“I’m not saying I’m Barbra Streisand or Mariah Carey,” she says. “People don’t care about my voice. They care that I speak my opinion, without fear. They’ll say I’m so brave, blah blah blah. I’m just living my life, and it’s not an easy life.”
Since her win, the 46-year-old singer has continued to release new music, tour, and appear at Pride events. She competed in Eurovision again in 2011 but failed to make it to the finals. In 2014, Dana was the main judge on Yeshnan Banot, a reality competition looking for Israel’s next girl group.
“Diva” saluted powerful female icons like Cleopatra and Aphrodite. But, at the time, Dana’s inclusion outraged orthodox Jewish Israelis who didn’t want a trans women representing their country. (Once in the U.K., she required constant police escorts.) But Dana stood proudly in her truth. “My victory proves God is on my side,” she said after her win. “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness: Try to accept me. I am what I am.”
That message, along with the infectious beats of her killer club track, has stayed with us all these years.