"Winning Eurovision was a dream, but it actually made my life a lot harder"

Dana performing at the Pride 2017 in Torremolinos.
Dana performing at the Pride 2017 in Torremolinos. / Tony Bryant
  • Dana put her parents under increasing pressure when she was selected for the Eurovision in 1998, because it caused outcry from the ecclesiastical sector in Israel

  • Dana International was the first transsexual woman to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest

Around 40,000 people visited Torremolinos last weekend for the Pride 2017 festival, the third largest LGBTI event in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona.

The highlight of the festival was a spectacular performance by Israeli singer, Dana International, which took place in the Plaza La Nogalera on Saturday night.

Dana shot to fame after winning the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Diva, in Birmingham in 1998. She has enjoyed international success following her victory in the competition, but it was a stage of her life that caused a lot of heartache for her family.

Born Yaron Cohen in Tel Aviv in 1972, the 45-year-old singer descends from a family of Yemenite and Romanian Jews. Though assigned male at birth, she identified as female from a very young age and in 1993, she underwent male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. In the same year, she released her first CD, Danna International, from which her stage name derives, and a string of hit albums followed.

However, Dana’s fame had a huge impact on her parents and they have never really come to terms with her sex-change operation. Dana’s mother is a “very old-fashioned orthodox Israeli” and so the impact was quite difficult for her to comprehend.

“I don’t think a normal family can support a child who realises that he or she has been born in the wrong body. I understand the pain that families go through, because it is not easy for them to cope,” Dana told SUR in English.

It took her parents a long time to adjust, although Dana’s mother chose to ignore the issue rather than face it.

“Many people used to say to my mother that I was like a girl, but, you know, your mother is always the last one to want to recognise this, even if she knows it to be true,” the singer explained.

Dana put her parents under increasing pressure when she was selected for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998, because it caused outcry from the ecclesiastical sector in Israel. Orthodox Jews tried to have Dana disqualified from the competition. This gained world media attention and although it served to further her celebrity status throughout the world, her parents were utterly embarrassed by the whole affair.

“There was a lot of controversy instigated by Israel’s combined orthodox religious sector and, of course, someone like me is like a devil to them,” she says.

Dana believes that there will be no place for this old-fashioned type attitude in future society, although she accepts that religious attitude will not change for some time.

“Religion is thousands of years old and they have brainwashed the public into believing what is right and wrong. Even though I think that attitudes against the gay community are changing within the church, I think it will take another 200 years before society really can accept it,” Dana declares with conviction.

Winning Eurovision brought extra pressure for Dana’s parents. Her mother found it extremely difficult to handle her new-found, although unwanted, celebrity status.

“Winning Eurovision was a dream, but it actually made my life a lot harder, because I don’t think my parents are proud of what I have done. I think my success and the stardom have made it harder for them, because I have made them famous as well,” she says.

Off stage, Dana is a completely different person to the disco queen diva she portrays on it. Although she gained world attention for becoming the first transsexual to perform in Eurovision, there are times when she would prefer to be just an ordinary girl.

“It all looks very glamorous from the outside, but it really is not all it’s made out to be, because you must act out a character that really is not you,” Dana says in her Mediterranean-tinted English accent.

Although she has since become one of the most popular and respected transsexual women in the world, it is a role that Dana would prefer not to have.

She was 22 when she had reassignment surgery and she is completely satisfied that she made the right decision, although she will never advise someone else to do the same.

She feels that far too many people consider having sex reassignment surgery when they are still in their teens, which, as she points out, is the wrong time to make such an important choice.

“I never recommend people to do it, because everyone is so individual. All I can say is be very careful about your decision, and please do not consider this operation until you are old enough to really understand what you are doing. You can have plastic surgery on your nose 20 times, but once you make the decision to change your sexuality, there is no turning back.”

Thousands of people arrived in Torremolinos last weekend to participate in Pride 2017. The four-day festival presented varying shows and activities aimed at the LGBTI community. During the inauguration, the mayor of Torremolinos welcomed Jimena Rico and Shaza Ismail. The young couple hit the headlines earlier this year after fleeing Dubai fearing for their lives when Shaza’s family refused to accept their relationship. The couple looked relaxed and happy during their stay in Torremolinos.