Producer Paul Clarke has been attending the Eurovision Song Contest since 2009, when he first attended with Julia Zemiro, Sam Pang and a cameraman.
But Sheldon Riley is the first LGBTQI+ performer he’s had on the ground to represent Australia -and the difference is irrefutable.
“It’s a really interesting thing to be here with a gay performer for the first time,” he tells TVTonight.
“I feel that the broader event, and all the people here, are just really excited and behind it. The challenge, I think is just maintaining enough oxygen for the end of the week. It’s a marathon and he’s doing a lot of interviews and meeting people, building a profile here.
“It’s a real life-changing song for him”
“As he’s done interviews with the Eurovision press gallery, he’s made it clear that his song is not about being gay. It’s much more to do with finding a way through a difficult path. It’s a real life-changing song for him. It’s an old song. I think he wrote it when he was 15 or something.”
Not The Same -officially composed by Sheldon Riley Hernandez / Cam Nacson- is written from the memories of a child who at age 6 was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, grew up in public housing, unaware of his sexuality, among a deeply religious family.
Riley, who previously competed on The Voice, The X Factor and America’s Got Talentperforms in Semi Final Two on Friday morning (AEST).
For his performance he wears a stunning white costume by Australian designer Alin Le’ Kal. Weighing close to 40 kilograms, it features more than 90,000 pearls, crystals and handsewn ostrich feathers. With a three-meter cape, it took more than 2,200 hours to create.
With stage director Sasha Jean-Baptise, Blink TV has crafted a stunningly simple presentation with Sheldon climbing stairs.
Together with his unmistakable vocals, this year Australia is sending sheer Eurovision drama to Turin.
“He’s got that beautiful bell vibrato”
“Sheldon’s got a voice that could well have sat in the opera era of Italian music when pop was invented. He’s got that beautiful bell vibrato and he looks like a handsome man in a suit, from the waist up. And then below the waist, he has this incredible train of about 40 kilos. He’s been practicing with sandbags to get up the stairs he’s going to be walking on. It’s quite a tricky prop to work with,” Clarke explains.
“We’ve developed an Escher set of stairs. They’re out to begin with… and then they join to create a platform that he rises to, and then de-masks. So it’s complicated, but not as complicated as trying to get an eight meter pole on stage!”
The mask, which has crystals encased in stainless steel, is removed at a crucial point in the song’s lyric and music -but in a contest in which performers must connect with a TV audience it’s also a huge risk.
“10 points for guts. You’re working with an artist whose face is him, you ca n’t see, ”Clarke agrees.
“His instincts for this are just phenomenal”
“But his instincts for this are just phenomenal. There are people who met him at the grand opening on Sunday night saying, ‘This guy is even better than Dami.’ As different delegations talk to you, they always compare to Dami. For them, that’s our finest moment. So we’re in very good shape as we kind of lead into the weekend.”
But like the alps in the distance from the city of Turin, the Australian delegation has a mountain to climb this week. Clarke is quietly confident Riley will qualify for the Grand Final when he performs in Semi Final Two (which he describes as a “bloodbath”) this Friday morning AEST.
But the favorites for the Grand Final are Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra. The question is how the votes will land between public and juries.
“You need about 30% of the public vote to win”
“I think the audience will go, ‘They’re the winners.’ You need about 30% of the public vote to win the whole thing. I don’t think they’ll win the jury. I think Sweden (Cornelia Jakobs), Italy (Mahmood and BLANCO) or Spain (Chanel) will win the jury.
“We’re obviously in it to win it. But this year, I think it’s also about representing around Ukraine. It’s not so much about winning as about experiencing that moment when they take the stage.”
He agrees the UK’s Sam Ryder is also a hot contender.
“For the first time ever, I’ve heard people really excited about the UK. I’ve never heard this before -even when Andrew Lloyd Webber was on stage, they were still jittery. But now they just think ‘Wow, this guy’s great.’ So he’s the other one in the picture for the win.”
Clarke is also focused on the SBS broadcast once again commented by Joel Creasey and Myf Warhurst.
“Myf’s a great anchor. She’s like the basket and Joel’s the brightly colored balloon. Whenever he says something that really makes her laugh, that she’s not expecting her, she then comes back, and you just hear that great chuckle, ”he says.
“They got to the commentary booth last night and had a look at some of the show. Joel is already looking around the delegation bubble with a pair of sunglasses on, just taking it all in! He’s writing in a little book as he goes and you just know that what’s gonna come out will be great.
“The Italians have a very different standard of putting a show together. If you’re in Sweden, or a Scandinavian country, they are frame-accurate with what the shots are going to do. The Italians are about a good time. It’s like ‘go with the vibe’
“Viewers who really enjoy the kitschy quality are going to love this year.”
“I think viewers who really enjoy the kitschy quality are going to love this year. It’s not Sweden, but there’s plenty to laugh at, but possibly not intentionally.”
Meanwhile, all eyes are on Semi Final Two and ensuring Sheldon Riley qualifies for the Grand Final.
“We just focus day to day and our first job is to get through the Semi Final and I’m confident we can do that. Then we just see who’s standing on the other side.
“Sheldon’s got a lot of power in his voice, and I think that he’ll be recognized as the best male vocalist in the competition. That’s my view.”
Live early morning broadcasts (AEST)
• Semi Final 1 – Wednesday 11 May, 5am SBS
• Semi Final 2 – Friday 13 May, 5am SBS (Featuring Sheldon Riley) * Australia votes
• Grand Final – Sunday 15 May, 5am SBS * Australia votes
Primetime evening broadcasts
• Semi Final 1 – Friday 13 May, 8.30pm SBS
• Semi Final 2 – Saturday May 14, 8.30pm SBS (Featuring Sheldon Riley)
• Grand Final – Sunday 15 May, 7.30pm SBS
NB: TV Tonight filing Live results.