By Adam Cailler
NETTA Barzilai has been one of the most talked about people in the world in recent months.
But the Israeli winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest laughed when I asked her why she doesn’t play Pokémon Go.
Despite her dedicated love for the anime franchise, she knows that if she starts playing the mobile game, she won’t be able to do anything else.
She joked: “I get far too easily distracted. I was obsessed with Pokémon growing up.
“I dressed up like Misty (the main female character) every chance I could.
“It’s an amazing show, it flames the imagination and the Korean and Japanese pop references show a great appreciation to that culture.”
The 25-year-old’s winning song, Toy, references the franchise in the line “I’m taking my Pikachu home”.
And it was that victory, with 529 points, at last month’s competition in Lisbon which has given Netta the most “epic, weird, nuts and crazy” month of her life.
But none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for her appearance on television talent show HaKokhav HaBa — Israel’s version of Pop Idol.
It was her victory on this show which sent her to Eurovision.
She told me: “It’s amazing because I was just hoping to get a couple of gigs from my appearance on it.
“I went with my looping machine, which is something very niche, and thought that if I appeared on the first or second rounds then something would come out of it, but I didn’t expect to win — it just blew up after that!
“Going from zero to 100 in six months is just weird. I’ve learned so much.”
Netta, whose mother’s roots are in Morocco, while her father’s are in Poland, admits that she originally saw herself as an avant-garde indie performer.
But now, she laughed, she is considered a source of “national pride”.
Netta added: “I don’t look, sound or create like the standard musician, so it has been heart-warming to see that people are thirsty for change.
“I don’t think it has helped me that I’m different, but it has helped that I own my differences.
“I love myself the way I am and I try to stay true to that. Authenticity and truth always win.
“If you are genuine and bring something right to the table, then it wins.”
Netta’s song won plaudits from around the world for its strong female empowerment message, with lyrics such as “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy”.
It was written by Doron Medalie and Stav Beger, which led to an internal conflict for the singer.
In the run up the the competition, Netta was adamant that she wanted to sing her own song — but was then presented with Toy.
“During this process, I learned that collaboration with more musicians can lead to amazing things and that having an ego can be destructive,” she said.
“As an artist and a songwriter, I wanted to sing my own song in front of 200 million people.
“I begged them to let me sing something of my own, but it didn’t happen. That was an important lesson about ego for me.”
Netta, who was born in the city of Hod HaSharon, comes across as a down-to-earth, well-rounded individual.
And life has come at her fast, and has forced her to grow up quickly.
“I have been told that I had to sing Adele and Aretha Franklin because that is what bigger girls should sing,” she explained.
“I was told I needed to wear black clothes and stuff which would flatter me more.
“I was told not to sing at weddings because I was too big, and to be a recording artist with a cartoon front, to not show myself.
“I was told a lot of things and I followed these rules, until I realised I was not happy and it was not the fate I wanted for myself, so I had to stop it — I wanted to be happy.
“I want to live in my world and that’s how this all started, but it’s still in the making and it never stops.”
Before finding fame, Netta spent her formative years, until the age of six, in Nigeria, as her father worked on a project there for Israeli construction company Solel Boneh.
It was in Africa that she first experienced that being different was normal. And she also fell in love with music.
She said: “I grew up with amazing sounds and beats.
“We went to see African gospel every Sunday for the music, vibe and energy.
“I learned in an international school where there were six kids to one grade and everyone was a different colour, shape and ethnicity.
“I was the leader and I knew what I wanted — I didn’t know I was different.
“But when I came to Israel, where there were 40 per class, I realised quickly that I was different and this was bad because people fear and tease that.
“They don’t want it and it intimidates them.”
Netta, who studied electronic music at the renowned Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, was always last to be picked, considered unintelligent and annoying and “very clumsy”.
She was known as, she tells me, “the poor fat girl”.
She explained: “This was the role I had to play and I played it until I was 18.
“I had to find leverage to make sure people didn’t feel sorry for me and music was that leverage.
“I had my musical talent, my beatboxing and my singing voice which got me through.”
The now-infamous Toy also made headlines for its “clucking” and beatboxing parts. All of which were self-taught . . . with influence from her drumming brother Zohar.
She explained: “When he would drum, I couldn’t cope with it. So I just tried to imitate it!
“I was also in the Israel Defence Forces’ navy brass band and had to learn to perform in front of audiences, who were both enthusiastic and unenthusiastic, and I learned there to perform in front of any type of crowd, which has been very important to my performing career.
“And just like with Eurovision, I realised that it was bigger than me and that I could do something good for loads of people.”
There has been a lot of talk about where the competition should be hosted next year, with countries, such as Iceland, threatening to boycott it if it is held in Jerusalem.
Both Tel Aviv and Haifa are also options.
But Netta — who was in the UK this week for a media blitz, including an appearances on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, where she taught Piers Morgan her chicken dance — doesn’t have much time for politics or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“I ignore it all,” she said. “I know very little about politics. I’m a non-political person.
“It makes me unhappy and I don’t like being unhappy.
“The BDS people need to learn more and know more about what you are doing. Hate doesn’t lead to anything or anywhere.
“We’ve been in this situation for years and will be in it for many more.
“Both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both amazing cities, just a 30-minute drive from each other. I don’t see why it’s such a big thing.”
Even though her career has only just taken off, Netta is hoping to continue to make “amazing” music.
She admitted that she never ceases to amaze herself and be amazed by others.
Netta said: “I never wanted to get to Eurovision, but when I got there I worked hard. I want to wake up tomorrow and make music.”
And, for the record, her biggest musical influences are as eclectic as she is, ranging from Michael Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Rihanna to Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Queen.
* Watch the video for Toy at tinyurl.com/ToyNettaJT