‘We raise a drink to our late friend’: Why Eurovision is so much more than just a song contest

Eurovision fans celebrating the competition against a colourful background.

Woe betide anyone who spoke over the performances during one of Martyn Hett’s annual Eurovision parties.

One of the most cherished events in his social calendar since he started hosting the shindigs in 2004, every aspect of the party – from the fancy-dress theme to the decorations – was “militantly” planned, his friend Liam Lambrini tells PinkNews.

“Martyn was always quite strict with the invites. If you missed a year, or if you talked over it the year before, then you could be blacklisted,” Liam laughs. “So, everyone was always sure to be on their best behaviour [to] guarantee an invite for the next year.”

PinkNews was at the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool thanks to Baileys, the event’s official drinks partner. Find out more about the partnership here.

Other than Coronation Street, Mariah Carey and Scottish singer Michelle McManus, Martyn loved nothing more than Eurovision and the promised party with 15 or so of his closest friends, many of them LGBTQ+.

When he died in 2017, following the terror attack at Manchester Arena, it was not long after that year’s Eurovision final. His friends soon started talking about how best to keep his love for the contest alive.

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A photo of one of the Manchester Arena bombing victims, Martyn Hett, wearing a white t-shirt and dungerees with one strap, smiling outside a street corner.
Martyn Hett died in the Manchester Arena attack at the age or 29. (Twitter/@martynhett)
Martyn Hett and friends at his 2015 Conchita Wurst party.
Martyn Hett (centre left) at his 2015 Conchita Wurst-themed Eurovision party. Liam is top right. (Supplied)

“It was pretty early on after we’d found out he passed away, because obviously Eurovision was fresh in our minds and it was such a big part of our lives. We did start to have conversations about the fact that we needed to keep the tradition going,” Liam says.

Liam and another friend took over planning responsibilities, and the group has reunited each year ever since. He even sends Martyn’s stepdad a list of who attends so he can keep a tally, just as his late pal did.

“Especially since he passed away, it’s been a really good excuse for us to get back together and see people who we might not have seen for some time,” Liam says, adding that some of his closest queer friends now are people he met at the parties.

Eurovision helped ‘misunderstood, queer, biracial kid’ find freedom

Throughout its 67-year history, Eurovision has not only championed LGBTQ+ inclusivity, but it also has increasingly become a space where queer people in particular can come together and celebrate, whether at house parties, in LGBTQ+ venues across the country, or on social media and Eurovision fan sites. 

“We talk about gay Pride being the biggest celebration of gay culture, but I’d argue that Eurovision is right up there,” says journalist William Lee Adams, founder of Eurovision fan site Wiwibloggs and author of new book Wild Dances: My Queer and Curious Journey to Eurovision.

With his growing Wiwibloggs team – now his chosen family – William has followed Eurovision celebrations in more than two dozen countries.

“It’s a real bonding exercise,” he says, “and what I found is that people within the Eurovision space are often much more accepting of difference because they themselves can flag any number of ways in which they’re different.”

Born in the US state of Georgia, William only learnt what Eurovision was in 2007, the year of Verka Serduchka and Scooch, after being introduced to it by his now-husband while living in London. He was gripped by the “craziness” and moved by the “love connecting it all together”.

Through his coverage, William swiftly became one of the most recognisable faces in the Eurovision community. He’s interviewed contestants every year and found himself everywhere from rundown studios in Moldova to dining with divas at lavish celebrations in Latvia.

It’s a world away from being the “misunderstood, queer, biracial kid” in his small American home town. 

“Growing up, I had to self-censor all the time, I couldn’t be free. I was always concerned about how my body moved, how my wrist hung, how I had a slight lisp,” he explains. “When I started watching Eurovision, I saw people from all over Europe expressing themselves in wild and wacky ways. It was without judgment. There was this freedom and acceptance that you could be who you want it to be.”

The 2023 contest alone exemplifies this: William points to Croatia’s entrant Let 3, a rock band featuring men in their 50s, wearing makeup and dresses. “There’s a freedom here,” he says of the contest. “Anything goes, and LGBTQ+ people see that freedom mirrored on stage.”

As Liam says, the contest also brings queer people together through their shared interests, including, of course, pop music and camp costumes.

Martyn’s parties always had fancy dress at the forefront: from the year everyone had to come dressed as former UK entrant Engelbert Humperdinck (“Quite a limited theme – everyone looked ridiculous”), to the last one Martyn hosted in 2017, which was X-Factor-themed. 

There’s also an opportunity for queer people to use Eurovision as a platform to subvert prejudice aimed at the community, and turn it into something joyous. “One of the funniest [themes] was a year after Måns Zelmerlöw won,” Liam explains.

“There was talk in the press about how he’d said something homophobic,” [Zelmerlöw apologised for the comments at the time]. The theme the next year was famous homophobic people.”

Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher, and Desperate HousewivesBree van de Kamp were all in attendance.

Martyn Hett's Eurovision party in 2016 under the theme 'famous homophobes'.
Martyn Hett dressed as Margaret Thatcher at his “famous homophobes” party. (Supplied)

This is something that resonates with Cheryl Martin, the co-artistic director of Manchester’s queer global majority arts organisation Black Gold Arts. She’s troubled by the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hatred, particularly that aimed at trans and non-binary people, and sees Eurovision as an opportunity to celebrate the queer community.

“There [are] some bad things going on in Manchester. In the gay village, there’s a [queer sex] shop called Clonezone and they’ve been attacked three times recently. That makes me want to cry. I’ve always thought of that as a perfectly safe space but obviously [it’s] not totally,” she says.

Earlier this week, Black Gold Arts’ artists took over Liverpool’s LGBTQ+, Eurovision-focused festival, Eurocamp Presents, with a nine-hour set featuring a vogue catwalk, live music, dancing and circus performances.

In the face of increasing hostility, being seen on stage together during the Eurovision celebrations, and creating a safe space for people to watch them, is an act of defiance.

“It makes it even more important to be out, to be loud, to be proud, to be partying, to invite everybody and their kids to come and enjoy the spectacle, being part of Eurovision and being such an integral part of this big, wonderful cultural celebration that the queer community has been part of for ages,” Cheryl says.

“You don’t always see us there,” she adds, referring to global majority communities. “We’re really happy to join in and say, ‘See, we love Eurovision, too. We’re having a great time too’.”

Whether it’s through performance spaces, house parties or glitzy dressing rooms, it’s clear that the Eurovision Song Contest has become an essential tool for bringing queer people together.

“Eurovision is not a one-night event,” says William. “It’s a community. It can be a lifestyle, it can define the rhythm of your year. And if you’re willing to look, there’s a whole lot of meaning and opportunity beneath the surface.”

Martyn Hett's friends continue his Eurovision parties under the 2022 theme Space Man.
‘Space’ was the theme last year, in honour of Sam Ryder’s ‘Space Man’. Liam is Jabba the Hutt. (Supplied)

This year marks what would be Martyn’s 20th Eurovision party. It’s the first time within those two decades that the contest is being held in the UK, and his friends will, for once, be swapping fancy dress for a screening of the grand final on Liverpool’s Pier Head.

“It is always really nice [but] it’s always quite sad leading up to it, thinking about how he’s not here to celebrate it with us, especially this year – the fact that it’s in Liverpool, which is so close to us, and we could’ve and should’ve all been celebrating together,” Liam says.

“But we always raise a drink to him. It’s really nice to remember him and get involved with all the campery again.”

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