When the contestants in the Eurovision Song Contest take the stage in Lisbon this week, they will be part of a giant edition of the zany annual pop competition. Forty-three countries will compete for the prize, which will be awarded in a grand final on Saturday.
At the first contest in Switzerland in 1956, there were just 14 entries — two each from seven West European nations. Participation by countries behind the Iron Curtain would have been unthinkable. But socialist Yugoslavia joined in 1961, and the competition since then has become ever more international and inclusive.
Israel first appeared in 1973; Australia, which broadcast the competition without taking part since the 1980s, has been sending contestants since 2015.
Despite its distinctly “euro” sensibility — which can be puzzling to the uninitiated — Eurovision is now a global phenomenon with fans all over the world. In the age of video streaming and social media, it has never been easier to follow.
We met four Eurovision superfans to find out how they watch the contest, and what it means to them.
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Frank Lochthove, Germany
Mr. Lochthove’s parents allowed him to stay up late to watch the contest one evening in 1982, and he’s been a fan ever since. It’s not just the event, he said, it’s also the fans. For him, 2010 was an especially great year, because Germany came together to support its entry. “There were huge public viewings, everyone was so enthusiastic,” he said.
Mr. Lochthove, 45, recalled how hosting the soccer World Cup in 2006 had given Germany the opportunity to shed its postwar suspicion of flags and national pride to cheer on its team. But for Mr. Lochthove, the most important competition was the 2010 Eurovision, held in Oslo, which the German singer Lena won. “She managed to cast a spell on the whole audience,” he said.
Germany, despite being the one of the most populous countries in the contest, has won Eurovision only twice. Ireland is the most successful country, with seven wins; Sweden comes next, with six; and Britain and France have five each. (Germany’s soccer team has performed much better.)
Eurovision is followed by fans all year, even if the public at large tends to forget about it between the major competitions. Mr. Lochthove runs a club called ESC-Fans Berlin that puts on monthly karaoke parties. It also meets to watch and discuss the national contests that run throughout the year to select the acts that will compete in Eurovision.
“Of course, May is the high season, but we have things going on all year,” he said.
In July, Mr. Lochthove’s club is planning a weekend of parties, karaoke and quizzes in Berlin, in conjunction with an Israeli Eurovision club; in September, some members of ESC-Fans Berlin will take part in a three-day cruise organized by a group of Finnish fans.
Fan groups from other countries are not as well organized as the German ones, Mr. Lochthove said. “But,” he added, “it’s all part of the wonderful cultural exchange.”
James Sheen, Britain
For a Eurovision superfan like Mr. Sheen, 54, nothing comes close to watching the contest live. He hosted watching parties for 20 years in his backyard in Colchester, England, but now travels to attend the contest in person.
“I couldn’t go any higher with the parties,” he said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from the Altice Arena in Lisbon, the site of this year’s competition. “I want to be with more Eurovision people.”
Mr. Sheen said that he held his first Eurovision party in 1991. Each year, the shindigs grew more elaborate as he added score sheets, themed food, colored spotlights, a sound system and a smoke machine.
His 10th party, in 2005, coincided with Eurovision’s 50th anniversary; Mr. Sheen pulled out all the stops. The mother of a regular guest baked a two-tier cake in the national colors of the host country that year, Denmark. “I got 50 gold, helium-filled balloons and tied flags from each of the countries with ribbons to them,” he said.
Some guests dressed up that year, prompting Mr. Sheen to start theming the parties. One year was “vampires and drama queens,” he said; the year of the financial crisis in 2009 was “black, white and red.” Another year, guests wore costumes from a country of their choice.
Mr. Sheen said his earliest memory of Eurovision was as a child in 1972, the year the New Seekers represented Britain with “Beg, Steal or Borrow.” From those earliest days, for him, Eurovision was about community. “It’s all about friends and extended family,” he said.
The parties were Mr. Sheen’s way of replicating the spirit of togetherness that Eurovision represents. “It’s always been a great way to bring people together and to appreciate each other’s culture,” he said. He added that doing so was all the more important in today’s political climate in Europe.
“People always want to talk about Brexit and how you see it politically,” he said. “The politicians argue about this, that and the other; we argue about a song.”
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In 2011, Mr. Sheen drove to Düsseldorf, Germany, to be in the audience for the first time. While the parties were dear to him, nothing beat the thrill of the real thing, he said. And he hasn’t looked back.
“When you get here, you know you’re in the family,” he said.
Maria Bresic, Australia
When Ms. Bresic was growing up in the 1970s in the western suburbs of Sydney, she knew about the Eurovision Song Contest from Croatian-language radio and from her parents’ friends. But she didn’t see the competition until an Australian TV channel started broadcasting it in 1983, when Ms. Bresic was 15. She and her family were hooked.
“We would often stay up until ridiculous times to watch it,” Ms. Bresic, 50, said. Her parents were Croatian migrants who met in Sydney. The way they watched the contest in the 1980s was influenced by the complicated politics of the Balkans at the time.
“Mum and Dad wouldn’t be interested in watching any of the performances by certain countries,” Ms. Bresic said. When Yugoslavia won the contest in 1989, “My parents were outraged,” she said, because, in their mind, the winning band, Riva, was Croatian, not Yugoslavian.
Ms. Bresic went to school in Ashfield, a suburb where, in the mid-1980s, nearly half the residents had been born overseas. Some of her schoolmates watched Eurovision, but it was a “cultural shame,” Ms. Bresic said. There was a cringe factor attached to liking something “so foreign,” she added.
As an Australian born to migrant parents, Ms. Bresic said she felt a sense of belonging when watching Eurovision, but also “judgment, too.”
She said she often watched the live broadcast in the small hours with friends or family around a table laden with pens and tally sheets, as well as smoked meats, pickled cabbage, nutty cakes and strong stovetop coffee. (This year, the grand final from Lisbon begins at 5 a.m. Sydney time.)
In other years, Ms. Bresic said, she has thrown parties at a more reasonable hour to watch a recording of the show. That’s when she breaks out the liquor — homemade grappa, plum brandy and limoncello.
Since her parents died, it has been harder to find “the old-timers who do that stuff,” Ms. Bresic said, referring to Eurovision parties. But watching the contest reminds her of her mother and father, she said, and “their preferred bubblegum-pop style” with “folkloric traditions thrown in.”
Ms. Bresic tries to get her children, who are in their early 20s, to watch with her — but, she said, they usually just roll their eyes. “Maybe in five or six years’ time,” she said, “they might think it’s quite a cool thing.”
Ricardo Mohammed, United States
Mr. Mohammed has a singular way of keeping track of time. Asked when he started his Eurovision viewing party at Hardware, a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, he replied, “Emmelie de Forest won that year.” (For the uninitiated, that would be 2013.) He also remembered a trip to London, “the year Nicki French represented England” (otherwise known as 2000).
Mr. Mohammed, a.k.a. D.J. ohRicky, discovered Eurovision as a child in his native Trinidad, via British broadcasts. Access to the contest was more difficult when he moved to New York in 1986 at age 16, and he would keep up by buying import singles and watching VHS tapes mailed by a friend of a friend.
In 1997, he started working for a company that distributed music videos to clubs and bars across the United States. “I would contact the record labels overseas to get the videos they made specifically for Eurovision,” Mr. Mohammed said. “I got the Dana International video for ‘Diva’ from Germany and I put it in the clubs over here,” he said, referring to the transgender Israeli winner of the 1998 competition.
Mr. Mohammed, whose Eurovision favorite is the 1973 Spanish entry “Eres Tú” by Mocedades, said the closest analogy for the contest was Broadway. “Those fans know the statistics, like how many Tonys someone won,” he said. “It’s the same for Eurovision die-hards: They know the last time a country won, who wrote a particular song.”
The first time that Hardware hosted the live feed, in 2013, the owners underestimated the show’s pulling power, even on a Saturday afternoon. “You couldn’t move in there at all,” Mr. Mohammed said. “They ran out of champagne because they kept making mimosas and bellinis.”
The crowd consists mostly of expats, and it is similar for the Eurovision dances that Mr. Mohammed runs at Hardware throughout the year. Some Americans are happy to join in the fun, while others are baffled.
“Two months ago, I had a Eurovision party and, right after that, there was a drag show by Monét X Change, who has a completely different crowd,” Mr. Mohammed said. “The last half-hour of my set is when I play all the big songs, like Ruslana’s ‘Wild Dances,’ ‘Take Me to Your Heaven,’ Verka Serduchka, ‘Euphoria.’ I looked at these Americans waiting for the next show and it was a complete culture shock for them. ‘What the hell is going on?’ is the first reaction. The second is, ‘Why is everybody on the dance floor and singing along?’ ”
Mr. Mohammed laughed. “That’s pretty consistent with Americans reacting to Eurovision for the first time.”
Correction: May 8, 2018
Because of an editing error, an earlierversion of this article misstated the year that Germany hosted the World Cup. It is 2006, not 2010.