Bookies billed the 2010 Junior Eurovision Song Contest as a battle between East and West, a showdown between eccentricity and understatement. In one corner stood Georgia’s Mariam Kakhelishvili, the 14-year-old frontrunner who sang an electro-pop dance number she had written herself and whose unique sense of style (think pink wigs and rhinestones) has earned her the nickname “Baby Gaga.” In the other stood Josefine Ridell, a more serious 13-year-old from Sweden who opted to perform a ballad — perfected by one of Sweden’s top producers — in a simple black dress. But when the balloons fell on the Minsk Arena on Nov. 20, neither teen queen was hoisting the contest’s plastic trophy. Europe’s hearts and minds — and its televotes — had gone instead to Armenia’s Vladimir Arzumanyan, an 11-to-1 long-shot wearing blue jeans and sneakers.
“Stars are only in the sky. I’m just a human,” the 12-year-old told 200 mostly Russian-speaking journalists at a press conference immediately after the event. Arzumanyan’s winning song, “Mama,” recounted his experience with unrequited love on the schoolyard and how he sought advice from his mother. Within an hour of his victory, Arzumanyan’s name was added to the list of “notable individuals” on his hometown’s Wikipedia page, and Arzumanyan began contemplating his musical future. “Like all Armenian musicians, I will record a CD about love,” he said.
Throughout East Europe, communism really has given way to competition — and at the Junior Eurovision, it’s usually doused in glitter and sequins. Broadcast live to 30 million viewers in Australia and parts of Europe, Junior Eurovision is the world’s biggest song contest for kids ages 10 to 15. It’s also a miniaturized version of Eurovision Song Contest, the European singing competition that helped launch the careers of musical icons like Abba and Celine Dion. For little contestants from small countries, Junior Eurovision is an opportunity to perform on a truly vast stage — and maybe become the next Miley Cyrus (with an accent). “In Malta, kids look at it as an opening to Europe,” says Anna Dalli, head of the Maltese delegation. “Maybe they can make contacts with producers. You don’t know who is watching.”
State broadcasters from Belgium to Belarus — who sponsor the kids partly out of national pride and partly in the hopes that a win will mean more viewers next year — sink big bucks into choreographers, vocal coaches, set designers, makeup artists, producers and, in some cases, psychologists to help assess whether a child can cope with the months of intense preparation. Then there’s the matter of promotion. “If people aren’t aware of you, you’ll never become popular,” says Maia Baratashvili, head of the international relations unit at Georgia Public Broadcasting. So her team rented out a massive paint factory for three days to film the video for Kakhelishvili’s “Mari Dari,” which is now posted on YouTube, and arrived in Minsk with a stack of CDs, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. And Kakhelishvili seems to have been schooled in the art of self-marketing. “It’s very good that I’m being compared to Lady Gaga,” she says through her interpreter. “She has gone through professional refinement, and if I somehow remind people of this international star, it’s very pleasant.”
The talk of stardom isn’t just the naive dreams of young minds. Spain’s Maria Isabel, 15, won the contest in 2004 with her song “Better Dead than Plain,” an ode to materialism and Chanel No. 5. She went on to release four platinum albums, and her hometown erected a statue in her honor. “There is a monument in the park, and everybody can take pictures with me,” she says. “For me, being famous is eating in good restaurants and everybody wanting to have my autograph. That’s really nice.”
Journalists do their bit to maintain Junior Eurovision’s reputation as a fame factory — particularly in the former Soviet republics. Belarus’ national broadcaster aired seven reports a day in the week leading up to the contest, and more than 200 international reporters descended on the event on Saturday. Fotis Konstantopoulos, editor in chief of the Athens-based Oikotimes.com — a Eurovision fan site that has recorded more than 7 million unique visitors this year — streamed breathless commentary and frequently held the juvenile contestants to very adult standards. Speaking to TIME, he compared one child to “a 10-year-old screeching cat,” and questioned another contestant’s choice of dark colors: “She is dressed like she lost her husband and she has come to Minsk to mourn him.”
The contest, which this year donated all televoting proceeds to UNICEF, isn’t immune to the controversies that occasionally creep up at the adult Eurovision. This year, officials in Azerbaijan reportedly cut off the live broadcast of the show when it became clear that Armenia’s Arzumanyan had won — a move that stems from a decades-old border dispute in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, from which the youngster hails. (This is not unusual behavior for Azerbaijan: after the 2009 Eurovision contest, the country’s National Security Committee summoned Azeri citizens who had voted for Armenia and questioned their loyalty to the nation.)
But for Arzumanyan, the newly minted winner who is now destined to become a teen idol in his home country, that’s neither here nor there. “Vladimir has not yet realized what a significant event took place for our country,” Diana Mnatsakanyan, the head of Armenia’s Junior Eurovision delegation, told reporters when they arrived back in the capital of Yerevan. That much was clear at his press conference, where he seemed more concerned with scoring a victory against his parents than with becoming the next big thing. “I want a brother,” he said. “My mother promised me that if I’d win.”