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La Zarra of France performs during a dress rehearsal for the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool, England, on May 8.Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

In a video posted to Instagram, La Zarra sparkles in a black sequined dress, standing atop a towering plinth flashing like a disco ball. Singing in French, her voice is powerful and devastating, like a classic chanteuse. It’s only a 30-second clip of La Zarra’s first rehearsal for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, but it’s causing a frenzy in the comments section.

There’s a stream of fire and heart emojis, countless comments of “magnifique” and declarations that La Zarra is “Queen,” the highest form of flattery in online chatter.

“It was quite scary because I’m afraid of heights,” the singer says about the rehearsal during a phone interview from Liverpool, England, where the international singing competition is taking place. “But it’s all about that. It’s all about pushing my limits and giving the public something nice to look at, to make them dream for three minutes.”

Born and raised in Montreal, La Zarra, whose real name is Fatima Zahra Hafdi, was hand-picked to represent France at Eurovision, the music competition in which European countries – and, despite the name, a handful of non-European countries, including Israel and Australia – send an artist or group to perform an original three-minute song. Hafdi will need to win over both the public and the jury to beat out the 25 other countries competing in the finals on May 13.

A first timer's guide to Eurovision

France hasn’t taken the top prize in more than four decades. But for the first time, viewers outside of the competing countries will be able to participate, a change that La Zarra hopes will galvanize Canadians to watch the live broadcast – and then vote for her.

Born out of an experiment in transnational live broadcasting in 1956, Eurovision also came out of a necessity to reunify Europe after the Second World War. Artists wore simple dresses or tuxedos, and sang in front of an orchestra. Since then, the contest has evolved into a cultural spectacle: Performances feature extravagant and campy costumes and elaborate choreography. Pyrotechnics are practically a given. The contest has spawned a betting ecosystem and generated rabid fan bases. Last year, 161 million people tuned in.

For many Europeans, it’s required viewing, like the World Cup or the Olympics.

But like many Canadians, Hafdi didn’t grow up watching Eurovision. Yet the ties run deep. When she was a baby, her mother would sing France’s Marie Myriam’s 1977 winning song, L’oiseau et l’enfant, to help her fall asleep. “My connection comes from childhood, and it’s a really warm and secure memory for me,” she says.

Hafdi’s parents are from Morocco, and she was raised on a musical mix of great Arabic divas such as Fairuz and Warda Al-Jazairia, American hip hop, and 1990s pop staples including the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys. She learned how to sing by studying Edith Piaf and Barbra Streisand, iconic voices that you can hear imprinted on her own.

Hafdi only started singing professionally a few years ago, after meeting her eventual co-writer, Benny Adam, at a party in Montreal. He was playing the piano, they were both a little tipsy, and she began singing Celine Dion’s ballad Pour que tu m’aimes encore. Adam immediately recognized Hafdi’s raw talent.

Her star rose quickly. She signed to Universal Music Canada and Polydor in France, and released her debut album, Traîtrise, in 2021. The single Tu t’en iras went platinum in France, and caught the attention of France TV’s Alexandra Redde-Amiel, who also heads the French Eurovision delegation. Redde-Amiel asked Hafdi to represent France three times before she eventually said yes.

“I wasn’t ready,” Hafdi said. “I was at the beginning of my career. But when she came last summer and I saw how she wanted to change things, how I would work with a team who believes in the art, I couldn’t say no.”

Hafdi is a natural fit for France: Her Eurovision song, Évidemment, co-written with Adam and produced by Montreal’s Banx & Ranx, evokes the beautiful drama of Piaf with the dance hooks of Daft Punk.

At press time, bookmakers have Hafdi ranked fourth in odds to win, behind powerhouse Sweden, Finland and last year’s winner, Ukraine. The final scores are a combination of viewers’ votes and each country’s own professional jury, which grade the competing songs from 1 to 12 points.

In the history of Eurovision, it’s not unheard of for countries to recruit from outside their borders. Celine Dion, singing in French, won for Switzerland in 1988, while American rapper Flo Rida represented the Italian state of San Marino in 2021. In this year’s competition, Norway’s artist is from Italy.

“This is actually something that occurs a lot more frequently, these sort of transnational connections in Eurovision,” says Paul David Flood, a PhD candidate at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester University, where he studies Eurovision. “But I wonder if there’s pressure to represent not only the country you’re performing for at Eurovision, but also, in La Zarra’s case, she has the entirety of Canada watching her.”

Hafdi sees Eurovision as a way to connect her multiple identities from around the world.

“My parents are immigrants from Morocco, I’m born and raised in Montreal, and now my career is in France,” she says. “I believe in my heart that I wear three flags.”