Fourth time was the charm for Stefan. After years of trying, the 24-year-old balladeer won Eesti Laul last month and earned the right to represent Estonia at Eurovision in May. But how did this western wizard whip himself up a win? Let’s dig into his past and find out.
He’s a Star Student
Stefan was born on December 24, 1997, in the town of Viljandi, Estonia, where his father runs a restaurant to this day. His parents are both Armenian immigrants, and Stefan‘s family returned to that country every summer to visit extended family. (More on that later.) In school, he competed in intramural Russian draughts (checkers) and was part of a championship team at a Thought Olympiad, a kind of regional academic decathlon.
He also studied violin from an early age … until the fateful day he met Hedi-Kai Pai, his sister Stefania’s vocal coach. (Yes, Stefania is really her name.) From then one, Stefan became one of her star students and competed at (and won) countless youth music competitions over the years, both as a soloist and as part of a duet.
Though not the only competitions he took part in, his successes at “Soloistica”, an annual young soloist competition, are particularly of note. In 2015, he won the Grand Prix of the contest, receiving a new mountain bike from a judging panel that included Eurovision legend Ivo Linna (ESC 1996). He placed 3rd at the same competition in 2017. His successes were due, in part, to his unorthodox practice of simulating sounds during his performances, whether they be instrumental or otherwise.
Watch his performance at the final recital of the 2015 edition to see Stefan croon AND provide his own trumpet solo … with no trumpet in sight:
(At a different competition, he began a performance by simulating the sound of a departing train. Watch that clip here.)
In 2019, in a full circle moment, Stefan returned to “Solistica” … only this time it was as a judge. The Grand Prix winner he helped select was a young singer named Kelly Tulvik. Recently, she was a co-writer on Sissi‘s 2nd place finishing-song “Time” at Eesti Laul 2021.
He’s a Singing Star
Eurovision fans are no doubt familiar with Stefan‘s three previous Eesti Laul appearances:
- In 2018, as part of the duo Vajé, he finished 3rd in the superfinal with the song “Laura (Walk with Me)“.
- In 2019, he once again finished 3rd in the superfinal, this time flying solo on the song “Without You“.
- In 2020, he once again made the final show with the song “By My Side” and went on the place 7th.
But what they may NOT know about is Stefan‘s extensive history of competing in other televised music competitions.
In 2010, at around 11 years old, he was a finalist on the children’s singing competition show Laulukarussell. (Watch his performance here.) Many Estonian Eurovision acts have gotten their starts on Laulukarussell, including Eda-Ines Etti (ESC 2000), Maarja-Liis Ilus (ESC 1996 & 1997), and Laura (ESC 2005 & 2017).
In 2011, Stefan followed this up by auditioning for Tallinn, I’m Famous, a singing competition that’s winner received a deal with a Latvian record company. Watch his audition cover of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire below:
Stefan only ended up placing 11th in the final of Tallinn, I’m Famous, but the trophy still came home with him. His sister, Stefania, ended up winning the whole thing.
Speaking of whom … In 2012, as part of a quartet with his sister Stefania (and a fellow Armenian brother-sister pair), Stefan won the first season of Perepeo, a music competition show for family music groups. For winning that show, the four singers won a trip to Stockholm and booked a gig performing on a New Year’s Eve broadcast with that year’s Estonian Eurovision representative … Ott Lepland. (See below.)
One wonders if Stefan and Ott had the chance to reminisce while they were both competing at Eesti Laul this year.
“I’m actually really scared of contests,” Stefan once said in an interview. “I have a lot of fear before I go on stage, but usually when I go on stage and feel that the people are supportive, I get energy from it and the fear is forgotten. I’m just on stage. Me and the people.”
He’s a Singing Star (Sign)
Many former Eurovision acts have parlayed their time on the international stage into a stint of The Masked Singer, names as disparate as MELOVIN (ESC 2018), Guildo (ESC 1998), and Vicky Leandros (winner of ESC 1972). But Stefan is (thus far) the first artist to compete at Eurovision after doing his time on the international celebrity singing franchise.
On season one of Maskis Laulja, airing March through May of 2020, Stefan took on the persona of Aries, the ram. During his time on the show, he performed songs by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, among others.
“I tried to sing the [songs] I’ve always dreamed of [doing], but never dared to perform,” he said of the experience in a post-show exit interview.
On the night of May 3, 2020, Stefan was unmasked and crowned the winner at the season finale. Watch his finale-night performance of “Chop Suey!” and his final unmasking in the video below:
Of the singers and ‘singers’ he beat out for bragging rights, Eurovision fans may recognize the names Getter Jaani (ESC 2011), who finished 7th on the season, and Suured tüdrukud diva/Eesti Laul backing singer extraordinaire Kaire Vilgats, who finished as the season’s runner-up.
He’s Officially One of the Sexiest (Estonian) Men Alive
At the 2020 Chronicle Entertainment Awards, Stefan was voted sexiest man in Estonia … much to his surprise.
“I thought from an early age that I was not a beautiful boy because I had been excluded because of my Armenian origins,” Stefan once said in an interview. “It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that the freer you are internally, the more beautiful and free your soul becomes.”
But don’t get any ideas or groupie fantasies in your heads, ladies and some gents. Stefan is taken.
He met his girlfriend Victoria in February 2018, on a cruise ship where Stefan was working as a singer and Victoria as a dancer. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. After a particularly bad fight in late 2018/early 2019, Victoria packed up and left Stefan. Unsure of where to funnel all his emotions, he wrote the song “Without You” about the experience, a song he would go on to place 3rd with at Eesti Laul. Luckily, the separation was short lived.
“I invited my girlfriend to listen to the first demo,” Stefan said in an interview at the time. “She was in tears, came and hugged me.”
This isn’t the last time Victoria would serve as his muse. His 2020 single “Oh My God” began life as a tribute to her, a song titled simply “Victoria”. She encouraged him to change the title and story of song to make a more universally relatable track. Watch the “Oh My God” video below:
In October of last year, less than a month before the Eesti Laul quarterfinals kicked off, Stefan was able to take a long awaited trip back to Armenia to check in on his extended family … only this time, he got to bring Victoria along.
He Values His Heritage
Stefan grew up surrounded by Armenia culture and customs, even performing as part of a the Yerazank Armenian Music Ensemble, a touring children’s choir and performance troupe bringing Armenian music and dance traditions to different cities in Estonia.
“It is very important to me that I am an Armenian, that I have the blood and roots of Armenia,” he said in an interview. “But I am both an Armenian and an Estonian.”
His close relationship to his parent’s homeland has made him especially sensitive to issues of war and unrest, especially when violence broke out at the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 2020. This sensitivity was the inspiration behind the message of his Eurovision entry, “Hope”.
“[It] was inspired by the situation around the world such as [Covid-19], Black Lives Matter, war in Armenia where my relatives were, politics, and so on,” he said in a recent interview. “If you lose your hope then there is no point of living. Hope will be the last thing to die. So I want people to realize that everything is possible only if you won’t lose your hope.”
Last week, Stefan performed “Hope” in front of a crowd of 30,000 people in Tallinn at a rally for Ukraine. You can watch that performance below:
Hopefully, his song really can be a message of ‘hope’ during tumultuous times such as these.
Do #YOU think Stefan can bring Estonia back to Grand Final? Are #YOU already having nightmares about that Aries costume? Just me? Sound off in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited.