Two contests after Netta‘s wild, outsider energy won Israel its fourth Eurovision victory, the country is sending another flamboyant superstar: Michael Ben David. But who is this 25-year-old entertainer bringing “I.M” to life on stage in Turin? You know the drill:
He’s a True ‘Cinderella Story’
Michael Ben David‘s life has not always been easy. Born the second of six siblings in 1996 to a Georgian father and a mother who had immigrated to Israel from Ukraine, he was always aware of how different he was to other kids.
After dealing with constant harassment, beginning at the age of seven, he asked his mother to send him to a boarding school. While there, he began studying music by himself, attending shows, and coming to grips with his sexuality. As he grew older, Michael began taking voice lessons and studying dance under renowned Israeli choreographer Oz Morag. He also worked as a singing waiter at a bar in Tel Aviv, for a time (see below).
After completing his mandatory military service, Michael headed to the prestigious Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts, located just outside of Tel Aviv. The school was founded in 1950 and has produced a number of future Eurovision contenders, including Rita (ESC 1990), Shiri Maimon (ESC 2005), and Harel Skaat (ESC 2005). Shimrit Or, the lyricist behind Israel’s 1979 winning anthem, “Hallelujah”, was also a graduate of Beit Zvi.
Michael was reluctant to audition for the school, at first, but his dance teacher set him straight, as it were.
“[Oz Morag] told me I could either start specializing in the field or continue to sit at home and cry about being gay,” Michael said in a 2018 interview. “He was right. If I had the courage to [come out to] my mother, I also have the courage to audition.”
Michael acted in plays and musicals while attending Beit Zvi and helped pay his way through by winning a series of scholarships and school-wide competitions. Below, you can see him in full drag, performing a number from the musical “Kinky Boots!”, attempting to secure the ‘Snow Scholarship’ in 2019. He, of course, did win it.
Finally, in 2020, after all his hard work, accolades, and dedication, Michael graduated from drama school … and emerged right into the middle of a pandemic. Work for an actor was hard to come by, and he ended up working at a supermarket until the X Factor Israel auditions came along. The rest, as they say, is history.
When asked in a recent interview if Michael considered himself to be a ‘Cinderella story’, he answered in typically cheeky fashion:
“I wish I had Cinderella’s high heels.”
“Look, we’re all Cinderellas,” he added. “Every man you stop on the street and talk to, see how much he goes through in life. It’s not just one Cinderella, there are a million Cinderellas … It’s the greatest privilege to be [yourself].”
His Relationship with His Mother is Complicated … but with a ‘Happily Ever After’
When Michael came out as gay to his family at age sixteen, no one took it harder than his devoutly religious mother.
“She did not want me to be different, so that I would not suffer,” he said in an interview. “As much as she tried to give to me and do for me – she was afraid of it. She wanted me to be [normal].”
Because of friction over his sexuality, Michael and his mother were estranged throughout the years he spent studying at Beit Zvi. During that time, he began a committed relationship (more on that later) and grew in self-confidence. This eventually led him to make an ultimatum, refusing to come to family gatherings if his partner was not invited. She relented, and the pair began rebuilding their relationship.
“She accepts and loves [my partner and I], and her opinion is more flexible,” Michael said in 2018. “She still thinks it’s a whim that will pass me by in a few years … And yet, my mother is the most important woman in the world, and she is involved in every detail of my life.”
The story reached an especially touching, full-circle moment at Michael‘s audition for X Factor Israel. After performing a bombastic cover of Lizzo’s “Juice”, the judges asked him to perform something more subdued. He chose to perform “Mother” by Miri Mesika, one of the judges on the show. The song is a soulful ballad about the writer’s distant relationship with his own mother and wish for a closer bond.
Michael‘s mother and his partner were watching backstage, and it was an emotional moment for all of them. At the end of the performance, she surprised him on stage for a tearful moment of grace.
“As soon as I heard this song, when it came out, I felt it fit me like a glove,” Michael said in an interview. “When I sang this song, I sang my pain. It was a crazy closing circle. She hears it and understands. That’s why she also took the stage and hugged me.”
He Knows How to Put on a Show
After the one-two punch of his polar opposite audition performances, Michael continued showing off his versatility and theatricality on this season of X Factor Israel. He demonstrated his dance training and flair for the dramatic in his rendition of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)“. He showed off a more tender side in a cover of Billie Eilish’s mournful ballad “Idontwannabeyouanymore“. He flaunted his huge vocal range in a performance of “It’s a Sin” by Pet Shop Boys.
But, in this author’s opinion, Michael‘s peak of the season came on the night of January 6, when he performed a yassified version of Israel’s 1976 Eurovision entry “Emor Shalom”. The performance allowed him to demonstrate his BIG voice, his mastery of choreography, and the cheeky bit of theatrical stage presence he brings to every performance.
This performance of the Chocolate Menta Mastik song blew the judges away. Netta was screaming from the opening notes, singer and actor Ran Danker was feeling the groove, and Israeli music legend Margalit Tsanani was cackling and ended the performance on her feet, applauding his audaciousness. Even Michael‘s harshest critic throughout the season, rocker Aviv Geffen, had to crack a smile when Michael big-timed him at a climactic moment in the performance. Here, in GIF form, is the moment Michael Ben David won this season of X Factor Israel:
Aviv Geffen, in particular was tough on him all season, criticizing Michael Ben David‘s theatricality and questioning if his stage persona was genuine.
“It did not offend me,” Michael said in an interview. “The things Aviv said were not new to me … I’m very dramatic, extreme and I [chew the scenery]. But it’s me, what to do? And it’s fine that he said that, because some people think that way about me. Not everything is pink. It was important to me to show him my truth through my performance. Hope I succeeded.”
When the season came down to the final three singers, the judges scores favored Eli Huli with the song “Blinded Dreamers” for the win and opportunity to represent Israel in Turin. But the voting public disagreed, overwhelmingly getting behind Michael Ben David and, ultimately, securing him and “I.M.” the win by one single point.
“I worked at the supermarket six months ago,” he said on stage. “I came here, I worked hard like crazy, and I want to say thank you for voting for me … Thank you for loving me and accepting me as I am.”
Sorry Gents … He’s Taken
While studying at Beit Zvi, Michael met fellow student actor Roi Ram, and the pair recently celebrated their three year anniversary with a trip to Prague. They starred in many show together in their time at school, including the musicals “A Thousand and One Nights” and “King Solomon and Shlomo the Shoemaker” and the comedic farce “The Kitchen”.
During most of this season of X Factor Israel, Roi was constantly on the sidelines with Michael‘s mother, but, since January, he’s been on the road in a tour of the Israeli musical “The Wizard!”, based on the novel The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The show was directed and choreographed by the aforementioned Oz Morag. By the time May rolls around, however, you can bet he will be by Michael‘s side in Turin.
He’s Israel’s #1 Whitney Houston Fan
In 2017, Michael went a little bit viral, posting a clip of himself leading a sing-a-long performance to”I Will Always Love You” and at an open stage market in Berlin (see left). After that, he became a bit of a go-to Whitney Houston fan for Israeli media. In early 2018, the touring Whitney Houston tribute show “The Greatest Love of All” came to Israel for a limited engagement. Michael had become friendly with the star of that show, a singer and former Britain’s Got Talent contestant named Belinda Davids, and was asked to give several interviews to help promote the tour.
Michael gave an interview with radio station 103 FM, talking about his love for Whitney Houston and the physical ways she dug into performances. He also appeared on a nightly news show, discussing his viral singing moment. You can watch it below:
According to Michael, his love of Whitney Houston came from his mother singing “I Will Always Love You” around the house. He also detailed the experience of his impromptu singing moment, saying, “in the end, it’s Whitney’s music. It’s who we are. It’s what unites us”.
But that’s not all the interviewers had in mind. After Michael sang a line from the Whitney Houston classic, one of the co-hosts asked him (and remember … this interview was given four years ago):
“Michael, why do I see you for the first time here, and not in The X Factor or The Voice?”
Michael explained that he was in school, but didn’t rule it out from his future plans, saying, “everything in life is a matter of good timing.”
And it seems the time is NOW.
Were #YOU rooting for Michael Ben David to win X Factor Israel? (There IS a correct answer.) What changes would #YOU like to see made to “I.M.” before Eurovision rolls around? Sound off in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited.