Australia's Sheldon Riley may be Not The Same but his Eurovision dreams are finally coming true in Turin
Just over two months ago, an emotional Sheldon Riley achieved his long-time dream — a trip to Italy to represent Australia at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Amid cheering crowds at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre, Riley — a talented 23-year-old Filipino-Australian performer best known for his work on reality TV shows like The Voice and America's Got Talent — had earned top spot in Australia Decides with his power ballad Not The Same.
And yet he quickly realised that while his dramatic, dark, industrial staging had worked on the Gold Coast, he would have to dream things up again if he wanted to make his mark at Eurovision in Turin.
This week, all the thinking and planning since then comes to the moment of truth for his big Eurovision adventure, when Riley steps on stage at the PalaOlimpico and tries to qualify for the final of the global music extravaganza that is watched by up to 200 million people around the world every year.
"I won't say anything bad about Australia Decides, because I won. I could have been happier, but because of COVID there was a lot of setbacks, there was a lot of rehearsals we couldn't get to, and … just COVID-wise, it meant there was only so much creative control I was able to have," he told ABC before flying out for the contest.
"But the performance was too dark, it was too heavy. I learned a lot from Australia Decides, I realised my song isn't a sad song, it's not a negative song and it shouldn't be a song that's too heavy and emotionally driven in a negative sense. The song has a lot of light, it has a lot of hope.
"I think it shines really brightly for a lot of people who don't have a voice and I needed to present that on stage, and the whole dark thing, it's not the right staging for the song."
Facing the Eurovision juggernaut
Riley calls Eurovision a "juggernaut" of a competition.
It's the world's biggest live music event, and for competitors it's not just a case of winning their national final or being named as the performer of the song for Eurovision, then resting up before turning up in the host city to do the business.
"Eurovision season" runs for months. Italy picks its winner after a huge music festival of their own, San Remo.
Many of the songs are then tweaked between winning and the contest itself — sometimes to improve the arrangement, other times to get the length of the song down to three minutes. If they don't get to that time limit or under, it can't be performed at Eurovision.
The other part is what could be termed the campaign element. There is no formal advertising for Eurovision, but performers do countless interviews in their own and other countries to raise the contest's profile.
And then there are the "pre-Eurovision parties" that have become a big part of the lead-up, as various competitors go to places like London, Spain, the Netherlands and Israel to perform concert versions of their songs in front of tightly packed, noisy crowds in nightclubs or other venues.
Riley went to two parties, in London and Tel Aviv — and it was an eye-opening experience for a number of reasons.
"It's still well and truly in the Eurovision bubble. Unfortunately I lost my voice in London, which really messed me up in London and Israel Calling, but I was still so happy to be there," he said.
The contest itself has changed markedly in recent years — with the proliferation of reality TV singing shows, a lot of entrants are either chosen via a reality show format, or are experienced in those type of shows.
Among Australia's Eurovision entrants since 2015 have been inaugural Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian and 2006 runner-up Jessica Mauboy, and X-Factor winners Dami Im and Isaiah Firebrace.
Now it's Riley, who has used shows in Australia and the United States to showcase his performing vision, which mixes big songs with a flamboyant image, striking fashion, jewellery and masks.
'Nothing prepares you for how big Eurovison is'
He wrote his song for Eurovision years ago as a message to his younger self about the struggles of dealing with Asperger's Syndrome and feeling "not the same" in his appearance, his experience and how he related to the world.
Riley's voice, both powerful and capable of fragility, has driven many a reality TV run, but on the Eurovision stage it packs a real punch.
But is his grounding in reality TV on two continents an advantage for Eurovision? Not really, he says.
"I think a lot of people are comparing my experiences from The Voice — quite naturally — with all the reality TV I've done to Eurovision, [but] nothing quite has been able to prepare me for how big Eurovision actually is," he said.
"In some ways it's very similar to reality TV, but in most ways it's completely different.
"I mean, I've been prepping this for years and years — I've wanted this for such a long time. But this is the most unexpected show, you never know what is going to happen."
'Everyone's a Eurovision expert!'
He describes Not the Same as "the hardest song I've ever had to sing", part of the reason he didn't want it as a Eurovision song in the first place.
"I mean I've learned the song when I was 15, I feel like I know it, it hasn't really changed much since I wrote it. But it's also the hardest song I've ever had to sing — it's such a massive sing," he said.
"I think it's the only thing I'm kind of worried about, which is crazy because I've never had to worry about my voice — I've always just kind of trusted it would be OK.
"It's the only thing I'm really worried about, is getting the vocal perfect. It's not like the Eurovision we remember from five or 10 years ago, where it was all about how fun and exciting it was.
"[Now] everyone's a Eurovision expert, especially because of all these reality shows — everyone knows what good singing is, and everyone knows what a f***-up is.
Practising with sandbags
Riley describes Not The Same as "quite the storytelling song".
"I wanted to capture little moments that people can rewatch and remember," he said.
"I don't want to do the same thing as everyone else. The outfit will be the statement piece of this performance in terms of what's visually happening.
"I think it's about 180,000 crystals the outfit is covered in, and lots and lots of feathers."
Member of the Australian delegation — and director of SBS production partner Blink TV — Paul Clarke explains the challenges of a famous staging from 2019.
"We're not after quite as much [movement] of Sheldon, and he's actually quite a powerful young man — he's very strong."
Rehearsals at Eurovision are designed to get the artists used to the stage, and performing the song, but more to help coordinate movement on stage and the camera angles and effects used to create the visual performance.
It's a reminder that although the contest has a live audience — which brings fans together from all around the world and is integral to the atmosphere of the occasion — this is, in the end, a very big TV show.
First rehearsals — a brief glimpse
Under a new agreement this year, first rehearsals at Eurovision are closed to press and fan media — causing some consternation — with exclusive clips and backstage chat released on TikTok.
The first glimpse was frustratingly brief. There was the dress — white, not black, as at Australia Decides. There were steps of some sort and that was about all you could see.
Backstage, Sheldon walked back afterwards, telling the camera: "That was insane — I mean no-one should have to sing that song three times [in one rehearsal], right? Jesus."
Sacha Jean-Baptiste is the creative director for Australia's three-minute presentation to the world in Turin. She is something of a Eurovision-whisperer, having designed stagings for a number of big entries at the contest.
None of the entries she has worked on have yet won the contest, but that's not the point.
She gets the vision part of Eurovision — and one of her creations from last year particularly caught the eye, and led to some ideas from Australia's organisers.
"When you think about what's possible there — Duncan [Laurence], the previous winner from the Netherlands, was literally sitting at a piano and he won Eurovision with just a huge orb behind him, an enormous light. Just the power of it and the simplicity of it worked," Clarke said.
"We've got a lot of lights at our disposal and I think one of the key performances for me, which was last year was Gjon's Tears from Switzerland [designed by Jean-Baptiste]. That was basically taking someone who was more introverted and taking them to a huge audience.
"Just the way that that was conceived was I thought really well done — it was like an internal monologue. I loved it, and there was a really simple set that went with that.
"In some ways, that's our model."
The accredited media have since seen the second rehearsals, and clips have gone up showing a bit more of the action.
Despite what Clarke said about Riley's strength, there is a challenge here — the physical challenge of singing one of the two or three most demanding songs in the contest while walking at least 40 kilograms worth of outfit up a staircase.
If he was emotionally drained after Australia Decides, Riley might be physically spent after three sets of rehearsals, last night's jury performance (which will determine the jury vote but won't be broadcast) and tomorrow's semi-final — and then if all goes well, a repeat of jury final, dress rehearsal and the grand final on Sunday morning our time.
Ukraine's big presence at Eurovision
There is, of course, an elephant in the room in Turin — the presence of Ukraine and Kalush Orchestra with their entry, Stefania, which is the hot favourite to win for reasons including but not limited to the song and its performance.
Eurovision is supposed to be non-political, all about the songs and the entertainment. But it's hard to avoid it in reality — when, for example, the Portuguese entry in 1974 was the signal for the beginning of a military coup.
Even with previous Ukrainian entries — like Verka Serduchka's famous glam-stomp, Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which sounded suspiciously like "Russia goodbye" when sung; or 2016 winner 1944 by Jamala, a powerful vocal performance of a song about Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin's mass deportation in 1944 of the ethnic Tatar population from Crimea.
This year's song is a folk-rap number inspired by one of the band's grandmothers, but it will be performed as the eyes of the world and media are focused on their homeland, and its invasion by Russian forces.
When Kalush Orchestra took to the stage for the first semi-final on Tuesday night local time, they received a standing ovation before and after their performance. Unsurprisingly, they qualified for the final.
With half the scores for Sunday's final made up of the televote by the European — and Australian — public, it is not hard to imagine a big chunk of those votes being given to Ukraine as a show of support for the country and not just the song.
And Sheldon Riley is OK with that — he would even welcome it.
Although, he doesn't think the song is the best in the contest, stating his preference for Cornelia Jakobs's heartbreak hit Hold Me Closer for Sweden.
'This song isn't for me anymore'
Riley has been asked both before and after landing in Turin about the moment his emotions spilled over on stage at the Gold Coast for Australia Decides, and whether he thinks there could be a similar moment at the PalaOlimpico.
"The thing I think I really want to make clear to everybody is I am someone in Australia who has never been recognised or respected as a legitimate artist or a musician," he said.
"[But] in that moment I was performing to a room full of people that I didn't need to explain myself to, singing a song that I wrote very personally at 15 years old, in a very emotional sense of a competition I've wanted to do for years and years and years.
"I'm excited to go out there and be strong for people who need to, or want to, hear my message."
Riley's big Eurovision adventure has taken him from reality TV to the "Olympics of singing". Regardless of the result, it's clear that it's lived up to his hopes.
"[What I'm hoping for], it's already happening, being able to speak about my music, about my fashion, about my art and have people see what I do," he said.
And if he's the one who gets to stand on the stage and sing his song for a second time on Sunday morning Australian time, then everyone will get to see what he does.