KIEV: Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time ever early Sunday with a melancholy ballad performed by a singer who suffers from a serious heart condition.
The fado-tinged song “Amar Pelos Dois” was performed by 27-year-old Salvador Sobral, who is awaiting a heart transplant.
It scored a crushing victory, winning top marks both from the televoters and the countries’ professional juries.
The black-clad singer took to a small separate stage for his minimalist performance of the song written by his sister.
But the glitzy contest was marred by the ongoing fighting with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko opted not to attend after four civilian deaths.
The ceremony in the capital of ex-Soviet Ukraine began with a glittering light show as the contestants took bows on a stage lit up in the colours of their respective national flags.
“Say hello to the world!” shouted co-presenter Volodymyr Ostapchuk.
The annual celebration of catchy europop, ludicrous costumes and glittering divas watched by some 200 million TV viewers was being hosted by Ukraine for the second time.
Another favourite with the bookmakers was Bulgaria’s big-voiced 17-year-old singer Kristian Kostov who gave a confident performance of “Beautiful Mess.”
During the contest, it emerged that Kostov had performed in Crimea soon after its annexation by Moscow – the reason Ukraine banned Russia’s singer.
But Ukraine let Kostov stay because he was just 14 at the time.
The latest edition of the contest, that began in 1956 with just seven countries, offered the usual wacky stage acts and cheesy beats.
Italian Francesco Gabbani invoked Hamlet and Desmond Morris’s anthropology book “The Naked Ape” in his song, while a gorilla-costumed dancer boogied alongside him.
Azerbaijan’s act featured a man wearing a horse’s head on a stepladder while Romania presented an unlikely combination of yodelling and rap with two giant cannons on stage for no apparent reason.
Macedonia’s contestant Jana Burceska failed to make the final but received a televised marriage proposal during a semi-final, screaming “Yes!” as her boyfriend knelt down with a ring.
Britain may be experiencing a post-Brexit vote chill in Europe, but pulled out all the stops with a big ballad performed by Lucie Jones.
Ahead of the show, fans streamed into the venue, an exhibition centre outside the city centre, wearing flower garlands and draped in national flags while some waved rainbow gay pride flags.
“It’s just so great. Everyone loves it. And you just wanna be here!” shouted Jasmine from Britain, wearing a garland of ribbons and flowers.
For the contest, Kiev’s main Kreshchatyk Street was transformed into a Eurovision fan zone with a large stage, beanbags and European Union flags.
Fans with flags painted on their faces snapped selfies, danced, sang and drank beer.
Amid heightened security, some 10,000 police were deployed on the streets, some carrying semi-automatic weapons.
Ukraine is hosting Eurovision amid a continuing armed conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s industrial east that has now killed more than 10,000.
A top Ukrainian official said Saturday that “Russian invading forces” had killed four civilians in shelling hours before the contest started.
And that news led President Poroshenko to cancel his appearance at Eurovision.
He wrote on Facebook that “due to the shelling of Avdiivka and the death of peaceful civilians, I took a decision to cancel my presence at the Eurovision final.”
Russia was also conspicuously absent.
Kiev barred Russia’s Yuliya Samoilova because she had illegally entered Crimea to perform there after Moscow’s disputed annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.
Russia responded by refusing to air the contest and viewers in separatist eastern Ukraine were also unable to watch.
Russia has vowed that Samoilova will compete in 2018, placing Ukraine in a tricky dilemma over whether to participate alongside her.
Ukraine first hosted Eurovision in 2005 when the contest symbolised the country’s quest to open up to Europe after the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution.
Last year its contestant Jamala won with a song called “1944“, referring to the Stalin-era deportation of her Crimean Tatar ethnic group from the Black Sea peninsula.
Jamala took to the stage during voting and in an unintended moment, a man wrapped in the Australian flag mooned in front of her.
This year, Ukraine has used the contest to take tentative steps to soften the climate of homophobia prevalent in the ex-Soviet Union.
The authorities handed out a map of gay-friendly venues to fans of the contest with a massive gay following. --AFP