I had the feeling I had seen her before, which was probably true: she has the most famous face on the island, and she can be seen performing on TV as a pop singer, in magazines, and on the side of buses, promoting Vodafone, Coca-Cola or some cosmetics brand. Ira Losco was a successful artist in Malta, but the thing that really launched her career was her performance at the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest, where she finished second.
Ira tells me about her musical career, which started when she was very young. ‘I studied the piano from the age of eleven, until I was about seventeen. So I had my classic education and acquired a lot of skills I could use. And then, when I was sixteen, I was the lead singer in an alternative band called Tiara. This was way before I started doing pop. And it did me a lot of good! Our guitarist introduced me to a lot of good bands, and I was musically really curious, so I discovered a lot of good music. And then the festival came along.’
I’m lost for a second, before I realise she means the Eurovision. And while Ira enjoyed her stay at the festival, she immediately states: ‘It has become better.’
‘No, I think the idea of it has become better. The music industry is now taking it seriously. When I did the festival in 2002, no record label would have me. They said to my manager: “Let her come back when people have forgotten she was in the Eurovision.” It was demeaning at the time.’ Ira takes a sip of her drink and then smiles. ‘I still managed to get that record label though.’
Do you feel that the Eurovision is somehow a symbol of Europe? Does it unite?
That’s one she has to think about. ‘I don’t know. It definitely united my country, because it was a big deal when I placed second. So in a way…. but it’s also a competition…’
So not so much. Are there any other symbols Europe can rely on?
‘Symbols, I don’t know, but we do have a strong culture. So much stronger, so much more divine and different than for example the Americans. I mean, not to sound harsh or anything, but what kind of culture can they grasp onto? What is their culture? We have so many different ones! And ready to put them in a pot and stir them. Although I think people might be afraid to mix their culture, because it won’t be theirs anymore. We feel very strongly about what happened in our past and our history, how it got there, and where we are going. That’s a very European trait I think, everyone wants to remain. The Italians want to remain Italian, the French want to remain French…and they are right. Can you imagine putting Spaniards in the same group as the Austrians?’
I laugh. No, I cannot. And what about the Maltese? What are you typically like?
Ira considers: ‘What’s typically Maltese…I think we are a very warm nation. We are islanders, obviously, so we have temperament, we are very hotheaded and we are very friendly. We are also survivors. First we were colonized and then we became independent, so being able to do it alone is very important to us. But I see a lot of us in other nations. And what unites us with Europe is a vision of the past, the present and the future. A strong foundation and being able to see a really bright, clear future unites us.’
And according to Ira, that future holds a safe place for everyone. ‘I’m very active in promoting education and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights. I had a lot of friends who were a little bit older than I was and I knew some of them were gay. But they never showed it in public. That’s when I realised it must be hard living in a Roman Catholic country as somebody who is different.’
Did you find it hard?
‘I didn’t have a problem with it. I think everything is equal, that was the way I was brought up. But not everyone here is so liberal. One of my best friends moved to London and only then, through MSN, he dared to tell me he was gay. But of course I had known all along. So I support those organizations. I perform for them for free. And right now I have a pretty strong gay following.’
Would it have been more difficult for you to come this far if you were gay as well?
Ira tilts her head and casts me a cheeky look. ‘Well, I think I would make a very good lipstick lesbian, don’t you? I think it would turn on many guys!’, she says, laughing very hard. Then she turns serious again: ‘But really, it shouldn’t matter and I don’t care. Who is anyone to say what is the norm? There are standards some people have come up with, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet them. You could be an elephant singing on stage, it’s all okay with me.’
(interview by Mark, written by Amanda Brouwers)