Nul points for humility

To most people, Eurovision is a joke. But not for the British hope.

One o'clock in the afternoon in a West London dance studio. Photos on the walls show the best efforts of the little darlings in drama school productions. But the act rehearsing today is guaranteed an audience of millions as Imaani, this year's British entry in that pantomime horse of televisual entertainment, the Eurovision Song Contest, practises her moves with her backing vocalists cum dancers. The full force of her charm is targeted at me. One cheeky wink to camera on the night, and if the operator doesn't lose control of his equipment, then surely Euro success is in the bag.

It's that time of year again, when pointlessly "ironic" features fill the papers and a lucky hopeful comes second (usually to Ireland) then settles down for a life on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, or a starring role in Game On.

But Britain's representative this year, 25-year-old Melanie Crossdale from Leeds, of Sri Lankan and Jamaican stock (finally a black Briton, after two Australians, an American, and Cliff twice), and a musical background in London's soul-jazz scene, is loving it. From backing vocalist to the centre of attention in a matter of weeks is quite a change. A three-album deal with EMI in the bag, a chance to meet Richard and Judy, let alone Wogan and Ulrika, this is stardom - no matter how temporary.

She seems born to it. Asked how she feels about her sudden jump into the nation's consciousness she simply replies, "There's nothing normal about my life anyway. I'm the UK Eurovision girl 1998, whether I win or lose. Some say it's a stigma, but..." She shrugs instead of swearing. "At least I'll be remembered."

You don't seem too nervous. "Are you kidding?" she yelps. "I cover well but actually I'm freaking out.

"I've learnt that singing is not about vocal gymnastics, it's about convincing the audience that this song is close to your heart. And covering your mistakes. It took me years to drop that disappointed look."

This is a serious business. Imaani's stylist, Dan Syrett ("I'm quite unusual being a heterosexual in this job") reckons they'll get through 300 outfits in a month. Meeting the pair on a shopping trip, they discuss just what to wear for that photo shoot or kids' TV appearance. "I love the camera more than anything, more than singing - don't put that down," says Imaani, unguardedly. It shows. Although her tune, "Where Are You?" is Italian-style disco fluff, this woman is something of a star already.

Johnny Stirling, of publishers Hit and Run, who currently represent her, seems rather in awe of his charge. This urbane fifty-year-old compares Imaani to Robbie Williams, "an old fashioned turn".

The sudden rush of fame has its drawbacks. "I think that art disappears when you reach this level. Since I won the Great British Song Contest, I've only sung about five times. I just talk all day long, do interviews here and there and look into cameras. What I miss is actually performing," she complains.

But Eurovision is about more than the talent. It's a huge event, requiring organisation and technical co-ordination. Paddy Clarke, of RTE, was responsible for "Grand Prix invitations" at five contests held in Ireland between 1988 and 1997, and diplomatic protocol is straightforward compared with dealing with those who just want to be seen. "Somebody had estimated the value of seats at pounds 500, and there were 3,300 places at the Grand Prix," he says. "Although we had computer technology, I found it far better to have a big plan of the auditorium, maybe eight feet square, on the wall and I actually physically wrote in every individual's name." But just who are these people?

"The singers might have a few seats for their families, then there's the songwriters and people from each national television service," he says.

"We keep each delegation together to create an atmosphere when the camera cuts to them." More of a problem is the front row. "There's a category of 'faces', familiar people in public life, a status sought after by many hopefuls." So look out for Roy Wood and Bob Carolgees on Saturday night in Brum. Imaani's next gig is at the G8 summit the following week. Perhaps she'll meet President Clinton. As for Eurovision, as Paddy Clarke says, "People may hate it, but in the long run they want it, because there's nothing like it. It won't ever die out." And he's probably right.

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