Sometimes though, they go on to win and/or achieve huge international fame and success. It’s these underdogs-turned-success-stories that are often the most beloved by fans and have come to form a vital part of Eurovision folklore and its continued popularity.
Each year, millions tune in to the show in the hopes of sniffing out the unlikely performer who’ll go on to blow us all away. We wonder who this year’s could be? (And hope it’s Australia!)
Blurring the lines of gender and sexuality, 2014’s Austrian victor Conchita Wurst dragged Europe, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Many conservatives were upset to see that bearded face in a frock, with some Russian viewers reportedly shaving off their beards in protest.
Thankfully though, the haters were clearly outweighed by the fans, many of whom knitted or handmade their very own Conchita beards in admiration and support. Since then, she’s gone on to achieve International super-stardom, becoming one of the few Eurovision stars to achieve cross-over fame in the United States, where she has since walked quite a few A-list red carpets. Rise Like a Phoenix, Out of the Ashes, she did!
Dana International was an early forebear to Conchita, with her 1998 success with the song 'Diva' challenging the gender preconceptions of many. The first transgender entrant to the competition, Dana’s selection stirred up quite a bit of debate in her home country of Israel.
Orthodox Jews and conservatives in her home country tried to prevent her from participating as they deemed it unfit that a transsexual should represent Israel. Dana got the last laugh though, performing in a stunning parrot-feathered jacket designed for her by John-Paul Gaultier, she took out the top prize and went on to release multiple albums becoming one of the most famous transsexual pop icons in the world.
For Finland, it was a surprise for them to win at all, as 2006 represented their first ever victory in the competition. What made it all the more surprising though was that the victory was taken by a heavy-metal group dressed in monster costumes, performing a song titled 'Hard Rock Hallelujah'.
Clearly, Lordi’s uniqueness in a contest usually dominated by power-ballads and dance-pop tunes was an advantage, as they stormed to the top with a massive 292 points. This was the highest score ever at the time as they won by a 30 point margin.
After failing to qualify as the Swedish representatives in 1973, the Swedish pop group came back the following year with ‘Waterloo’ and blew everyone away with their catchy lyrics and loud 70s fashions. They won the prize that year and then of course went on to become one of the most commercially successful pop-groups of all time, topping the charts until 1982.
Indeed, the group is still raking in the royalties thanks to movies such as Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and of course, 2008’s Mamma Mia! which became the highest-grossing film of that year. Not bad for a group who were knocked back at their first attempt to get into Eurovision!
Hailing from the rural Russian province of Udmurtia, this group performed in their traditional ethnic costume and ranged in age from 43 to 76. They looked vastly different from the typically young and scantily clad contestants, and brandished baked goods onstage rather than feather boas. Clearly this was the edge that the Babushki needed as it propelled them all the way to the grand finals where they landed a spectacular second place!
Their success meant that they were able to achieve their goal of raising enough money to rebuild the village church in their hometown of Buranovo.
Such a longshot, that it wasn’t even an actual entry in the competition but rather a piece of half-time entertainment put on by the Irish hosts at the 1994 contest, this dance performance attempted to do the impossible: make the traditional art-form of Irish dance (oft-perceived as staid and dowdy) sexy again.
To everyone’s surprise, that’s exactly what the dancers, led by Jean Butler and Michael Flatley, managed to do, with the conclusion of their performance being met with rapturous applause by the Eurovision audience.
After that, the seven minute performance was turned into a multi-million dollar stage show that went on to tour the world, raking in an estimated $667 million, touring over 46 countries and selling over 10 million DVDs. Now that’s a long shot that paid off!
It’s hard to believe there was a time that this diva was unknown but indeed, at the 1988 Eurovision contest, Celine was the little-known Swiss entry performing French-language song 'Ne partez pas sans moi' in a tutu and tuxedo jacket with an impressive perm.
The song went on to win – but just by an eyelash. Celine beat out the UK entry, Scott Fitzgerald, singing 'Go', by just one point – one of the closest wins in the history of the competition. The rest, as they say, is history.
Three years later Celine rose to prominence voicing the English-language theme song for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast before skyrocketing to international success with her many power ballads including 'The Power of Love' and THAT Titanic theme song – 'My Heart Will Go On'.
These days she has a residency in Vegas after having shifted over 200 million albums worldwide, earning her an estimated personal net worth of over $820 million.
The Spanish entry from 1968 were indeed quite the long-shots, with the hugely popular UK entry ‘Congratulations’ by UK pop idol Cliff Richard widely thought to be a sure-thing for the prize, instead though Cliff came in second.
It’s been alleged though that the Spaniard's unlikely win was in fact the result of corruption. A 1998 Spanish documentary titled 1968: I Lived the Spanish May alleges that Spain’s then-leader, fascist dictator Francisco Franco, rigged the contest that year via a series of bribes so that Spain could claim all the glory and give their international image a much-needed boost.
"I've lived with this number two thing for so many years, it would be wonderful if someone official from the Contest turned around and said: 'Cliff, you won that darn thing after all,'" a now ‘Sir’ Cliff told the Guardian in 2008.
Charlotte Nilsson's 1999 victory for Sweden with 'Take Me To Your Heaven' was an apparent surprise to her fellow countrymen, who found the tune a bit daggy and dated.
The song however bore an uncanny similarity to Sweden’s most famous entry of all-time – ABBA, which Eurovision voters clearly found endearing, because they crowned her the winner of the competition that year!
Norway’s 1995 victory came as a surprise to many, breaking a losing streak for Norway, which had scored multiple “null points” scores, while also breaking a winning streak for Ireland who had scored the crown for the last three years running. (Side note: it was widely rumoured at the time, though never verified, that the Irish organisers deliberately chose an unpopular song for their entry that year in order that they wouldn’t win and be burdened with the expense of hosting the competition for a fourth year in a row).
Interestingly the victors, Secret Garden, were in fact an Irish-Norwegian duo comprised of Norwegian Rolf Lovland and violinist Fionnuala Sherry who originally planned for their song 'Nocturne' to be purely instrumental, but they then added in a grand total of 27 words as lyrics in order that it comply with Eurovision rules.
Since then, they’ve gone on to their own success, with Rolf’s song 'You Raise Me Up' going on to become one of the most-covered songs in Modern pop history, performed by the likes of Josh Groban, Westlife and Il Divo.