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Latvia basks in Eurovision glory

Latvia's entry F.L.Y. sings
Latvia's entry F.L.Y. sings "Hello From Mars" during dress rehearsals.

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Is the Eurovision Song Contest a showcase of talent or a carnival of kitsch? CNN's Jim Boulden reports.  

LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Latvia won the Eurovision Song Contest last year, residents celebrated in the streets and the president personally congratulated the winner, Marija Naumova.

Up to 600 million viewers across Europe watched the small Baltic state's first victory in the contest, propelling Latvia into the limelight and offering it the chance to promote its culture and tourist attractions as 2003 host.

As the foreign minister of the previous winner Estonia said in a news release: "Eurovision in Estonia -- a billion-dollar advertisement for a tiny state."

The Latvian government and its host capital Riga can look forward to seeing 5 million (7 million euros) roll in from the record number of visitors expected to watch Saturday's contest.

"It will introduce Europe to our country. It is a nice place to visit and it will attract more visitors," Latvian Eurovision executive producer Brigita Lozembrikia told CNN.

"The contest will have a very good effect on Latvia, showing the state and how proud we are of it."

At last year's victory, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Frelberga said: "We now have the possibility to accomplish something beautiful due to this success. ... Thank you once again Marija."

"The mood in Latvia is wonderful," said the Latvian Eurovision organizer, Ingrida Smite.

For the winner, Eurovision offers the chance to follow in the footsteps of previous acts that have gone on to international fame, including Sweden's Abba and Canada's Celine Dion.

Latvia is hosting a record number 26 entries for the event, expected to cost 8 million (11 million euros) to stage.

The Latvian government has allocated 3.5 million (5 million euros) for the competition, with a further 5 million (7 million euros) coming from sponsors and organizers. Riga City Council is reported to have pledged 800,000 (1.1 million euros).

Kitsch and glitz

The 48th Eurovision Song Contest is expected to offer all the kitsch and glitz the three-hour show has become renowned for.

It is one of the most watched events in the world, with many viewers tuning in to find out which countries get the dreaded "no points" in the highly political, Olympic-style judging.

Celine Dion
Singer Celine Dion's career was launched by the contest.

As the BBC's Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan says: "There's not enough silliness in the world. Eurovision helps to keep it balanced."

But the show is not without controversy, with allegations of cheating and acts having to be pulled because of accusations of being inappropriate.

Latvia's win was shrouded in bad press amid allegations from competing countries that the Baltic states had run a vote-fixing syndicate.

Naumova, a law graduate known as "Marie N.", beat Malta's act with the last vote -- cast by Latvia's neighbor, Lithuania. Fellow Baltic neighbor Estonia also gave Latvia full marks.

The countries denied any wrongdoing, but favorites Spain and Germany called foul and demanded changes to the voting system. Changes are planned for next year's contest.

Votes among friends

Votes among friends and allies is nothing new. Cyprus always takes an early lead courtesy of Greece, while the Scandinavians tend to share top points among themselves and old rivalries surface between countries.

Politics and taste can also become issues. This year, Belgium's Eurovision organizers removed a band member from their country's entry amid reports of a far-right political past.

Slovenia's 2002 entry, The Sisters, became a topic of public controversy and parliamentary debate for the group's sexual complexion. Gay rights campaigners said the debate over the three transvestites unearthed deep-rooted homophobia in the country. (Full story)

Inside Skonto hall
This year's theme is the galaxy.

In 1974, Portugal's entry was the planned trigger for a military coup when it was broadcast on national radio.

This year's favorite, t.A.T.u, has stirred controversy for its raunchy schoolgirl lesbian act.

"t.A.T.u, is not our responsibility, I don't think it is not suitable for family entertainment. It is our responsibility to make a good and entertaining event," organizer Smite said.

The world-famous Russian duo has pledged not to tone down their performance for the family show.

They vowed their song "Ne Ver, Ne Boisya," ("Do Not Believe, Do Not Be Afraid") will "blast everything that's gone before with our sexy act."

"No one should be afraid of us but we are going to win Eurovision," they said in a statement.


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