Forward Thinking

Rose Fostanes, Israeli X-Factor's Unlikely Winner

By Nathan Jeffay

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It was one of the most moving moments I can remember in Israeli television. Last night, Israel’s most popular human export crowned the country’s most adored import.

Supermodel Bar Refaeli, whose career took off in foreign fashion centers, delivered the best imaginable news to a woman who unexpectedly found fame far from home, in Israel.

Hosting the first series of Israeli X-Factor, Refaeli informed Rose Fostanes, 47, that she had been voted the winner. Fostanes arrived in Israel four years ago to work as a caregiver and cleaner for the elderly, but found herself in a much more high-profile role as soon as she auditioned for X-Factor and captured the hearts of the nation.

If viewers were asked before the first show to describe what they thought the winner would be like, they would have never described someone like Fostanes. Not only is she non-Jewish and non-Israeli. She also hardly speaks Hebrew, is far older than the average contestant, has a far curvier figure than many women in music, and is a lesbian in a long-term relationship. It was poignant that her winning performance was “My Way,” the song popularized by Frank Sinatra.

Fostanes’ said before the final that she hoped to see her fame shine a spotlight on Israel’s foreign workers, including around 20,000 people from the Philippines who have received temporary work visas. On this, she may have less success than in her singing.

In contrast to the (currently-vocal) African illegal immigrants, who are often the invisible people toiling behind the scenes of hotels and restaurants, workers from the Philippines are highly visible to many Israelis — at the center of their home lives, caring for elderly, sick and disabled relatives. They often live with the people they assist.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that they are seen as service providers and their broader talents, hopes and dreams get little expression here in Israel. Will there be any substantive change to this, any major growth in regard for Philippines nationals? No.

Rags-to-riches stories, or modern variations of them, are the bread and butter of reality TV singing shows, and an element of national diversity makes for moving programming. But their stars are seen as exceptional individuals in the context of their background. In British X-Factor, there have been supermarket staff members who have wowed the nation, and a refuse collector who was runner up. Has this changed the country’s snobbish attitude towards supermarket work or refuse collection? Not one bit.


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