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Life makes you cynical

"Where have all the Eurovision winners, with minor exceptions, gone? Nowhere! Still, I don't care and I want to win it" - Chiara. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

"Where have all the Eurovision winners, with minor exceptions, gone? Nowhere! Still, I don't care and I want to win it" - Chiara. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

Weight bashing, that "awful" red dress, and spiteful bloggers - Chiara, the ballad queen who has won the Malta Eurosong three times, gives a frank interview to Ariadne Massa.

The tension in the green room during the Malta Eurosong was palpable as the singers gathered in cliques for moral support to hear the results. Chiara sat alone, though not out of choice.

"We were about 30 singers, but I remained on my own. Nobody came to sit next to me. It bothered me a lot. I understand it's a competition, but if a friend wins the festival, I'd be happy for her... albeit disappointed for myself. You have to be a sport," she says, popping two paracetamol in her mouth to soothe a throbbing headache.

When the 32-year-old ballad queen decided to re-enter the festival for the third time last February, several said she should have stayed away to give young singers a chance and some made it blatantly obvious on the final night.

Chiara believes she has developed a thick skin, but agrees that the contest tends to become a bitch fest of egos where people smile for the camera, but draw swords backstage.

"It's scary and there are people who take it to extremes. The first year I took part, in 1998, it was exciting and I made a lot of friends. In 2005, I got a few dirty looks, but this was the worst year," she says, adding there are still singers who expected to win this year, but who to this day refuse to even look her in the eye.

She remembers how in 2005 Olivia Lewis (who placed second) had made it "pretty obvious" on television that she was upset and didn't speak to Chiara for two weeks, but then everything was forgotten and "we were back to being friends", a gesture Chiara appreciates.

Chiara has had to face her fair share of animosities and in her winning song What If We, she croons about lies and jealousy. She has just endured a bitter experience, where a long-time friend made a ridiculous request she could not accede to and he stopped speaking to her.

"I despise people who pretend to be your friend to ride on your popularity. But I thought this friendship was different. I'm still very hurt by his reaction," she says.

She confides that she has changed a lot since the public last saw her on the national stage and her trusting nature tends to be replaced with dry cynicism.

Since 2005, she has been through her own turmoil. In a matter of just four years, she has gone through a separation, an annulment, the birth of her 16-month-old daughter Ebony, a fresh marriage to Peter Okagbue, and the loss of her father.

"I have changed tremendously and matured - Ebony has given me a new perspective on life. But there are still those who manage to hurt me. Before, I was the type of girl who lived in a pink world of butterflies and flowers and everything was beautiful. I have finally landed on planet earth and realised I'm living in a real world with others," she says.

"Sometimes, I'm saddened that I grew up so suddenly because life was more beautiful. Now I'm cynical and I never liked cynics, but life makes you that way. I trusted everybody. True, I got hurt, but I tried. Now, they really have to earn it," she says.

These days she does not even take promises too seriously and refuses to become overly enthusiastic until anything materialises - there have been too many let-downs.

Despite her resolve, there are still certain rapiers that manage to penetrate her steely armour and wound her, especially when her weight becomes the topic of conversation.

"It hurts now more than ever. In the beginning, I shrugged off the comments because people had no idea what to expect from me. Now they know what I can deliver, but the comments online have become nastier and harsher," she says.

"There's one blogger who spews such hatred. He said I should be shot and that I embarrassed the Maltese. Another described me as the Fat Lady of ─Žagar Qim. When I saw these comments I cried for an entire day. I swear I won't look at what people are saying online again."

A definite low point was when her father, Maurice Siracusa, passed away. That evening she logged on in the hope of some distraction. Instead, she stumbled upon horrific allusions about him doing the rounds on the Eurovision websites.

Getting back on the subject of her weight, she recounts how she tried hard to battle the bulge and even went on national television to undergo a tummy tuck and liposuction, among other surgical procedures.

Did she do it for herself or others?

"I definitely did it for myself, for nobody else. I was keeping it up, but the pregnancy really set me back. I come from a typical Maltese family who made sure they kept me happy and fed my cravings," she says.

She admits that before the weight bashing began she never gave her physique a second thought and adds with a chirpy giggle: "I was the opposite of anorexics who see a fat body staring back at them. Whenever I looked in the mirror I always thought I was normal."

Despite the hurtful comments she still manages to feel comfortable in her skin, even though she admits she was thrilled to find clothes that fitted when she managed to drop a few dress sizes.

However, attempting to keep up the measured food portions is near to impossible now that she has a family and is facing a tight schedule of interviews, European promotional tours and shows. She confesses she eats whatever comes to hand, without analysing whether it's fattening or not.

"What hurts is that my weight should be nobody's business. People have no right to tell me to lose weight. If I see somebody skinny, it's not my place to go up to him and urge him to eat. I can't understand how strangers think it's their business to tell me to lose weight," she says, adding that, luckily, her husband loves her just the way she is.

She beams happily as she recounts how her husband has been extremely supportive, even though coming from Africa he didn't know the first thing about Eurovision.

"When we met, he had no idea who I was, which was very good, because sometimes I wonder if people are with me for who I really am and not for what I'm supposed to represent," she says.

He's taken such an interest in the European festival that he's already analysed and listened to all the songs that will be in the first semi-final in Moscow on May 12.

Mr Okagbue was initially reluctant to see his wife re-enter the festival, feeling she was risking losing everything, considering she had exited the Eurovision at the top. So why did she choose to enter the contest for a third time?

"The real reason is that I'm very hard-headed and for me this is unfinished business. Eurovision always gave me the feeling that I could do it and that it wasn't such an impossible dream after all. I'd rather take the risk than live with the regret of not trying," she says.

Coming so close to winning the Eurovision twice - placing third with The One That I Love in 1998, and second in 2005 with Angel - she wants to pursue it in the hope of one day winning the festival.

"It was my father's dream. He really pushed me to take part again. He was even more determined than me... It was his last wish. In the week before he died, he told my cousin: 'The last thing I have to see before I die is Chiara winning the Eurovision'," she says, her eyes welling up.

Chiara would have given anything to see his face in the cheering crowd when she was announced the winner last month. She still cannot believe she won the third time.

"I have an irrational fear of juries. Somehow, I feel that maybe because I never took any singing lessons, they're on the lookout for something I should be doing... so until I made it through the televoting stage I was terrified and quite stiff on stage," she says.

The old insecurities and shy demeanour tend to resurface now and then and she recalls how one day, when she was in Third Form at Carlo Diacono Girls' Junior Lyceum, the teacher had a few minutes to spare before class ended and called her to the front to sing.

There was no way the timid girl was going to get off her chair, but the teacher jokingly threatened that she should either sing or write an essay. That did it.

Word soon spread in school about the girl with the angelic voice and she was roped in to sing during the farewell concert, even though she had to be dragged on stage because she felt sick.

Since then, she has gone from strength to strength and her bashfulness has been replaced with confidence and a trademark wink that has won the hearts of thousands of Europeans.

Doesn't she feel that people's expectations are too high this time round? Is she scared that after coming so close she risks plummeting to the bottom?

"Yes, of course I feel the pressure. I'm obviously going there with the mindset to win. But there's no guarantee I'll even make it to the final. I'll go there and do my best as usual and hope it works... as usual," she says, adding that her first mission is to make it through the semi-final and get out of the losing rut, which is what PBS, this year's organisers, are hoping for.

However, many of her followers fear her song What If We is nowhere near as powerful as Angel and The One That I love. She shrugs this off and points out that each musical piece has its strengths, and the latest one really portrayed the woman she has become.

She admits there were some parts of the song she was unhappy with, but to put her fans' mind at rest, she adds that What If We has just been fine-tuned in a studio in Belgium, under the watchful eye of composer Marc Paelinck and author Gregory Bilsen.

"The beginning was too low for my liking and that's what seemed to bother people. They were also used to a climax note, which was lacking, but has now been introduced - it's really high and pushes me to the limit, but I'm happier with the final outcome. It ends with a big bang. The song is more powerful now," she says, eager to see the finished product reach Malta in the coming days.

Asked if PBS is planning a series of promotional tours and a video, Chiara questions whether these strategies reap any results, when the internet has become the main stage for any campaign.

"Frankly, I'm not pushing it this year. In 1998, I barely visited a country, while in 2005 I travelled a lot and in my opinion it made no difference whatsoever to the final outcome," she says, adding that in certain countries, such as Belgium (the composer and author are Belgian) and Greece (where she has a fan club), promotion helped.

Chiara is also not overly enthusiastic about the video, and she believes it is a waste of money: "What are you going to do with ballad? Feature the usual sea, sun, plane and hotels?"

Instead, she suggested that PBS create a clip featuring bits from the festival and the recording studio, which would cost far less than a video.

"PBS this year has done its utmost to keep me happy and I'm the most important thing to them. Usually, my opinion is never considered and I just had to lump whatever people decided. So when they asked for my opinion I was pleasantly surprised," she says.

Her biggest regret is wearing the shimmering, lacy red dress during the Eurovision in Ukraine in 2005, which journalists had slammed, describing it as "awful" and "horrendous".

She says: "If Charles and Ron had designed my dress for the Eurovision final I wouldn't have had to face such flak. I was very unhappy with that red dress - it looked like a tent."

During the Malta Eurosong, Chiara had looked elegant in a floor-length black dress, designed by Charles and Ron, and she lets on that her outfit for Moscow will not be straying far from this style.

"It will be along the same lines... for a change everybody liked it," she adds.

Asked if she felt Eurovision could lead to bigger, better things and fame, Chiara is under no illusions and realises that bigger record companies consider the contest as a joke.

"Honestly, I don't think record companies see it as a good platform. True, people get to know who you are, but otherwise companies tend to ridicule the fact that you took part in Eurovision. It's more something to hide than to flaunt," she says, shrugging her shoulders.

"Just stop and think: where have all the Eurovision winners, with minor exceptions, gone? Nowhere! Still, I don't care and I want to win it. That's my personal ambition," she says, letting off a hearty laugh.

Is this the last time she's taking part?

"I never say never. Knowing my character, if I don't win I'll probably show up again. It all depends where I place. If I don't make it to the final, I may not have the courage to return, but if I get close, then I'll probably make a last attempt... and maybe another."

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