Young Israeli celebrities juggle stardom with army service

Roni Superstar: I wanted to learn more about myself, about society, and to learn my place in it.For most celebrity performers who make it big by age 18, taking a break from their careers to serve in the army is …

Roni Superstar: I wanted to learn more about myself, about society, and to learn my place in it.For most celebrity performers who make it big by age 18, taking a break from their careers to serve in the army is the furthest thing from their minds. But what if Kelly Clarkson or Britney Spears had to temporarily retire from concert tours to do a tour of duty? What if the Backstreet Boys were asked to drop their mics and pick up guns instead? This is precisely the dilemma that young pop icons face – in Israel.

“People often think I had a choice of whether or not to go to the army,” says Roni Duani, whose stage name is simply “Roni” but was dubbed “Roni Superstar” early in her career – named after the title of her first hit song.

Duani captured the spotlight in 2003 with her debut album, became a leading force on the pop charts, and then was inducted into the Israel Defense Forces a year ago. “But the truth is that everybody has a choice, and lots of ‘regular’ teenagers choose not to go. But for me, that wasn’t an option. Everyone in my family went to the army. It was important to me. I wanted to see what it was like. I wanted to learn more about myself, about society, and to learn my place in it,” she told ISRAEL21c.

But not every young and famous Israeli feels the same way, as described by a recent posting on the blog Israelity. “There’s been a lot of fussing lately in Israel about pop stars who receive deferrals from their army service. It’s a problem in a country with a universal draft. You have cases of young people for whom national service just happens to directly interfere with a career like modeling, sports, or other forms of show biz with a very short and lucrative lifespan. The problem comes when the public gets mad that pop idols, who are inevitably admired by the nation’s youth and become role models…are draft-dodgers.”

According to Bar Ilan Professor of Mass Communications Dr. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, army attendance is so valued in Israeli society that opting to avoid the draft can often be more damaging to an Israeli pop star’s career than taking the time off. “Serving in the army is still considered, among the majority of the Israeli population, an obligation,” Lehman-Wilzig told ISRAEL21c. “Choosing not to serve can turn off a good part of the general public, so if a young celebrity would like to maintain his popularity, opting to serve is an advisable thing to do.”

There are rare exceptions, notes Lehman-Wilzig, who names singer Aviv Gefen as an example of a young, Israeli celebrity who managed to avoid the army without having to pay the social consequences. “His avoidance of the army was in line with his rebellious, anti-establishment, artistic persona,” explains Lehman-Wilzig. “His absence from the army didn’t damage his reputation.”

Avoiding the Israeli army is not altogether an easy thing to do “You have to work quite hard not to get drafted,” says Lehman-Wilzig, who nevertheless says that if one is determined enough and gets the right advice, or if one has not demonstrated any particular merit in life prior to being drafted, it is definitely possible.

Still, every Israeli youth is basically in the same boat. According to a statement from the IDF Spokesman’s Office, “From time to time, soldiers who are known public figures in Israeli society are drafted to the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The IDF is the army of the people and does not recruit, or make any distinction between soldiers, based on social status. Every Israeli citizen in the IDF receives equal treatment prior to, and during, his or her military service.”

“Going to the army is part of being an 18-year-old in Israel,” says Shai Gabso, who took third place on the musical reality TV series Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born) – the Israeli equivalent of American Idol and became an instant teen sensation. Gabso just completed his three-year army service a few weeks ago. “For all soldiers, there is always the option to leave the army,” he told ISRAEl21c. “But it comes at a price – a price I was not willing to pay.”

The same is true for actress, singer, and fashion model Agam Rodberg, who joined the army last year. “I am a citizen of Israel and this is my duty,” says the star of the popular 2004 television series Ahava Me’ever Lapina (Love Around the Corner). “It’s not something that I couldn’t do.”

Rodberg is serving in the IDF Entertainment Unit as a performer; Duani is serving as a spokesperson for the same unit; and although Gabso started out in a combat unit – where he remained for almost a year – he was moved to the Entertainment Unit’s Air Force band after he made it onto Kochav Nolad.

According to Lehman-Wilzig, it is fairly standard IDF procedure to assign their famous recruits to cushier units, despite the IDF’s insistence that it treats all new soldiers the same regardless of social status. “The army may not come out and say it, but they tend to put celebrities – whether they are athletes, or classical musicians, or pop stars – into lighter jobs,” he says.

In fact, the army keeps no secrets regarding its preferential treatment of athletes. “Because of their national contribution, these athletes are granted special rights during their army service,” reads a statement from the IDF. “While granting special privileges to outstanding athletes relatively minimizes their contribution to the IDF, it contributes significantly both to the field of sports and to the State of Israel.”

While this official recognition does not extend to teens who are famous entertainers, Lehman-Wilzig says they are granted it, informally. “From a public relations standpoint, pop stars are great for the army. As role models, they give the impetus to other Israeli youth to join the army,” he says. “On the other side of the coin, the celebrity gets to do a relatively easy service, and realizes that they are not going to have to do a three-year slog in the mud. It’s a mutually rewarding exchange.”

And the IDF is aware that the celebrities – who already have established careers – cannot be totally out of the public eye during their army service.

“The military benefits that are provided to celebrities serving in the IDF are similar to the rights of other soldiers in the army and so, just like all other soldiers, they have the right to apply for authorization to work in a job outside the army (as long as the request is approved by an officer of the rank of colonel),” reads an IDF statement.

As a result of this “celebrity clause”, many famous recruits are able to continue working on their careers while they are serving. Take Duani, who got a leave of absence from the army over Hanukkah to tour across the country with the Festigal festival. Duani also just finished shooting her new video clip for “Won’t Stop,” the headline song on her recently released second album by the same name. “I am very busy but I am having a lot of fun – both in the army, and working on my career,” she says.

That’s not to say that there aren’t hold-ups. For instance, Rodberg, who recently landed the lead role in the movie Queen of the Class, had to postpone shooting until March, since she couldn’t obtain a leave from the IDF. “Being in the army is holding me back from my career,” admits Rodberg.

Gabso says that balancing the two careers was his biggest challenge. “The hardest thing to do was to combine my army service and my music career,” says Gabso. “They are two very demanding jobs and they often conflicted with one another.”

Another major issue for celebrities in the army is dealing with peers. Says Gabso, “Sometimes other soldiers treated me better, and sometimes they picked on me. In any case, I was definitely treated differently than the usual recruit.”

“At the beginning, it was a bit weird because people didn’t know how to talk to me,” recalls Duani, who says her worst moment in the army was during basic training, when she arrived at the co-ed, communal lunchroom for the first time. “Everyone stopped what they were doing, put down their forks and knives, and stared at me. The room went quiet. It was totally embarrassing. This was a big trauma for me. I never went back to the lunch room again.”

But, says Duani, by the end of basic training she had made four close friends. “After awhile they realized I was human – and just as scared as they were about being a new soldier in the army.

“When I am in the army, I feel like a soldier, not a super star,” she says, admitting that she does still get asked for her autograph now and again by her IDF colleagues. “The best part of being a soldier is that I am free to act like myself. I don’t have to perform all the time. Being a soldier keeps my feet on the ground. It helps me remember where I come from.”

Gabso echoes similar praise. “I see the army as a place where you can reinvent yourself all the time,” he says. “It gives you the opportunity to be lots of things that in civilian life, you are not. All of a sudden, you become famous and it’s a whole other world. The army gives you the chance to continue your life the way it was ‘meant’ to be.

“Being in the army has kept me grounded,” he continues, adding that the experience has been a huge source of inspiration for his new album, set for release in May of next year. “It taught me so much about myself.”