International

Why Teen Pop Star Noa Kirel Chose to Leave the Limelight to Serve in Israeli Military

Noa Kirel
Eran Levi

Noa Kirel

"I influence many young teenagers and it's important for me to encourage them to enlist as well," the "Israel's Got Talent" judge tells Billboard.

Noa Kirel, Israel’s biggest pop star, is taking her riskiest career move yet: joining the army.

To comply with mandatory military conscription in Israel, which is traditionally considered a rite of passage after graduating high school, Kirel, 18, enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces last week and starts basic training on Feb. 17.

Kirel first emerged as a YouTube singing sensation in 2015, and her hits, infusing sultry Hebrew dance music with western mainstream pop, soon went to the top of Israel’s radio charts. Since 2017 she has won the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Israeli Act three consecutive times, starred in her own TV series on the Kidz channel (going on its fifth season) and has served as a judge on Israel’s Got Talent since the age of 16; she is the youngest-ever judge on the Simon Cowell-created talent competition franchise.

But when called for duty at the height of her career, Kirel didn’t hesitate to take a professional detour, she tells Billboard, even with a serious medical condition to consider.

Kirel was born with unilateral renal agenesis, meaning she has one kidney, and she could have tried to avoid army service by appealing to the IDF medical board.

“There was never a doubt in my mind," she says. "My father and grandfather both served in significant roles, and even if my medical condition would've prevented recruitment, I would volunteer.

“Ultimately, I fought for this,” Kirel continues. “I influence many young teenagers and it's important for me to encourage them to enlist as well. I’m fortunate to experience many exciting things in my career, but the army connects me to my people. I'm about to go through something powerful, like every other girl my age, and I wasn’t about to give that up.”

Musical acts in other countries have also served required stints in the military. Korean boy band BTS and other K-pop stars have been unable to avoid the mandatory military draft in South Korea, but Kirel’s situation is more reminiscent of Elvis Presley, who joined the U.S. Army at the peak of his commercial success, having just released career-defining hits such as “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Drafted in 1958, Presley completed military training at Fort Hood, Texas, before being stationed at the 3rd Armored Battalion base camp in Friedberg, West Germany. He was discharged in 1960.

While the Memphis legend refused offers to join Special Services and serve as an entertainer, Kirel’s talent was at the heart of the IDF decision to accommodate the singer.

“My duty will be to perform in uniform and entertain troops all over the country, in the forefront, on the borders, do what I'm good at,” she explains. “The Israeli army is much more considerate and supportive toward artists nowadays, not to be taken for granted. They're allowing me to contribute the best way I can.”

Under Israeli law, she will be required to serve two years.

Courtesy of IDF's Meitav unit
Noa Kirel

Although Kirel's popularity is of undeniable interest to IDF, the situation is hardly without precedent in Israel. Dozens of famous teens have received similar perks, commonly known as Athlete of Excellence status, and usually referring to rising sports prospects.

In 2005, windsurfer Shahar Tzuberi enlisted in IDF's navy branch in Athlete of Excellence capacity, allowing him to train and eventually bring home the bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That same year, a similar gesture was extended to future Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, who joined the army after completing her year-long reign as Miss Israel 2004, serving as a combat trainer, while also continuing her modeling career.

By contrast, supermodel Bar Refaeli allegedly tried to get out of army service in order to not interrupt her international career. After failing to be granted a discharge, she eloped in defiance with a family friend 23 years her senior, thus taking advantage of a legal loophole that married women are not obligated to serve. She soon annulled the marriage, but the controversy stained her public image in Israel.

As Kirel’s recruitment shows, the IDF now realizes how working alongside celebrities can help both parties reap the rewards.

“Noa Kirel is set to start her service in the army's Education Corps in a talent capacity, created by the IDF to allow extraordinary artists to serve in accordance with their needs while requiring them to benefit the army with their abilities,” an IDF spokesperson tells Billboard. “Noa sets an example for youth with her enlistment and contribution to the country.”