JERUSALEM (AP) — A 47-year-old Filipino caregiver has emerged as the newest star of Israeli reality television, putting a human face on the thousands of foreign workers who toil away in menial, back-breaking jobs in this country.
Israeli viewers of the country's myriad of reality shows have grown accustomed to successful candidates from various backgrounds, including black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews, Ethiopian immigrants and a German convert to Judaism who became a celebrity chef. But they've never seen someone like Rose Fostanes before.
The diminutive woman with a booming voice has taken "X-Factor Israel" by storm and emerged as a national phenomenon. Known simply as "Rose," she is mobbed by fans wherever she goes. "It's a big change in my life because before nobody recognized me, nobody knew me. But now everybody, I think everybody in Israel knows my name. And it is very funny," she said.
Fostanes arrived six years ago to work as a caregiver so, like millions of other Filipino workers around the world, she could send money back home to her family and her girlfriend. She spends her days caring and cleaning for an ailing woman in her 50s. To save money, Fostanes lives in a crowded apartment in south Tel Aviv, a downtrodden area inhabited by foreign laborers, with seven others.
Until recently, Fostanes was among the thousands of Filipinos who work in similar positions in Israel. The site of Filippino workers wheeling elderly Israelis in public places is so common that the word "Filipini" has become synonymous with "caregiver."
Several months ago, a friend encouraged her to enter the "X-Factor" competition, a popular show hosted by Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli. Standing just 1.50 meters-tall (4-foot-11), Fostanes has captured her audiences' hearts with a surprisingly strong and soulful voice, belting out such hits as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Lady Gaga's "You and I." She is among the final five contestants and widely seen as a favorite.
Israeli singer Shiri Maimon, a judge on the show and former reality TV contestant herself, has served as Fontanes' "mentor" throughout the season. After a recent rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," Maimon could barely contain her excitement.
"It was so moving. I am so proud of you. We will have an amazing journey together," she said. "I'm speechless. It was more than perfect." Fostanes said she has dreamed of singing since she was a child, but suffered discrimination because of her appearance. She said she still can't believe how far she has come.
"Sometimes I am telling myself, 'Is it true that it happened to me?" she said. "At least I can express and show the people that I have also talents and it's not too late for me to shine." Fostanes said she has been a caregiver since the age of 23, working in Egypt and Lebanon before coming to Israel. She is among the roughly 10 million Filipinos, or 10 percent of the overall population, who work abroad.
Israel's estimated 40,000 Filipinos enjoy relative freedom, as long as they have work permits. Most remain for an agreed-upon period of time before returning home. Fostanes said Filipinos around the world have heard about her and frequently send her text messages of support. But her success has been tempered by the distance from her loved ones. She last visited the Philippines two years ago.
"Really I miss them, my family especially, and of course my girlfriend because this is the time I really need them beside me," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I need their support not only because they are in the Philippines, I want them to be by my side."