By Mia Shanley
MALMO, Sweden (Reuters) - Denmark's Emmelie de Forest won Eurovision on Saturday before an international TV audience of around 125 million, clinching the coveted crown of euro-pop with a folksy ballad backed by a wall of fire, flutes and drums.
The barefoot 20-year-old blonde stole the show as predicted by bookmakers with "Only Teardrops" in a final that saw 26 countries battle it out in the southern Swedish city of Malmo for the top prize in glitzy European pop music.
"I could feel the fans and all the energy in the arena," de Forest said after the event, adding that she was particularly proud to win in Sweden as her late father was Swedish and a Eurovision fan.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience. I'm just the happiest girl in the world," she said.
Denmark, which has won the contest twice before - most recently in 2000 with the Olsen Brothers' "Fly on the Wings of Love" - was clearly in the lead even after just half of the votes were cast.
The show's host, Swedish comedian Petra Mede, went ahead and announced the country's win before the final votes were read out, with the red and white Danish flag flashing on her gown in a classic over-the-top Eurovision moment.
Azerbaijan took second place in the competition with "Hold Me", followed by third place for Ukraine with "Gravity".
"How many times can we win and lose? How many times can we break the rules between us? Only teardrops," the Danish performer sang, beaming ear-to-ear as she repeated her winning song to the audience against a fiery backdrop.
Her victory means the contest will move just across the bridge to Denmark next year, keeping the contest in the Nordics for a second year running after Sweden's Loreen won last year's contest in Azerbaijan with her dance track "Euphoria".
"It's nice to give the prize to someone else. I have had such a fantastic year," Loreen told Reuters.
Singers from Russia to Romania competed as Eurovision returned to the homeland of ABBA, the Swedish band it propelled to global superstardom.
There was no shortage of ABBA nostalgia Saturday night.
Former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus composed the opening act together with Swedish DJ Avicii, and the Swedish singer Sarah Dawn Finer belted out the ABBA classic "The Winner Takes It All" before votes were revealed.
Though Sweden opted to tighten the budget for this year's show after oil-rich Azerbaijan spent lavishly in 2012, pop fans around the world still got their usual three-hour dose of heavy-duty kitsch.
Famed as much for the costumes and characters on stage as its - sometimes - catchy tunes, Eurovision's line-up included a 2.4-metre (7-foot-10-inch) tall Ukrainian who carried singer Zlata Ognevich, and a girl-on-girl kiss in Finland's "Marry Me", which drew media controversy.
SPIRIT OF UNITY
Thousands of Danes gathered in front of city hall in downtown Copenhagen, waving flags, drinking beer and forming a conga line that snaked throughout the square.
"Tonight we won the Eurovision Song Contest. Amazing. It's amazing!" said Emil Espersen, wearing a red-sequined jacket.
Eurovision, one of the world's longest-running television programs, was started in the 1950s to help foster a spirit of unity after World War Two.
In an attempt to ensure that musical quality takes precedence over geographically motivated bloc voting from television viewers, professional judges now account for 50 percent of a performer's score.
The other half comes from the number of telephone and SMS votes each contestant receives, with fans unable to vote for their own country's entry.
Earlier on Saturday, Eurovision fans packed into downtown Malmo's squares and parks on an unusually hot, sunny day, with music blaring and boats cruising the canals.
"It's the festival feel, the fun, the unity - everyone's out to have a bit of fun," said Eurovision fan David Sherrit, who flew in from Britain. "The music is quite awful, but we really come here because it's great fun and you can have a laugh at yourself and each other."
In its nearly six-decade history, Eurovision has been a launching pad for the likes of Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and Olivia Newton-John. ABBA won the contest with "Waterloo" in 1974.
(Additional reporting by Ilze Filks and Mette Fraende in Copenhagen; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Jackie Frank)