Conchita Wurst and the ESC Europe’s bearded queen

Conchita Wurst

Conchita Wurst is a stage persona sporting both an evening gown and a beard. Despite plenty of invective in the run-up to the big event, she won the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 and took a stand for a Europe of tolerance.

She looks quite the diva with her slim waist, wavy brown hair, gold sequin dress, opulently mascaraed eyes – and full beard. Ostentatious, though without looking overly tacky, Conchita Wurst stole the show at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Copenhagen and took the title home to Austria.

“She was good. She was excellent. She was the best,” acclaims Jan Feddersen, an ESC expert at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (North German Broadcasting Corporation) and editor of the Berlin daily Tageszeitung (taz for short). Now that the ESC winner is no longer decided by a jury alone, but also by the viewing public via televoting, the best act wins, says Feddersen, regardless of how polarizing the artist may be.

 

Taking a stand against discrimination

Conchita Wurst is actually Thomas Neuwirth when (s)he’s at home. Neuwirth was born in 1988 and hails from a village in Upper Austria. Back in 2006 he came in second on Starmania, a casting show on the Austrian channel ORF. He went on to train at fashion school in the city of Graz. Since 2011 he has been appearing publicly as Conchita Wurst, his bearded female stage persona. However, Thomas is not a transsexual. Through Conchita, Neuwirth seeks to take a stand against the kind of discrimination he experienced as a gay youth. He was dubbed Conchita by a woman friend of his from Cuba, and he picked the last name “Wurst” (“sausage”) purportedly because es ist wurst (“it doesn’t matter”), he says, where you’re from and how you look.

Jan Feddersen Jan Feddersen | Photo: private The sight of a woman with a full beard is, at first, unsettling. Not because we’re homophobic, but simply because we’re not used to seeing that sort of combination. “One mustn’t be put off by the beard,” says Jan Feddersen. “It does have a significance, but only one of many. That was a serious performance. The beard was extra.” The resurrection of a phoenix out of its own ashes is the not so subtle message underlying this year’s winning song, Rise Like A Phoenix. After being handed her trophy on stage, Conchita proclaimed: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity and we are unstoppable.”

Divided opinion in her native Austria

It was not necessarily to be expected that storms of jubilation would greet Conchita’s victory that night in Copenhagen. After having failed twice in previous years, she had been tapped by Austrian national broadcaster ORF’s director-general, without having to qualify in a preliminary round, to represent her native country. The broadcaster’s choice was not backed by a national consensus at the outset. In an opinion poll conducted by the Klagenfurter Humaninstitut in the run-up to the contest, only about half the Austrians surveyed felt Conchita was the right pick for the contest in Copenhagen.

Austrian ultraconservatives, especially the right-wing populist party FPÖ, railed against the choice and vilified Conchita Wurst. Party leader Heinz Christian Strache derisively asked whether Conchita was a he, a she or an it, and, opting for the latter, whether “it” should really represent Austria in the Song Contest.

Votes for Conchita from all over Europe

But her unequivocal triumph silenced most of her detractors. Austria could now celebrate its first ESC triumph since Udo Jürgens all the way back in 1966. And Conchita, Queen of Austria, became Conchita, Queen of Europe.

She owes her crown not only to the jury, but above all to callers-in from all over Europe. In Russia, where even after her ESC victory Conchita still has antagonists (especially in the political realm), the TV audience voted her third, which, combined with the jury score, gave her a total of five points from Russia. ESC expert Feddersen says, “That’s a significant sign that right-wing populist notions don’t bear fruit everywhere.” And as Conchita herself said at a press conference in Vienna, a country cannot be reduced to its tolerance or intolerance; her victory, she said, has nothing to do with East or West.

Witness the scores the Austrian singer raked in from the Eastern side of the Continent: 8 from Romania, 7 from Moldova, 6 from Latvia. While the jury itself ranked Conchita only 11th, she came in 1st among callers from Germany, which awarded 7 points to Austria.

Conchita Wurst does not want to be the new ambassador of tolerance or a role model, for that matter. And yet by winning the Eurovision Song Contest she has taken an extremely conspicuous stand for a Europe of freedom and acceptance.