For a 58-year-old singing competition that somehow balances impossibly serious politics and impossibly silly music, perhaps it was inevitable that Austria’s “Bearded Lady,” Conchita Wurst, would find himself both cause and conductor of a political and cultural firestorm.
Only at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 could a guy with a beard wearing a frock cause such ructions.
Once upon a time such an innocent contest, with people from different countries singing infectious, or zany, songs in slightly extreme versions of their national dress, Eurovision was just a bizarre, fun thing to watch on a Saturday night. When the contest began in 1956 it was with the admirable post-war intention of bringing countries together around an entertainment contest.
Not only can European countries take part, but all countries that fall within something called the European Broadcasting Union, which includes the former Soviet bloc.
If you were British, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the fun came with a knowing nod; Terry Wogan, the BBC radio and TV personality, was always an unseen voice, marooned in a commentary box offstage, making snarky remarks about how weird the Finnish entry was.
There is a charming history of the brilliant and the terrible and the just plain odd songs that have emerged from Eurovision: from Sandie Shaw’s dainty “Puppet On A String” to the extravagantly dressed metallers Lordi in 2006. And we have Eurovision to thank for the contest’s most enduring and successful act, Abba—and, by extension, Meryl Streep belting out “Winner Takes It All” as she sweeps up and down dramatic Greek cliffs in the movie version of Mamma Mia!
When European politics became more vexed, so did Eurovision. Bloc voting for allies, and totally blanking your political foes, became the norm. Add the general barnyard-craziness of the show and the ineptitude, or just creepy, lost-in-translation antics of the hosts—the winning country of the preceding year hosts the following year’s contest—and, inevitably, the campness of Eurovision became its defining characteristic. The scoring is based on phone polls in participating countries, the results delivered by men in tuxes and women in ball-gowns in far-flung TV studios.
The winning strangeness of Eurovision is not just about the outfits or songs, but the existence of a contest very clearly not celebrating the best in music, which has also suddenly acquired a way-outsized political importance. Everything Eurovision shouldn’t be about—gimmickry above songmaking, inter-country animosities—it is, and it is all the more fabulous, and baffling, for it.
This year’s staging had a particularly crackling backdrop: the specter of the Russian annexing of Ukraine, as well as Russian homophobia. Not for nothing has the Eurovision Song Contest been dubbed the “Gay Olympics”: attend a gay Eurovision party not sufficiently au fait with key historical facts—Morocco has taken part only once, in 1980—at your peril. You may as well be at home watching a CSI rerun.
Inevitably, the audience in Copenhagen booed Russia loudly on Saturday night. This was rough in the moment, as the country’s entry was a pair of teenage twins, and really you couldn’t blame them for President Putin’s warmongering and state-sponsored bigotry
But Eurovision is all about statements, and so the crowd booed; and because Wurst—as performed by 25-year-old Tom Neuwirth—was the embodiment of sexual diversity that Eurovision-ers hold dear, he was cheered wildly. It was a direct hero versus villain smackdown. Wurst’s song was called, rousingly enough, “Rise Like a Phoenix.”
Ultranationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky called this year’s result “the end of Europe,” saying: “There is no limit to our outrage. It has turned wild. There are no more men or women in Europe, just it.” Putin’s vice premier, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted that the contest “showed supporters of European integration their European future—a bearded girl.” To which the only right-minded response right now, is “Hell, yeah, Dmitry.”
The contest has featured openly gay and transgender performers before, though never with Wurst’s intriguing brand of post-drag, of full beard and sparkly dress. Neuwirth calls himself “he” offstage and “she” when dressed as Wurst, and on his website goes into some detail about inhabiting both bodies. “They are a team just working in sync. Although they have never met before, they are constantly missing each other in the mirror. The private person Tom Neuwirth and the art figure ConchitaWurst respect each other from the bottom of their hearts. They are two individual characters with their own individual stories, but with one essential message for tolerance and against discrimination.”
Neuwirth, we learn, was born in Gmunden, and Conchita in Colombia. Neuwirth graduated from fashion school in Graz, while Conchita forged her Eurovision career as a contestant first in the Austrian heats in 2012, then as the country’s representative this year. “Because of the discrimination against Tom in his teenage years, he created Conchita, The Bearded Lady, as a statement. A statement for tolerance and acceptance, as it's not about appearances; it's about the human being.”
Some have dismissed Conchita’s look as just another loopy Eurovision gimmick, but even if it is Neuwirth’s visual statement of sexual difference and fluidity set squarely against the repressiveness of Putin’s Russia proved an exhilarating contrast, and eventual victory. For those too drunk or apathetic to care about such matters, Wurst’s victory also set the bar high for a new level of crazy next year. How does one outdo “the bearded lady?”