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Conchita: Poster girl for a more liberal Austria

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Conchita Wurst. Photo: APA
10:23 CEST+02:00
No longer will Austria be known as the land of Mozart and the Alpine landscape alive with the Sound of Music - drag act Conchita Wurst has sung her way into Europe's heart and shone a spotlight on a more modern, tolerant Austria.

Eurovision's newly crowned champion - the Austrian 'Bearded Lady' Conchita Wurst (otherwise known as 25-year-old Tom Neuwirth), is one of Eurovision's most unique and polarizing winners yet.

Conchita was greeted by a jubilant crowd of thousands on her return to Vienna, and has turned conceptions of Austria as a conservative and stuffy backwater on their head.

She has become a standard bearer for anti-discrimination and tolerance. "This will remain an issue for a long time and I fear I won't see the end of it in my lifetime. It will be my life's worth and I gladly take it on," Wurst told reporters in Vienna.

Wurst took the Eurovision crown in Copenhagen despite initial expectations that the act would be too controversial for socially conservative countries.

Conchita wasn't just battling singers from 25 other nations in Saturday's finals - she also had to fight controversy over her participation in the contest in general.

When it was announced last September that she would represent Austria at Eurovision 2014, within four days more than 31,000 protesters had "liked" an anti-Conchita Facebook page.

In Austria, the leader of the right-wing FPÖ party called the act "ridiculous".

Even after her victory there are still multiple anti-Conchita pages popping up on the web, although they are dwarfed by her official page which has 463,000 likes and counting. 

'More liberal' than Germany

It is Austria's first Eurovision victory for 48 years.

Austrian Formula 1 World Champion Niki Lauda said Wurst's achievement was "sensational and very cool!" He added that it also showed that Austria is "far more liberal than Germany - they only gave us seven points." 

Alfons Haider, one of Austria's most well-known television presenters who is also openly gay, praised Wurst's song 'Rise Like a Phoenix'.

"It makes a stand against exclusion and speaks for a tolerant Europe - and I admire her brave statements against Putin's anti-gay politics. We could see that at least some of the Russian audience thought differently than their president - he doesn't have total control over his country."

He told The Local that he believed Austria has changed a lot in the last ten years, and Conchita Wurst is just a symptom of this. "Just three years ago we had two men dancing together on the Austrian version of Strictly Come Dancing... our image has really changed. Although there is still work to be done - for example gay couples are not allowed to adopt children."

Haider said he believed Conchita's victory was a sign that eastern Europe is gradually becoming more tolerant. "Russia awarded her five points, and Ukraine awarded her seven points - of course there is always a right-wing element that is more vocal but Conchita has dealt with that so well." 

When asked what she would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin - who last year signed a law banning "gay propaganda" - Conchita replied; "I don't know if he's watching, but if so, I've made clear, we're unstoppable."

Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter that the Eurovision result "showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl."

And nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky weighed in with: "There's no limit to our outrage. It's the end of Europe. It has turned wild. They don't have men and women any more. They have 'it'."

The Eurovision winner secured most of her "douze points" top scores from western European countries including Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.

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However, Conchita said that she also had fans in countries perceived as being more conservative.

"It doesn't depend on a country, there are people ... also in eastern Europe who believe what I believe."

Austria last won Eurovision back in 1966 with 'Merci Cherie' by Udo Jürgens. This year's competition was "very interesting", Jürgens said, especially because of the controversy surrounding Wurst.

"But she dealt with it so well - she was always believable and serious. Europe has shown a lot of tolerance," he added. 

The Eurovision Song Contest was initially conceived to unite Europe following World War II, so this year's message of tolerance seems apt. 

The man behind Conchita, Tom Neuwirth, comes from Bad Mitterndorf in the province of Styria - which fans are renaming 'Bart (beard) Mitterndorf'.

He lives in Vienna with his partner (whose identity remains secret), although Conchita often appears in public with her stage 'husband' Jacques Patriaque. 

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