A month ago, I’d never heard of Conchita Wurst. Austria hadn’t crossed my mind since a high school Geography class 30 years ago.
Then I saw a video of the Eurovision 2014 winner and suddenly that changed.In just moments, not only did Conchita Wurst cause me to sob uncontrollably in response to her raw vulnerability as she sang, but Austria suddenly became a country I looked at with new respect.
After all, if someone like Conchita Wurst could emerge from Austria, a country not usually in the forefront of the world’s vision when it comes to being unique and different, that told me I’d not only been missing out on one of the 21st century’s most fascinating people, Austria itself might warrant a second look as well.
So, while other writers extolled the virtues of Ms Wurst’s powerful voice and her flawless fashion sense, I settled down to watch every video I could find featuring the now beloved-by-me Conchita. I wanted to discover what this woman was all about, and what that said about Austria.
From her start in Starmania as Tom Neuwirth, to her love-me-if-you-dare re-emergence four years later as Conchita Wurst in Die große Chance and then on to today’s updated version of the same woman - polished, haute couture and mesmerizing - I watched them all. Over and over again.
And as I watched, I stepped back from the glamour of Austria’s now reigning queen of Europe, and looked at the soul of the person beneath and ultimately, through it, to the soul of Austria.
This is what I saw.
A boy alone in the attic in his parent’s house in the village of Bad Mittendorf, singing his heart out and modeling his gowns. Wishing for a life away from the bullying at school, and from the realization he doesn’t fit in.
A young man who, even before the age of 18, acknowledges to himself he is gay, and then exposes that truth to the world. A world that chooses to reward his bravery with a second place finish in a televised singing competition - when coming first would have meant the world to him.
Four years later, the same man emerges from obscurity and appears once again in the public eye. But this time he arrives as Conchita Wurst, the diva he knows deep down he really is – and a person who will bare her heart and soul to the hatred of strangers, in a way she never has before.
The look in her eyes as she walks onto the stage of Die große Chance to face the judges, judges who sit open-mouthed with shock at this woman with a beard, is what I will never forget.
But what tears at my heart is the look on her face as she starts to sing. A look from the boy alone in the attic. A look that begs, “Please. I just want you to love me”.
It’s then, in the midst of this one small, heartbreaking moment the true soul of Austria appears.
As she begins to sing the opening bars of My Heart Will Go On, nervous, uncomfortable giggles quickly change to gasps of approval. Then the audience stands almost as one and cheers, applauds and screams.
People from a country whose admiration of courage, strength and talent is so strong they’ll respond positively to this unique and, yes, lovely human being in front of them. Prejudices and fears fall away and in their place these Austrians see Conchita Wurst for who she really is. One of the strongest, bravest and most talented people they may ever have the fortune to encounter.
The look on her face as she realizes drags my breath from my chest, and I cry. For her, and for this country and its incredible people.
Three years later, and Conchita Wurst has gone on to win Eurovision 2014 for a country that hasn’t attained that honor for 48 years, and has done it with grace, elegance, and kindness. And with a strength of character that really does seem to be - unstoppable.
She, and Austria with its acceptance of her, have shown while most Austrians may hear the bigots and the haters, they ultimately refuse to reward them with attention. Instead they continue their fight for tolerance, acceptance and love.
And not just for those ‘acceptable’ to society as a whole either. They also fight for those who, if given half a chance, could be a more positive force in the world than anyone may ever have thought.
Now, in the weeks after Eurovision, Conchita Wurst has continued to put herself front and centre on the world stage, and Austria and its people have remained right by her side. If my sense is correct, that’s where both will remain for a long time to come.
After all, when the world has fallen in love with Conchita Wurst and, thus, Austria right along with her, why would the rest of us ever want them to leave?