Austria’s beard is good for Europe

Hannah Graham 11 May 2014

So the results are in, and the winner of Eurovision 2014 is the fabulous Conchita Wurst; Austrian entry and wearer of genuinely very sexy stubble. Wurst achieved a memorable Eurovision victory with the Bond theme-esque ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, which scored an impressive 290 points in last night’s competition. Watching the Austrian singer tearfully accept her award, I felt genuinely moved and proud to be a part of a Europe which had chosen her as its victor. In voting for Conchita, Europe chose tolerance and acceptance over the hate-filled controversy which had mired her Eurovision bid.

Whatever you think of Wurst’s song, she certainly was a controversial entry. Petitions were filed in Russia, Belarus and Armenia to have her removed from the competition, with the Belarusian petition warning that the Austrian entry might lead to Europe becoming ‘a hotbed of sodomy’ and demanding that Belarus refuse to air the competition while Wurst remained a contestant. Vitaly Milonov, the politician behind Russia's strict anti-gay propaganda law, reportedly described Wurst as a ‘pervert’ who would ‘insult millions of Russians’, while an Austrian anti-Conchita Facebook group garnered over 37,000 likes.

Although the Austrian entry was surrounded by a barrage of transphobic abuse, Conchita herself is not a transgender woman but the drag identity of cisgender man Tom Neuwirth (for anyone confused about pronouns; the persona of Conchita herself, though played by a man, is female, and therefore goes by ‘she’). Nonetheless, Neuwirth says his act sends "an important message… a call for tolerance for everything that seems different". Despite subverting conventional gender role in some fairly obvious ways, the Austrian singer cannot be pigeonholed as little more than a novelty. Powerfully belting out the song of her own composition, she proved herself a worthy winner. Furthermore, the simple staging and comparative seriousness with which the act was presented helped it, in my view, to avoid the uncomfortable and potentially transphobic connotations so often carried by drag acts which treat men dressing as women as a joke in and of itself.

Conchita Wurst is, in her own words, “just a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and beard”, singing a song with genuine conviction and talent, looking absolutely amazing while doing it. Whilst Spanish and German speakers may recognise certain aspects of innuendo in her name, Wurst’s surname was chosen to reference the German expression 'Das ist mir doch alles Wurst,' which translates as 'it's all the same to me,' representing her message of tolerance and acceptance, so profoundly at odds with the prejudice of her detractors. As she says herself; "It doesn't really matter where one comes from, and what one looks like”.

Wurst’s victory, along with the proliferation of rainbow flags in the crowd and the frequent ‘boos’ for Russia left Europe in no doubt that last night’s event was thoroughly LGBT friendly. The fact that the competition was won by an absolutely beautiful, gender-bending, ‘bearded lady’ makes me genuinely proud to be part of Europe. The Eurovision song contest has always been ridiculous, lighthearted and camp, but last night showed that it can also be political in a more meaningful way than years of tired bloc voting. You’d have been hard-pressed to ignore the sea of rainbow flags in the audience and the victory for Wurst is yet another signal to the likes of the Russian establishment that Europe does not subscribe to their outdated ideas of ‘sexual morality’. Eurovision 2014 showed us to be a forward-looking, open-minded Europe. Well done, Eurovision, well done.