I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.
Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.
Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘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.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.
Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.
Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.
‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012’s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?
Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?
Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?
Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.