How did Austria’s Conchita Wurst rise to European Glory?

Tiago André Lopes

The Persona 

Conchita Wurst, a persona created by the drag queen impersonator Thomas Neuwirth, dazzled Europe by winning 290 points at the popular TV show: Eurovision Song Contest. Austria, whose latest victory in the competition was in 1966, surprised Europe with a daring act that charmed the “Old Continent”. The second most appreciated entry, from Netherlands, did not even reach 240 points. But what exactly made Conchita Wurst such an enormous success across Europe?

When Conchita Wurst first appeared on stage, during the second semi-final (that she won with 169 points), the audience in Copenhagen as well as the millions of viewers following the show across the globe saw a seductive woman, in a golden glittering dress, with a heavy beard. Austria, usually associated with traditional values and highly-conservative social morals, “punched” the traditional male-female roles in a risky, but ultimately successful, bet.

It is undeniable that Conchita Wurst presented one of the strongest entries of the night. The song “Rise Like a Phoenix”, performed in a James Bond-like ambiance, was able to overcome the entries from Sweden, Armenia and Hungary (respectively third, fourth and fifth places) considered the strongest songs by the bookies in the weeks the preceded the show.

Conchita Wurst also overcame the so-called “pity-vote” in Ukraine (that finished in sixth place) due to the severe political crisis that is polarizing the Western and Eastern provinces of the Eastern European country. Conchita was even able to dazzle the audiences of countries like Armenia (second most voted song), Russia (third most voted song) and Belarus (fourth most voted song).

Curiously, only Russia awarded fewer points to the Austrian song. According to the Eurovision Song Contest rules, since 2009, the results are a combination of televoting (50%) and jury vote (50%). In Armenia and Belarus the jury didn’t agree with the viewers and lowered the Austrian entry from second to fourteenth place. In Russia the jury also “disagreed” with the viewers’ opinion but in a less radical manner granting Conchita five points.

So what explains Conchita Wurst’s success?

First of all the song! Despite all the political pressure and the “neighbor-vote” tendency, the Eurovision Song Contest is still a musical competition and Austria presented one of the strongest (if not the strongest!) songs of the show.

Second: the interesting non-traditional gender positioning of Conchita displaying female (long dress, polished nails, impeccable hair) and male (beard) attributes.

Third: the message of the song. “Rise Like a Phoenix” portrays a message of hope to those feeling discriminated. And in a Europe on the verge of a new rise of the far-right parties (posed to have good results, in several countries, on the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections), the Eurovision Song Contest seems to provide a necessary catharsis and escape valve to all the “freedom-lovers”. Conchita’s song it’s not just a pop-gimmick song, it’s a glamorous anti-discrimination manifesto.

Fourth: the strength of the LGBT community inside the Eurovision Song Contest. The sparkling and glittering musical competition is one the iconic moments expected with anxiety by the LGBT European communities. It is worth to remember, for example, that in 1998 the transgender singer Dana International (Israel) also won, in the United Kingdom, the Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Diva” collecting 172 points.

The Eurovision Song Contest of this year also showed a Europe unsympathetic towards Russia, with the audience in Copenhagen “booing” loudly every time any country awarded high points (8, 10, 12) to Russia. The same Russia that, after the defeat, demanded the realization of a “straight” Eurovision and to end with the “endless madness”.

What is straight, to me, is that Conchita Wurst is here to stay and Europe loves her!