Golden girl: Conchita performing at the Eurovision Song Contest, May 2014. Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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"I'd love to see Angela Merkel dressing a bit more cosy": the passion of Conchita Wurst

The 2014 Eurovision winner already counts Cher and Lagerfeld among her fans. Now, her message of tolerance is going global.

First, she appears as a tiny figure on a huge stage, a slender form silhouetted by an array of spotlights and partly obscured by disco smoke. Slowly the camera moves in to reveal the gold-embroidered full-length gown, the Kate Middleton brunette waves and then a beard so thick and neat that it seems painted on. About 120 million people watched Conchita Wurst’s winning performance of her defiant power ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix” in the 2014 Eurovision finals. In a breathless acceptance speech, she dedicated the night to “everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity and we are unstoppable.” The crowd erupted and waved its flags. In Russian political circles, the reaction to her success was equally hysterical. “It’s the end of Europe!” warned a former deputy speaker of the Duma.

Conchita spent the following year performing at gay pride marches worldwide, giving speeches on equality and tolerance for the UN and the European Parliament and brushing shoulders with celebrities at fundraiser balls and parties. The fashion world fawned over her. She modelled for Karl Lagerfeld, posing in a slip and suspenders on the lap of a pregnant model, Ashleigh Good, for a series called “The New Normal”. And she worked on her autobiography, Being Conchita, which includes a foreword by the designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who says he voted for her 73 times and describes her as “a Wonder Woman in a man’s body”.

This autobiography was “not love at first sight”, Conchita confessed, when we met at a hotel in central London in early May, though she’s thankful that she did it now. “The whole process of telling my story to my ghostwriter was so intense, after all, because he would ask me questions that no journalist would ask me. Things like, ‘How did it smell at your grandmother’s house?’” The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot like Karl Lagerfeld, who smells of a mixture of menthol and eau de cologne.

She was wearing a white silk trench coat and a big butterfly ring, which she waved around as she spoke, and perched neatly on the end of a large, cream sofa. I thought that she resembled a bearded Barbie but later I read a social media post in which Conchita describes herself as “Zayn Malik and Kim Kardashian” and realised that this description was unbeatable. The voluminous hair, high cheekbones, olive complexion and heavy lashes are 100 per cent Kardashian. The sculpted beard points in One Direction.

Conchita is good-natured when people express puzzlement at her identity, whether she is responding to those on websites such as ask.fm who often wonder, “Are you a boy or a girl?” or the more polite, circuitous BBC Radio 4 questions: “When it comes to LGBT or LGBTI, as that lexicon becomes longer and longer and more inclusive, we were trying to figure out where you would put yourself on it . . .”

The answer is not so complicated. Conchita Wurst is the stage persona of Thomas Neuwirth, who is a gay man. Offstage and out of drag, Neuwirth uses “he”. Conchita uses “she”.

“I would prefer a society where we don’t have to explain ourselves,” Conchita said. “But I get that many people just need those labels to understand it. And if I make my situation or beliefs more understandable by putting labels on it, I’m happy to do it.” She felt sympathy for Bruce Jenner, the Olympian and TV celebrity who announced his transition to a woman in April. “It’s sad that she actually needs to explain it to people,” Conchita told me, “but on the other side, it has a great benefit because it’s visible.”

Growing up in conservative, small-town Austria, Tom Neuwirth often hid himself away in his parents’ attic. There, he could dress up, make clothes and practise singing away from the neighbourhood gossips and the playground bullies. His relaxed and open attitude to the media is in some ways surprising, considering that, aged 17, he accidentally came out to his parents in a magazine interview. He describes this as “the biggest mistake of my life”. It precipitated a small domestic crisis, resolved only when his fiercely loyal grandmother stormed into the house and told his parents – who ran the village restaurant – to stop moping and start preparing dinner. “I feel sorry for what happened then but, on the other hand, it was maybe the right way for my parents to deal with it. Sometimes you have to jump into the water instead of dipping in.”

Conchita is now 26 and told me she had learned a lot about the media since then. The interview may have been good preparation for a life lived largely in the public eye. A year after the magazine piece, Neuwirth came second in the Austrian talent show Starmania, performing “Goldfinger” in a glittery hoodie and gold trousers. Later, he joined Jetzt Anders! (“Now Different!”), a short-lived boy band.

According to Conchita’s book, “The high point of Jetzt Anders! was when we played at Paris Hilton’s birthday party.” In person, she has a wry humour. Perhaps her book is dan­gerously deadpan.

Neuwirth developed the character Conchita Wurst in 2011 for a burlesque show in Vienna. The bearded look was a happy chance discovery, made when he was experimenting with some new stage make-up while still unshaven. When Neuwirth becomes Conchita, the transformation is more than skin-deep. “I change into the character I want to be in the public eye. I created this figure that I feel comfortable with, more than I could without the wig. It’s a complete transition,” Conchita said. They speak differently: Neuwirth speaks in an Austrian dialect while Conchita prefers High German. Conchita helped Neuwirth love his body, too. Before, he fretted that no matter how much he worked out at the gym, he couldn’t bulk up – but now he knows that his slim physique looks great in a dress.

Beauty and the beard: the wisdom of Conchita Wurst. Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra for New Statesman

Conchita broke into the Austrian mainstream by performing in Die grosse Chance, another talent show, in which she came sixth. Then she worked in a fish factory for the reality TV show The Hardest Jobs of Austria and went to the Namib Desert in heels for the German programme Wild Girls. “I didn’t know much about Africa but what I did fascinated me. Two hundred million years ago, Africa was the heart of the Pangaea supercontinent,” Conchita writes, part Carrie Bradshaw, part geology bore.

Conchita was not the first gender non-conforming artist to make it big in Eurovision, a pop contest that was conceived to bring Europe together in the aftermath of the Second World War and that has developed into a glorious, intra­continental festival of high camp. In 1998, Dana International became the first trans singer to win. But Conchita is the first lady with facial hair to do so and her mainstream success challenged conventional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Hers is the beautiful, bearded face of gender diversity. She has become “a mascot for an increasingly large section of society that has little time for other people’s ideas of who we are supposed to be”, the trans rights campaigner Paris Lees wrote in the Guardian.

Her victory followed the implementation of repressive anti-gay legislation in Russia and an increase in homophobic violence in the country. “Rise Like a Phoenix” topped the download charts there for days after the contest. But petitions called for Conchita’s removal from the show and there were denunciations from the Russian Orthodox Church, online hatred and even death threats. How did she cope with this? “I really have a very impolite way to put that. Once I’m sure about what I do, I couldn’t care less about the opinions of others,” she said. “[When I’ve] laid down my insecurity and accepted who I am, no one has the power to harm me. You can just hurt me if I love you . . . I love a few people on this planet and we’re nice to each other.”

Conchita believes that many of the people who bullied or insulted her did so because they were unhappy about themselves. Would she apply that analysis to Vladimir Putin, who oversaw the implementation of Russia’s 2013 law banning “gay propaganda” and who attacked her for putting her sexuality “up for show”? “We all have insecurities and things we struggle with, so definitely also him,” she said. “I would love to meet him but I think I would need to spend a week with him, because I want to understand: what does it mean to be president of a whole country? I would love to understand how these laws came about that discriminate against a minority; how this fear, at the end of the day, about changes came about.”

She would like to meet Barack Obama and the Pope, too. “I would definitely want to figure out the interpretation of the holy book, because, for me, obviously there’s a lot of misinterpretation going on,” she said. Who knows? She may yet meet them both. She has met Bill Clinton, spoken to many EU politicians and had a “lovely chat” with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. “He [was] ambassador in Austria for four years. We were talking about his German and he said, ‘It’s not so good,’ and then said something in German. And I said, ‘Oh, you’re right. Your German is not so good.’ It really was just a very nice conversation.”

I wondered how different it felt for a performer who was used to pride marches and burlesque shows to sing to seated rows of men in suits. “I didn’t really focus on them,” she replied, with a laugh. “I didn’t focus on if they were men or women.” Would she like to see fewer men in suits in power, greater gender diversity – perhaps, dare I say it, a bit more flair and style? “Oh, my God!” she replied, her standard first reaction to an unexpected question. “However they feel comfortable. I mean, I would love to see the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, dressing up in a more cosy way, if she feels like doing it. I don’t really care what they look like.”

Conchita objects to journalists who say that politicians are using her as a “tool” to promote greater tolerance. The power runs both ways. She also feels it is “over the top” when people describe her as a role model. She rejects the idea that her public persona puts a lot of pressure on her. “I try to get rid of all expectations in my life, because they lead to disappointment. And I never promised anything. I just keep on telling my beliefs, I keep on doing the music I like, I keep on dressing the way I like to dress.” This might explain why, when I asked how much influence she had, she replied, “I don’t think I have the power to change anybody.”

Still, I asked Conchita if she had a few words for people who are lost and lonely or who face discrimination because of their sexuality or gender, and she seemed animated by a new passion. “I really want to make especially young kids believe that, in the first place, they’re great the way they are. In the second – and it’s just my point of view – you have this great fear of losing people you like by being different. You have to believe, even if this happens, that those people are not right for you. You have to believe that love will find you.” She paused and then added, “Love will find everyone. You’re never alone.”

As she left the hotel, she wrapped her silk coat a little tighter around herself. The red soles of her white patent stilettos flashed with every step and the shoppers on Regent Street stopped and stared at her, open-mouthed, until she disappeared.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era