Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
28 April 2014updated 14 Jul 2021 9:42am

Can a bearded Austrian drag queen give Putin the bird?

Austria has incited anti-gay and transphobic rhetoric in Russia by entering Conchita Wurst into Eurovision. Can she do for drag what Dana International did for trans people?

By Thomas Calvocoressi

It’s probably safe to say the Eurovision Song Contest is no stranger to camp – both witting and unwitting – nor has it had a dearth of openly LGBT contestants in the past. Indeed one of the contest’s most famous winners, and perhaps the apogee of all Eurovision, was the Israeli transgender superstar Dana International in 1998 with her hi-NRG anthem “Diva” (her second entry for Israel, “Ding Dong”, in 2011 fared less well). And both singer and song were not without controversy, with many Israeli Orthodox Jews and other conservatives fiercely opposing her participation; on arrival at the contest in Birmingham, she needed a constant police escort.

This year’s Eurovision entry for Vienna, the 25-year-old drag queen Conchita Wurst, is performing a song, “Rise Like a Phoenix” that has more than a nod to “Diva”, with a touch of Bond theme. And while Wurst (real name Tom Neuwirth) is emphatically a gay male performer rather than being trans, his look is perhaps Eurovision’s most genderqueer yet: he’s a drag queen with a beard. This is not the comedy butch bloke in a frock look but something altogether more striking (and apparently hard for many people compute); Conchita’s look is what might be termed in the trade as “femme réal”, except for his face fuzz: feminine, alluring, pretty (his dark wig and smoky make-up also perhaps a homage to Dana International). 

There is a healthy history in gay culture of this kind of gender-bending, hetero-confusing, razor-lite alt-drag, from the Cockettes in San Francisco in and Bloolips in London in the 1970s to some of Kenny Everett’s characters in the 1980s to the drag performer Jonny Woo today. You can probably find the filtered down, mainstream “drag queen with a beard/bearded gay hipster in a wig” in any European drag bar or gay club these days, so to most people on the scene Conchita’s appearance will be a familiar trope. Not so much to our LGBT-loving friends in Russia it seems, though. 

According to Reuters, online petitions, one calling the competition a “hotbed of sodomy” have already been started in Russia (which passed a law last year banning “gay propaganda”), as well as Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, to have Wurst removed from the competition or edited out of broadcasts in their countries, something that illustrates the ever more stark cultural differences within Europe and the widening gulf in attitudes to homosexuality. 

Whatever you think of the song, which you can listen to below, a vote for Wurst on the night is another vote against Russian homophobia and transphobia, and a win would send out a strong message of defiance eastwards. Will Wurst be the best and get the Royaume Uni’s Douze points? 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them