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?