A bold choice from Austria: Conchita Wurst
When it comes to their recent choices for Eurovision, the Austrians are often a somewhat unpredictable lot. They might sent straightforward power-ballads (like Nadine Beiler’s entry from 2011), positive-messaged pop (like Natália Kelly this year or Eric Papilaya’s 2007 entry)…or they might go completely off-the-wall and send Alpine-Cuban fusion, popo-wokiing rap, or whatever it was that Alf Poier was doing. So, after “Shine” failed to live up to its name during the First Semifinal, bringing the Austrians their second consecutive non-qualifier, one could imagine the folks at ORF shrugging their shoulders and saying “might as well try something different”!
And so they have.
Rather than holding a national final, ORF have gone for the internal choice of Conchita Wurst, the gender-bending runner-up of 2012’s “Österreich rockt den Song Contest“. Conchita is the alter-ego of 25-year-old singer Tom Neuwirth, who was the runner-up on the third season of Austrian casting show “Starmania”. (Interestingly enough, Tom is now the third alum of that year’s competition to make it to Eurovision, following Eric Papilaya and Nadine Beiler. A fourth from that series, Falco Luneau, took part in last year’s National Final.)
After lying low for a few years, the world got its first glimpse of Conchita in 2011 on another talent show, “Die große Chance“, coming in a respectable 7th place (and second place among the singers). The Eurovision fan community got to know her the next year, and we haven’t been able to forget her since. While she just missed out on bringing “That’s What I Am” to Baku, she’ll finally have her chance to shine in Copenhagen.
Eurovision is no stranger to acts that play with the idea and illusion of gender. Back in 1986, drag acts danced alongside Norwegian representative Ketil Stokkan as he sang “Romeo“. Slovenia gave us Sestre’s “Samo ljubezen” in 2002, and 2007 brought us a Danish “Drama Queen” and the indomitable Ukrainian hurricane that is Verka Serduchka. However, Conchita takes the envelope and pushes it deliciously further. By appearing so feminine, yet keeping her impeccably-trimmed facial hair, she appears to take the image of the standard of beauty for both genders and turn it on its head. That bold stylistic choice could easily lend itself to the creation of an over-the-top caricature, but interviews with Conchita seem to stray away from the stereotype of the over-the-top drag artist, and towards the image of an almost-vulnerable standard bearer for all of the men, women, boys, and girls (and everyone in between) who feel different, excluded, or ashamed of who they are. In theory, this likely won’t be a joke entry, but a message song.
In a way, it’s really quite touching.
Granted, this has nothing to do with the actual song we’ll be hearing from Conchita, which remains to be seen/heard. If her two previous releases, “Unbreakable” and “That’s What I Am” are anything to go by, one can probably guess that we’ll be hearing something with a dash of drama and a general theme of self-reliance.
That being said, there are many fans who were dismayed by the choice. Some feel that picking “the bearded woman” put a spotlight on all of the stereotypes that people (often falsely) have about Eurovision…that it’s all flash and sequin without substance. All sizzle, no wienerschnitzel, as it were. Others simply have been throwing homophobic/transphobic slurs. It’s always disheartening to see an artist that has the potential to carry such a message of understanding and acceptance being attacked with such vitriol, but if Tom and Conchita have taught us anything, it’s that strength and confidence often must come from within, and the courage to live your life on your own terms, whether that’s personally, professionally, or artistically, rests squarely upon your shoulders.
(All that being said…I’d pay good money to see Conchita belt out Dina Garipova’s “What If” in the Press Centre next year. Just saying.)