Conchita Wurst: Dame Edna meets Shirley Bassey

The victory of a bearded drag queen from Austria in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest proves that Europeans are in fact a pretty tolerant bunch. It’s hardly news. After all, this is the same competition that was won by an Israeli transsexual, Dana International, in 1998. It simply showed that Europeans are not that bothered by such things anymore, especially when it comes to Eurovision, which long ago crossed the line from kitsch to camp.

Conchita Wurst – real name Tom Neuwirth – is an act, and one perfectly suited to Neuwirth’s voice and sensibility. The winning song, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, is a glorious slice of over-the-top diva pop that has drawn frequent comparisons with a Bond theme. Being Conchita gives Neuwirth the licence to get his inner Shirley Bassey on – and his vocal was almost as good as the Welsh superstar herself.

Okay, singing as a bearded woman is a great way to court controversy, and Conchita is happy to exploit that provocation to the full. But his victory was, at the end of the day, built on a good tune and a fine performance. The publicity – of which there was bucket loads before Saturday’s grand final – was handy, but far more outrageous drag acts have tried and failed at Eurovision, not because of the audience’s prejudices, but because the song and the performance weren’t good enough to win.

Equally, Conchita’s victory isn’t ‘one in the eye’ for the supposed homophobes of Europe. In fact, Austria’s entry scored well in public voting across Europe. Even in Russia, berated by many as being the home of homophobia these days, Austria came third in the public vote. Given that voters have a tendency to support songs from their neighbouring countries, this is a pretty decent result.

The usual suspects lost the plot, of course. ‘There is no limit to our outrage’, said right-wing Russian rent-a-gob Vladimir Zhirinovsky. ‘It has turned wild. There are no more men or women in Europe, just “it”.’ But most people saw Conchita as camp fun. Equally, the Polish entry – a song about Slavic girls using their ‘charming beauty’ accompanied by bucolic, busty milkmaids – was every bit as camp and ironic as the bearded diva. Welcome to Eurovision, folks.

Conchita’s victory is no more a blow against homophobia than the popularity of Aussie comedian Barry Humphries’ creation, Dame Edna Everage. While most Europeans long since ‘got over it’ when it comes to accepting gays, transvestites and transsexuals, the noisy campaigners and commentators want to use the imagined ‘backward’ attitudes of the multitudes as a stick with which to beat them. You can’t simply vote for Conchita because you liked the song and the performance. You must vote for him because to do otherwise would betray your reactionary ideas. Such a demand for conformity is far more outrageous than a drag queen with a beard.

Rob Lyons is associate editor of spiked.

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