There’s one moment in the documentary Conchita: Unstoppable which drives home the impact Eurovision continues to have on the countless small conservative towns and communities scattered throughout Europe.
Fresh from her victorious 2014 performance of “Rise Like a Phoenix” in Copenhagen, Denmark, Conchita Wurst is visiting her small hometown of Gmunden in Austria. While there attending a family restaurant for lunch, she’s confronted by a middle-aged worker who feels the need to voice his disapproval of her representing their country.
“I feel offended,” the local man says to her, seemingly unprovoked. “I won’t shake your hand.”
“You don’t have to,” replies an ever-composed Conchita. This is nothing new for the humble drag performer. In fact, it’s part of the reason she originally decided to take her small burlesque act to a global stage.
The drag alter-ego of singer Tom Neuwirth, Conchita - like Australia’s own Courtney Act - was first created as a vehicle for an openly gay singer looking to crack the mainstream via reality television—both Courtney and Conchita first auditioned for talent shows out of drag, with limited success. With a striking image and killer pipes, Wurst soon became known and loved by Austrians as the ‘bearded lady’ and rose to stardom, being selected to represent her country in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest.
Conchita: Unstoppable, which is available to stream on SBS On Demand, intimately follows Wurst from her groundbreaking Eurovision victory through to a history-making performance at the esteemed Parisian cabaret club The Crazy Horse, where in October of 2014 she became the first person not born a woman to perform a headlining act. However, for all her remarkable achievements, the film’s most poignant moments are those bridging the gap between her notions of home, family, and acceptance.
Of her childhood, Wurst has said: “Being in a small village I was forced to hide being gay and I changed myself in every way I could imagine so that I could lead a happy life.”
“But then eventually I came to the conclusion that I deserved a fabulous life like everyone does and then came out.”
Upon making an address at the United Nations, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the importance of Wurst’s music and community work off the back of Eurovision victory. “She confounds people's preconceived ideas of gender and sexuality — and she appeals to them to accept her as she is,” he said. “That is a powerful message.”
Shining a light on Wurst’s understated brand of activism—the singer once mused that “it's funny that these people think I'm so powerful” - audiences are then invited back to Gmunden to witness Wurst being made an honorary citizen. This is the first and only time we see the singer cry; standing before her family, overwhelmed by the full-circle nature of her outcast-to-hero journey. This is the real opportunity Eurovision presents queer and genderqueer artists: the chance to first alienate, then educate the masses through their music.
It’s a challenge being faced again this year by Montenegro’s Slavko Kalezic, a masculine-presenting, self-proclaimed drag queen with dark beard, meter-long braided ponytail, and clear penchant for gyrating torsos. Similar to Wurst’s experience, Kalezic is this week on the receiving end of both international praise and hometown condemnation.
“In conservative Montenegro, where more than 70 percent of people identify as Orthodox Christians, Kalezic's entry has been met with as many, if not more, jeers than plaudits,” reports RadioFreeEurope.
The mood surrounding Kalezic’s entry is perhaps summarised most potently by 22-year-old Montenegrin Luka Radunovic, a law student, who tells RFE that the performance “humiliates our country”.
“We’re from a bit of a closed country, so we're not familiar with those things. I don't like him at all.”
Indeed, Wurst isn’t the first LGBTIQ+ person to use Eurovision as a platform for change, and she certainly won’t be the last. Back in 1998, Israel’s Dana International - an openly transgender woman - won the competition. Still, Wurst’s appearance has been described as the "most genderqueer yet” - and her success is hopefully a sign of what’s to come.
While Australia’s Isaiah Firebrace will this week be vying for the title of Eurovision champion in Kyiv, Ukraine, the diversity championed by the camp annual singing competition will be felt long after the final pieces of confetti are swept up on May 14th. Conchita’s quiet legacy of change-making and steadfast individuality is testament to that.