Double agent of tolerance

Austrian singer and Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst performs on stage during the opening ceremony of the Life Ball in Vienna.
AP Photo/Ronald Zak
Austrian singer and Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst performs on stage during the opening ceremony of the Life Ball in Vienna.

Just last month, Patriarch Amfilohije of Montenegro and Patriarch Irinej, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, declared the Balkan floods – the worst in human memory – a divine punishment for the apparition of Conchita Wurst, the 25-year-old Austrian “bearded lady” who won the Eurovision Song Contest for her native country. This has been in line with earlier claims by the spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church pronouncing her an abomination.

We have no reason to believe that the venerable churchmen would joke about a disaster that claimed dozens of lives. Also, God has demonstrated, at least on one occasion according to the Bible, that he can and will flood the planet when all reasonable forms of persuasion fail — about which Hollywood made a blockbuster starring Russell Crowe. So it must be true.

If The Almighty cared about Eurovision and pop music in general, which is clearly what the patriarchs are suggesting, then why not presume that it was also the Good Lord who let Tom Neuwirth win as Conchita Wurst. After all, He moves in mysterious ways.


I’d say it could’ve been easier to influence the outcome through the jury of Eurovision rather than flooding the Balkans and sparing neighboring Austria. Maybe it would have been enough just to confuse their language – like He did at the Tower of Babel – to avoid Conchita’s victory without loss of human lives. Perhaps God could’ve simply stricken down the bearded lady mid-phoenix-rising instead of opening the gates of Heaven and forcing 150,000 people out of their homes.

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We are only human — we tend to overreact occasionally. We often fail to see the bigger picture so it could well be we may never know what made so many good folks freak out from a televised music show, though it seems like history today. After all, Freddie Mercury has already sung “God knows I want to break free” in the ’80s causing no major floods nor children to stop growing. And there was no golden fishtail either — he was wearing a skimpy mini under his moustache.

In the clip for “I Want to Break Free,” Queen was poking fun at the British soap opera Coronation Street, while Conchita Wurst at the Eurovision was no less burlesque. She performed a hot-blooded parody of a Bond girl who got tired of being a sidekick. A travesty typical for some well-known nightclubs, but perhaps less familiar for the general television audience. It was the political message read into her act that elevated it to a sensation.

Conchita confessed on the Graham Norton Show that it wasn’t funny growing up gay in an Austrian village. He performed – still as Tom Neuwirth – a Bond song in the final of Austrian talent show Starmania, where he came in second with Goldfinger dressed in a golden hoodie. He was then playing in the boyband Jetzt Anders (Now Different), but it wasn’t really different until he created a female alter ego — the glamorous Conchita Wurst — and she won for both of them.

“It’s so cheesy, but you just get one life and you better make it fabulous,” she told Graham Norton, which could easily be a quote from a Bond movie. But the Bond identity goes beyond the song. Conchita is an endearment of the Spanish name Concepción (yes, it is conception) or it refers to a little seashell no less endearingly, while Wurst is sausage in German either way you look at it. Living in Austria for a year and traveling a bit in Latin America, I can confidently say that both Conchita and Wurst have sexual connotations aplenty.


Just like “Rise Like a Phoenix” is an inverted Skyfall, Conchita Wurst is a drag version of a Bond girl with a name no less suggestive than Honey Rider, Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, or Holly Goodhead.

She explained all about her name in an interview at the contest – saying ‘Wurst’ refers to ‘I don’t care’ in Austrian German and Conchita was the name of a Cuban friend she had – and it sounded convincing, perhaps, to those who couldn’t spot a double entendre if it tap-danced through a minefield wearing nothing but a rainbow flag and a tattoo and a tattoo just above the hip bone that reads: “Fancy my figure of speech?”

While Freddie Mercury’s facial hair and housewife appearance was taken as fooling around, Tom Neuwirth’s drag persona is considered a political statement. What really messed with some people’s heads was the massively under-reported resemblance Conchita bore to both Jesus Christ and Kim Kardashian.

This combination of the profane and the angelic embodied by a strong voice and appearance with matching political message and entertainment value was not only to rise her like a Phoenix but propel her like a rocket into a position of influence of which not only drag queens but most politicians and performers could only dream.

Compliments should go to the marketing genius of ORF (Austrian Television), which handpicked Conchita Wurst for this year’s contest without running a national competition as has been customary (she came second last time she competed at a national level). One might argue that having a rather complicated history with its own history, it was a perfect coming out for Austria, but it’s more likely that the purpose was less to provoke than to win. The winner country is the host of next year’s Eurovision; it will bring major bucks in tourism and together with Conchy it will help pave the way for Austria’s new-found image of love and tolerance. A win-win situation.


But Miss Wurst did not come out of thin air. The birth of a new Austrian hero was long in the making. Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Brüno, proposed a new look for a country struggling with the shadow of the past by giving the world a gay fashion dictator for a change. Fewer people know that after finishing the movie “Brüno,” Cohen signed on to make “Eurovision: The Movie,” in which he was to portray a singer who enters the contest. But precisely when Cohen axed the idea because he thought it wasn’t going to work, Tom Neuwirth miraculously appeared on the stage. Conchita Wurst picked up the thread where Brüno dropped it, creating the final version by combining the character with Vienna’s Life Ball drag culture and within a few years she brought the trophy home.

It seems likely that Conchita will become a huge commercial success and every time some crass opportunist Russian politician or a parochial religious leader attacks her image, they will make big bucks for the Conchita Franchise.

If you haven’t yet, you’ll eventually get used to the beard, just as with time you got used to Queen Elizabeth’s headwear, Michael Jackson’s post-thriller skin color, or Limahl’s top-deck mullet, for that matter. Conchita Wurst has become a fictional character in the larger-than-life media world. She is twice the Bond girl, with a male alter ego – an agent of tolerance with a licence to wear facial hair.

Call it a coincidence if you may, that Conchita Wurst has won the biggest televised song contest of the world with a drag act in the city of Copenhagen, whose symbol, the little mermaid, also has a mixed identity. In the popular Disney version this fairy tale never ends, but the original story, as you might have guessed, is somewhat different. In Hans Christian Andersen’s book, the little mermaid gives away the most enchanting and beautiful voice to be part of the big wide world.

Read more by Peter Zilahy:

Hungary’s prime minister keeps the ball

Peter Zilahy is a Hungarian writer. His novel “The Last Window Giraffe” has been translated into 22 languages.