Thomas "Tom" Neuwirth (born 6 November 1988), better known by his drag stage persona Conchita Wurst, is an Austrian singer. Wurst came to international attention when winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark with the song "Rise Like a Phoenix".
Born in Gmunden, Neuwirth studied fashion before embarking on a singing career through the 2007 casting show Starmania. He subsequently became a founding member of the short-lived boyband Jetzt Anders!. In 2011, Neuwirth began appearing as Wurst – a drag persona noted for her beard – and came second in the Austrian preselection for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012. Wurst was successfully selected to represent Austria at the Eurovision Song Contest 2014, where she proved victorious. Wurst's entry and victory courted controversy, being condemned by some of the continent's social conservatives and right-wingers who saw her performance as a promotion of LGBT rights. Conversely, it brought her international attention and established her as a prominent LGBT icon.
Tom Neuwirth was born on 6 November 1988 in Gmunden, before being raised in the small town of Bad Mitterndorf, amid the Styrian countryside. He has stated that the mountainous area was a wonderful place to grow up, but that he faced prejudice for being homosexual: "Being a teenager, a gay teenager, in such a small village is not that much fun. I am part of the gay community and most gays have a similar story to mine." From an early age he recognised that he was different from other children, initially believing that this was because there was "something wrong" with him. He occasionally wore a skirt to kindergarten and then school, although subsequently felt that he could only be happy doing so in the attic of his home. Aged 14, Neuwirth moved to Graz in order to study fashion design. His fashion icon was Victoria Beckham.
Early musical career: 2006–13
|This section requires expansion with: better sources and more in-depth information. (May 2014)|
In 2006, Neuwirth took part in the third edition of the Austrian TV show Starmania, finishing in second place (Nadine Beiler placed first). One year later, Neuwirth founded the boyband Jetzt Anders!, but the group disbanded during the same year.
It was after this that Neuwirth developed the persona of Conchita Wurst, a bearded woman. In the German language, "Wurst" means "sausage", although Neuwirth relates the choice of last name to the common German expression "Das ist mir doch alles Wurst", which translates as "it's all the same to me", and "I don't care", stating that the name emerged from the first meaning of that expression. The name "Conchita" meanwhile had been adopted from a Cuban friend of his. Neuwirth asserted that the inclusion of the beard as part of the Wurst character was "a statement to say that you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or how you look." The inclusion of a beard as part of the drag look was not unique, having been pioneered in the 1970s by The Cockettes in San Francisco and the Bloolips in London.
Neuwirth clarified that he is not transgender, and is instead a gay man; he uses female pronouns to describe his Wurst character, but male pronouns when referring to himself. Neuwirth created a fictional back story for the Wurst character, claiming that she was born in the mountains of Colombia and is married to the French burlesque dancer Jacques Patriaque, a real individual who is a friend of Neuwirth's. He compared the use of the character to American singer Beyoncé's adoption of the Sasha Fierce alter ego, or Lady Gaga's use of various costumes, being a way to protect Neuwirth's own private life.
Wurst's first appearance was on ORF's show Die große Chance in 2011, where she achieved 6th place. In 2012, she competed in the Austrian National Final for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 and came second. Wurst then appeared in the ORF show The Hardest Jobs of Austria, working in a fish processing plant, and in Wild Girls, in which a group of candidates had to survive in the deserts of Namibia together with native tribes.
2014 Eurovision Song Contest
On 10 September 2013, Austrian national broadcaster ORF announced that it had selected Wurst to represent Austria at the Eurovision Song Contest 2014, to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark in May 2014. In March 2014, Wurst's song was revealed as "Rise Like a Phoenix", with bookmakers placing her entry in the top ten favourites to win that year's contest. Despite Eurovision's reputation for campness, Wurst's performance was designed to be serious and in good taste, and she was one of the only performers to appear onstage alone. Although individuals who identified as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) had appeared on Eurovision before – most notable Israel's Dana International, who won in 1998 – Wurst's appearance was described by The New Statesman as the "most genderqueer yet".
Conchita's selection proved controversial and attracted criticism from conservative groups, particularly in Eastern Europe, thus highlighting the continent's regional divide between east and west on the issue of homosexuality. In Austria, four days after ORF announced its decision, more than 31,000 people had clicked to 'like' an "Anti-Wurst" page on Facebook. Petitions emerged in Russia and Belarus calling for their respective national broadcasters to edit out Wurst's performance from the televised contest; the Russian petition asserted that Eurovision had become "a hotbed of sodomy, at the initiation of European liberals." Conservative Russian politician Vitaly Milonov urged Russia's Eurovision selection committee to boycott the competition as a result of Wurst's inclusion, describing her performance as "blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay" and referring to her as the "pervert from Austria". Armenia's entry for the contest, Aram Mp3, stated that Neuwirth's lifestyle was "not natural" and that he should decide whether he was a man or woman. Neuwirth hit back, commenting "I told him I don't want to be a woman. I am just a working queen and a very lazy boy at home." Aram subsequently apologised, stating that his prior comments had been intended as a joke.
Reacting to these sentiments, the New Statesman commented that "a vote for Wurst is another vote against Russian homophobia and transphobia, and a win would send out a strong message of defiance eastwards", while the International Business Times called on readers to vote for Wurst to upset homophobes. Highlighting statements such as these as evidence, Spiked declared that many Western European commentators and politicos had adopted Wurst as "a symbol of everything that makes Western Europe superior to the East" and that she had thus become part of a culture war against both Russia and "the so-called bigots and backward types" in their own nations.
At the second semi-final on 8 May, Neuwirth, as Conchita, qualified for the final on 10 May. At the finals held in Copenhagen on 10 May 2014, she won the competition with 290 points. This was Austria's first Eurovision win since Eurovision 1966.
Wurst's entry gained high scores from Western European countries as well as some in the East, such as Georgia and Ukraine. However, the levels of support for Wurst varied across Europe; on average she received 4.4 points out of 12 from the nations of the former Soviet Union (excluding those in the Baltic), 6 points from the other three ex-socialist states, and 10.5 points from Western Europe, Scandinavia, Greece, and Israel. Commenting on this, political analyist Alan Renwick of Reading University asserted that "Even in those countries where the ruling elites are often highly intolerant, the wider population might be readier to accept that different people might be different."
Upon being awarded the trophy, Wurst held it aloft and proclaimed "We are unity and we are unstoppable". She later confirmed to reporters that this was a message meant for politicians who opposed LGBT rights, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose administration had implemented a law restricting LGBT rights in June 2013.
Britain's Daily Mail declared that Wurst's victory had made her a "global superstar". On returning to Austria, she was greeted at the airport by a crowd of over 1000 cheering fans, many wearing fake beards and singing "Rise Like a Phoenix". To journalists, she expanded on the message of tolerance which she had championed at Eurovision: "It was not just a victory for me but a victory for those people who believe in a future that can function without discrimination and is based on tolerance and respect." Austrian President Heinz Fischer asserted that it was "not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe". A local radio station celebrated by playing "Rise Like a Phoenix" on a loop 48 times over four hours. The UK's Eurovision commentator Graham Norton commented on the socio-political significance of Wurst's victory: "it seems like Eurovision has done something that matters just a little bit".
Following her victory, Wurst became an icon for Europe's LGBT community. Vienna's tourist board hoped to use Wurst to encourage more gay holidaymakers to visit the city, using her image on the Facebook page "Gayfriendly Vienna". The Week stated that she had become "a serious figure of hope" for some LGBT people living "under the shadow of officially-sanctioned intolerance" in various European countries, while British trans activist Paris Lees commented that across Europe she inspired "millions of people" and stood up for "everyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed or afraid for being different." LGBT rights groups in Serbia and Croatia criticised the tone with which their national broadcasters referred to Wurst, deeming it offensive and homophobic; Serbia's RTS subsequently issued a letter of apology.
In Russia, "Rise Like a Phoenix" topped the internet download chart two days after the competition. Fans of Wurst and LGBT rights activists applied to hold a Conchita Wurst March of Bearded Women and Men through Moscow on 27 May, a date commemorating the 21st anniversary since the legalisation of same-sex sexual activity in the country. Officials from the city's security department rejected the request, citing a wish to "respect morality in the education of the younger generation" and to prevent violent clashes between marchers and anti-gay demonstrators.
Criticism continued to be made following Conchita's victory. Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin posted on Twitter that the result "showed supporters of European integration their European future: a bearded girl." Another Russian politician, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proclaimed "There's no limit to our outrage. It's the end of Europe", later adding that "Fifty years ago the Soviet army occupied Austria. We made a mistake in freeing Austria. We should have stayed." The Russian Orthodox Church condemned Wurst's victory, with Vladimir Legoyda, chairman of the church's information department, describing it as "yet one more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture", reflecting an attempt to "reinforce new cultural norms". A social media campaign involved Russian men shaving off their beards in protest at Wurst's victory; those taking part included broadcaster Andrey Malakhov and rapper Aleksander "ST" Stepanov.
Several church leaders in the Balkans asserted that the May 2014 flooding in the region was "divine punishment" from God for Wurst's victory. Reacting to these critics, Wurst stated "It's so ridiculous! For me a perfect world would be when we don't have to talk about sexuality, where you're from, what you believe. Is this the worst thing in the mind of the politicians?" She stated her desire to perform in Russia for the country's LGBT community, "To tell them that they are not alone. The whole community around the world is standing behind them. They have to trust that if they open their mouth, then we can change something." To a reporter from The Observer, she commented: "It's funny that these people think I'm so powerful. I've figured out over the years, you can only hurt me if I love you; if I don't know you, I really don't care. There are people who want to kill me and I'm always like, 'Well, get in line, darling.'"
On 28 June 2014, Wurst performed onstage at Trafalgar Square in central London as the headline act during the city's annual LGBT Pride Parade. She was introduced onstage by actor and LGBT rights campaigner Ian McKellen, and performed to a crowd of over 300,000 alongside acts Samantha Fox and Sinitta. She informed reporters from The Observer that "I don't want to say the other Prides are less good, but I fell in love with London immediately, so today is a very special day for me. All the drag queens looked stunning." On 2 July she opened Madrid's LGBT Pride festival with a concert at Chueca Plaza, there performing alongside Ruth Lorenzo. On 9 July she made her modelling debut on the catwalk at fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier's Couture show in Paris, where she took the final spot, which is usually reserved for Gaultier's favourite model.
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions||Album|
|2012||"That's What I Am"||12||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—|
|2014||"Rise Like a Phoenix"||1||8||19||6||5||10||3||27||2||17|
|"—" denotes a single that did not chart or was not released.|
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|Awards and achievements|
|Austria in the Eurovision Song Contest
Emmelie de Forest
with "Only Teardrops"
|Winner of the Eurovision Song Contest