Monday 12 May 2014

Wurst Case Scenario

For those of you who don't live in Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual tournament of pop music which involves most European nations (and a few which are not, strictly speaking, in Europe, such as Israel). The rules are that each country submits a brand new song by a chosen artist (often a newcomer act), which must be performed live on the night of the contest.

What's the Wurst that could happen?
The contest has given rise, over the years since 1956, to some very famous acts, such as ABBA, and even Celine Dion, singing for Switzerland in 1988. However, the tendency of some acts to compete in bizarre costume and with bizarre lyrics (who could forget the majestic poetry of Ding-a-Dong?), lends the entire contest an air of camp, verging at times on the farcical. It's screened live all over Europe, and it's a wonderful evening's entertainment, albeit pretty low-brow.

The other problem with the contest is the tendency of countries to vote for their political allies, regardless of the artistic merit of the songs. Each country, including the minnows like Malta, is allocated an equal weight of voting in the contest. This tends to make for some tension, as occasionally obviously good songs get gradually nudged downward in the rankings by political voting.

This year, of course, the winner was Austria, whose artist, Conchita Wurst, won by a comfortable margin. So far, so normal. What is different about this contest (and the reason I am writing about it) is that Conchita Wurst is a drag queen, with a beard. (I love that in German, wurst means sausage). Take a look:

Before Wurst even sang in the contest, she came under fire from Russia, Belarus and Armenia, who demanded she withdraw. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov branded Eurovision a "hotbed of sodomy", while Armenian competitor Aram Mp3 described her as "not natural". Russia, in particular, has been institutionally homophobic for many years.

If the Wurst comes to the Wurst
Though I haven't listened to all the songs for this year, I don't think this one, Rise Like a Phoenix, is all that brilliant. Even allowing for the handful of songs by fishwives in knitted shawls with accordions, which we are usually treated to in Eurovision, I can't believe this one, though it's all well and good, is actually the best in the competition. (The second-place song, Calm After the Storm by the Netherlands' Common Linnets, is, I think, a much better song).

And that leads me to believe that something else is responsible for Wurst winning the contest.

The most obvious thing which strikes one about Wurst is her appearance. Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth. As a woman (i.e. without the beard), she would be absolutely dazzling; a knockout. On the other hand, the beard looks very odd indeed, very disturbing and out of place (while everything else, from the exquisitely curved eyelashes to the lip gloss, to the flowing gowns and fabulous shoes, screams "gorgeous woman!").

But perhaps gorgeous drag queens are too common; too mainstream? Perhaps an "ordinary" drag queen wouldn't have captured everyone's attention. The beard, without doubt, is the hook. The beard is also cosmetically enhanced; it looks just too perfect. And yet, Wurst is beautiful, in a strange and unusual way. Like chilli pepper on fruit salad, the whole package kinda works. I think it may be because she reminds me of another figure, with long flowing hair, a light beard, and deep, soulful eyes.

Wurst bears an unmistakeable resemblance to popular depictions of Jesus. There is no evidence that this is intentional, but it is (at least to my eyes) inescapable. Before you deluge me with hate mail, I intend to draw no further parallels between those two figures (and other commentators have noted a resemblance to a much more secular figure, Kim Kardashian).

Wurst hasn't been the first gender-blurring competitor in Eurovision. Israeli transsexual Dana International won the competition in 1998, with her song, Diva. Wurst isn't even the first bearded woman in the contest: France's 2008 entrant, Sebastian Tellier, had a backing group of five women with false beards (to match his natural one), when he sang his song Divine.

Kim and Conchita. Which is Wurst?
When she won the competition, a delighted and emotional Wurst took the microphone:
Wurst: This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are - we are unity and we are unstoppable.

I dream of a world where we don't have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, who you love. I felt like tonight Europe showed that we are a community of respect and tolerance.
Wurst's particular appearance is more in alignment with genderqueer than anything else I can think of. Nonetheless, from her personal website, it seems clear that tolerance is her most deliberate and explicit message. And for this, I think she deserves our congratulation and support. Though her motivations for wearing a frock may differ from my own, I think she is doing positive things to further acceptance of trans people in general.

And I think the reason that Wurst won Eurovision was the combination of those two things. First, that gimmick: an outrageous bearded drag queen, eye-catching and flamboyant, beautiful and proud. This might not have been enough to do it, but set against the background of Russian homophobia, it gave the more progressive Western nations the opportunity to poke one in the eye of those stuffy old Russkies; a chance which they couldn't pass up.

By competition rules, Austria will host the contest next year. At least one commentator is predicting a lot of false beards among the audience!

No sausages were harmed in the writing of this blog post, though some had the Wurst night of their lives. No more puns on the name: I promise!

Addendum 22nd May 2014

Some of my commentators, including Janice, below, have pointed out that Conchita Wurst's name, although it translates as sausage, was chosen because of the German phrase es ist mir Wurst, meaning it's all the same to me. Whilst I accept this argument, I can't help thinking that sausage is also an excellent drag queen name, because of it's suggestive nature. Mind you, in the context of drag queens, it's hard to find the name of any fruit, vegetable or foodstuff which is free of suggestive connotation!

But taking the name literally, one Austrian butcher has produced an actual Conchita Wurst, a sausage with her face on every slice. How wonderful is that?

Meanwhile, the trans blogosphere has been convulsed with debate about the exact place (if any) that Conchita Wurst occupies, and whether she is doing us good, or harm, by her antics.

One viewpoint seems to be that Conchita Wurst is the female drag persona of a male entertainer, and that therefore Wurst isn't trans at all. A second viewpoint seems to be that, as a man in a dress, Wurst is perceived as being trans by the general public, whoever they might be, and is (whether we like it or not) going to get lumped in alongside the rest of us crossdressers, transsexuals, and so on. A third viewpoint, from the trans community (and expressed by Tasi in the comment to this article) is that, by deliberately mashing together a beard and a beautiful woman, Wurst is doing harm to the trans community by furthering a popular perception that we are all a bunch of weirdos.

I have been struggling with my own feelings about Wurst, but nobody has put it better than my correspondent Janice Lacey. With her agreement, and building on her comment below, I am quoting her here:
Janice: Firstly let me state that I wasn’t at all impressed with the bearded lady thing and deleted nearly all the posts on the social group I follow referencing it. I personally felt threatened by someone dressing as I like to, and also sporting facial hair. That being said, I eventually put aside my own fears of this subject and dived in with both feet.

I read about a boy with a desire to dress as a girl. I can identify with that. He was restricted from doing so and I can identify with that too. He is teased because of his desires and I can identify with that. At some point, when he had gained the confidence and tough skin one needs to be dual-gendered he creates a character that goes beyond the envelopes of discrimination. Not just wearing a dress, but wearing fabulous dresses. And why not? Just add in the beard to really irritate those that hate him and discriminate against him. Conchita was born.

As Conchita, Tom is allowed to wear a dress. The little boy that only wanted to wear a dress is now allowed to dress as he pleases. The beard, in my opinion, represents the male child. Tom is a performer and loves to sing, and as a drag performer is able to earn a living singing while wearing a dress.

Lastly let me summarize my thoughts: Tom Neuwirth and Conchita Wurst are a threat to me as a trans-gendered person. So much is being said about her being “Trans” that people are going to be looking at me and wondering if I am like her.

I AM MOST DEFINITELY NOT! I stand for something deeper, more significant, more important, and more meaningful!

Whoa there! What did I just say? My statement could also be made by my coworkers, my friends, my parents, my wife, or perhaps your parents, friends, co-workers and wife that can’t accept you as you are completely. How can I be who I am, as both Janice and James, and expect the general populace to accept me while I stand in as judge and jury against someone so totally different from myself? Tom/Conchita is unique, but not all that different from me really.

I vote to support his cause, for in doing so I am released from my own fears.
One of my correspondents wrote of Wurst: She makes us look ridiculous. She's neither man nor woman but a half-assed caricature of both. And while I can completely understand this viewpoint, from someone who wants to look as feminine as possible, I can't help thinking that, actually, that same comment could equally be applied to me, or other crossdressers.

Janice's comment has crystallised it for me. I cannot demand acceptance for myself as a crossdresser, and refuse that same acceptance to someone else who has a different way of presenting themselves.


  1. Thank you, Vivienne, for commenting on the most salient features of Conchita Furst's win in the Eurovision contest- ie. the Christ- like figure, the genderqueer orientation, the appeal to tolerance of the unusual, the sticking it to the disapproving Russians (who were consistently booed) and Kim Kardashian. Very well done.

  2. I'm surprised that you did not mention Dana International who won in 1998. It's difficult to gauge how much antipathy towards her existed back then but certainly in Israel, there were attempts by religious conservatives to void her entry. The media also had a prurient interest in her gender reassignment.

    1. Actually I did mention Dana International briefly. However, I don't think I knew how much opposition she faced from within her country. I suppose Israel is a very conservative country, so this doesn't surprise me. However, she seems to have enjoyed quite a long career as an entertainer, and therefore I guess she must have achieved some acceptance over time.


    2. So you did and I did read it. I blame age and short term memory issues.

      Israel is in many ways very socially progressive and has come a long way in the last 20 years or so in terms of LGBT rights and general attitudes, certainly much more that it's neighbours. Some LGBT Palestinians move to Israel to avoid persecution.

    3. This is a very interesting point. Dana International's Wikipedia entry says that she has been voted something like the 47th most important Israeli of all time.

      I find it interesting that LGBT Palestinians would also move to Israel, but I can equally see that Palestine is a very conservative place too. I tend to think there is a hard core of deeply conservative people on both sides of the conflict, doing the best they can to perpetuate it for their own misguided religious agendas. Unfortunately these are the guys who have the power.

      Would you mind signing your posts with some sort of name, so that they don't get mixed up with others who may wish to post anonymously?


  3. Vivienne, seems like such a statement made by Ms. Wurst! I backtracked and read all that I could about the young lady and it would appear that Cochina was "created" to protect or extend the original. I'm no therapist, but the beard may have been an initial statement yelling out to the world to "look at me!, I am different, I am me!" but then it kind of got stuck. She has a wonderful voice which I've noticed has gotten higher by at least an octave since 2011 and her control of it show her dedication to practice. She is obviously a professional, but also seems to share so much of what I am as a cross-dresser. I wonder if she ever wonders what dropping the beard would bring. Would Conchita be forever lost in doing so? Has she become yet again that which she tried to escape with the creation of Conchita?

    Janice Lacey

    1. Hi Janice,

      How interesting! I had read a lot about Conchita Wurst's recent material, but next to nothing about her early career.

      I'm not quite clear what you mean by Conchita being "created to protect or extend the original". Would you mind explaining that part?

      For myself, I think that the beard is now what makes her famous; it is her defining characteristic. Much as I would love to see her without it, I think the mainstream of public notice would dwindle sharply if she got rid of it.

      This also touches on another question of mine. How much of Conchita Wurst is Tom Neumann? Which is he most comfortable being? Which does he prefer? Does he feel more natural as Conchita? Or is Conchita merely a creation, like simply putting on a jacket? Of course, we can't really tell, but he has invested so much energy in Conchita that it's hard to imagine she is just a cardboard character.


    2. Hi again Vivienne, -; ...he created Conchita the Bearded Lady, as a "statement." A statement for tolerance & acceptance as it's not about appearance. It's about the human being. // I read that her surname 'WURST' derived form 'es is mir wurst' meaning "I don't care" but literally translated "it's all sausage to me." -- also read here that "he" always wanted to wear dresses from age 4 but was prevented from do so...did it anyway in private with girl friends from school. -- my thoughts; 1st I say I wasn't interested in reading about a bearded lady & deleted all posts from my social site as I felt threatened by it. later I dug in & began to read, understand, accept & finally support. so much we have in common. He was teased, as was I. He wanted to wear dresses, as do I. He couldn't be himself & I understand. His talent was singing. Many do it better & many do it worse. He wanted to wear a dress & be accepted. Drag was the natural road. there are already lots of Drag Performers but how to make a statement? How about a bearded lady. The beard would signify and affirm I am male, and the dress would signify and confirm my inner desires to dress as I please. Conchita Wurst (I don't Care - whatever you thing) was born. -- in summary Tom Neuman AKA Conchita Wurst are a threat to me as a trans-gendered person. So much is being said about her being "Trans" that people are going to be looking at me & wondering if I am like her. I'MNOT! I stand for something deeper, more significant, more important and meaningful. -- Isn't my statement the same one used by the Friends, co-workers, parents, siblings and wives of those of us that are trans-gendered, trans-persons, CD's? - Tom/Conchita is unique, but not all that different from me, really. I vote to support his cause, for in doing so I am releasing my own fears.

      Luvs .... Janice

  4. Hi Vivienne, I am not happy about Conchita Wurst. People think that this is a real woman with a huge beard not realizing that the beard is fake and that this is a man. The idea I had to inform people that women can really have a beard now gets more confusion again. After finding out the fakeness of that bearded woman people might then think they are all fake! - I do not like that he tries to earn money with a fake figure. it is all acting and not natural to me. Sorry to say. Well.....everyone has the freedom to do and express....

    1. Hi Mariam,

      With all the press coverage that Conchita Wurst has received, I don't think anyone can possibly still think she is a real woman with a beard. Surely everyone knows she is a drag queen?

      I can see why Conchita Wurst might make you uncomfortable. While you are struggling for acceptance, she is taking that same thing and using it to attract fame and celebrity. Of course it is an act, but it seems to have become quite a popular one.

      On the other hand, I wonder if you take some comfort in the almost universal acceptance which she has found? Wurst's message is that Europe is a place of tolerance and acceptance, and surely that acceptance must also include you and other bearded women?