Europe's Game-Changing Bearded Lady

Wurst belts her ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix” at the 2014 Almdüdler Trachtenpärchen Ball in Vienna, Austria. Winston Ross

Eleven hours after my plane touched down in Austria, one miscommunication about the difference between Friday and Saturday and a frantic search for lederhosen in the non-negotiable final minutes of shopkeepers' hours in Vienna and I arrived at the eighth annual Almdudler Trachtenpärchen Ball, hoping no one will notice that my socks didn't match my leather knickers, awaiting like everyone else here the arrival of Conchita Wurst, the Queen of Austria.

They don't call her the Queen of Austria because she is a drag queen. They call her that because she has in the past nine months become one of this country's biggest stars. Wurst ranked seventh in Google searches worldwide in 2014, just in front of ISIS and just behind Flappy Bird. It's an improbable rise to fame for the man beneath the gown—25-year-old Tom Neuwirth, who has since 2011 taken the stage in one dazzling gown after another and with a full, black beard. This country still yearning to escape its Nazi shadow is not known for its tolerance, and yet somehow, a bearded lady has seized the Zeitgeist. In May, Wurst won the Austrian stage of Europe's older and more successful American Idol—the Eurovision song contest, in Copenhagen—and now she smiles for flashbulbs everywhere she goes.

The "Almdudler" in Almdudler Trachtenpärchen Ball refers to its sponsor, the country's hottest lemonade brand. (Lemonade is a big deal here.) Trachtenpärchen translates roughly to "costumed couples." So this was costume party thrown by a lemonade company, held in Vienna's stupendous City Hall, the Rathaus. And that's about all I knew before fastening a half-dozen buttons on my almond-colored lederhosen, looping the attached suspenders over a poplar shirt and strolling up the red-carpeted stairs to the main stage with a date I met an hour earlier (via Tinder.)

"The Queeeeen of Austria!" came the introduction in German from Russkaja's lead, Georgij Makazaria, and her fans went wild as she glided onto the stage in a shimmering black gown, her curly midnight locks barely covering her broad shoulders. She opened the first of a mostly cover song set with her original "Rise Like a Phoenix," which has been viewed 17 million times on YouTube:

Peering from the mirror
No, that isn't me
Stranger getting nearer
Who can this person be


Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
You were warned
Once I'm transformed
Once I'm reborn

Her audience, comprised of the most traditional-looking Austrians you could hope to assemble in one place, sang along with every word, shoutingZugabe! at the end of her set, pleading for an encore.

A few months ago, most Austrians found Wurst a curiosity at best, a monstrosity at worst. But when she became their contestant, when she went to Eurovision as this country's representative, they rooted for her as a matter of national pride.

The audience of Eurovision has trended rainbow for much of its 58-year history, so you could argue that Wurst's victory says little about Austria, that it merely shows that a bunch of people who love gays, lesbians and transgenders voted for one of them.

But that would be a short-sighted analysis, say gay rights activists across Europe. Yes, there were petitions to edit her out of Eurovision footage in Russia, Belarus and Armenia, and yes, some Russians shaved their beards in protest, and yes, two city councilors from the Russian city of Murmansk campaigned for reelection "against loudmouths and gays" in a six-second video that features cartoon images of Wurst. Of those who have watched her YouTube version of "Rise Like a Phoenix," nearly half gave it a thumbs down. Commenters call Wurst a "perverted freak," wonder "Why is that even legal?!" and declare it "Einfach abartig"—simply disgusting.

But she won with the help of some notoriously anti-gay countries. Wurst placed second among voters from Armenia, whose finalist publicly promised to "help her figure out if she is a man or a woman." And in Russia, which this year passed a law banning the distribution of "gay propaganda" to minors, Wurst came in third. A week after that performance I attended at the lemonade ball, gay rights supporters in Belgrade held a pride parade for the first time since a 2010 event was broken up by violent hooligans chucking stones and molotov cocktails at the police assigned to protect marchers. This year, the parade was safe and attended by the mayor of Belgrade and several high-profile ministers.

Europe is changing, and Conchita Wurst is both beneficiary and agent of that change. Her stardom is proof that Austria is willing to love someone different. Now's she's been elevated to a global stage. She fields interview requests from international media outlets, headlined Pride events in London, Madrid and Stockholm, did a fashion photo shoot with Karl Lagerfeld, a voice-over (as snow owl Eva) for the German language version of Dreamworks' Penguins of Madagascar television show and performed before the European Parliament.

Conversations about Wurst address not just whether it's OK to be gay but what it even means to be a man or a woman, and whether we should rethink the whole concept. It's a remarkable achievement for a small-town boy whose classmates once called him "faggot" for showing up at school in clothes surreptitiously borrowed from his female cousins and his mom. And while Wurst loathes the idea that she has become some kind of political figure, she is a big influence in Europe, with a big microphone.

"Conchita has an opportunity to talk about these complicated issues in a way that opens up space, inspiring new conversations and making people uncomfortable," says Ian Lekus, an LGBT rights specialist with Amnesty International USA. "We have a lot of work to do to explain that drag performance and transgender are not identical, for example, although they are related in terms of conscious and unconscious performance of gender roles. But they do in various different ways force us to confront that gender is complicated and fluid."

Three days after the lemonade ball, Wurst met me in a small cafe a few blocks from Vienna's touristy Naschmarkt, wearing clothes from Zara and H&M: a black bra visible beneath her see-through blouse, a long leather jacket and leather pants, her black wig perfectly styled and her beard perfectly trimmed. She is now one of the most famous people in Austria and is well-known throughout Europe, too, but when she tells me "It's nice to meet you!" I believe it.

(When in drag, as she was for this and all interviews, Wurst prefers to be referred to as a woman. When at home, or when grocery shopping, he returns to Tom Neuwirth, a man, "a lazy boy," and is refered to as "he.")

Neuwirth grew up in the town of Bad Mitterndorf in the Styrian countryside. That's not in the most conservative or racist parts of this country of 8.4 million people, but not the more liberated Vienna, either. "You have some moments of your life where it's a bit tough to be happy," she says.

As far back as Neuwirth can remember, he liked boys, but he had little idea what that meant, or how to describe it. He had only the sense that it was somehow wrong to feel the way he did.

Still, young Tom borrowed girls' clothing, and entertained himself by playing dress-up and singing Disney songs in the attic. Not because he wanted to be a woman, but just because he liked to act like one. By 12 or 13, he had worked up the nerve to wear dresses to school, enduring daily taunts from his puzzled classmates. It was painful, Wurst says now, but only until he realized who he was, until he became "secure enough to say, 'Yeah, I'm gay, so what's next? You want a kiss?'"

As far back as he can remember, Neuwirth wanted to be a performer. He memorized all the songs to Disney's The Little Mermaid, and "If there was a stage, I was on it." His first "break" was in 2007, in a "casting show" (what they call reality TV here) called Starmania. In a promotional interview before the show aired, a journalist asked him about his love life. "I had two options—either I lie, and lie to myself, or be true to who I am," he says. "I decided to just say [that I was gay] and then I went home to my mom and said 'Mom, I'm gay, and next Wednesday everyone will know it.'"

Neuwirth's parents weren't happy about it, but mostly because he'd outed himself so publicly. They owned a hotel in town and worried the news might be bad for business. Over time, though, his parents both became supporters. And Neuwirth grew more bold.

At 18, sure his appearance on the casting show had made him a big enough star to drop out of school, he quit, and "waited for offers." The first was to join a boy band, which Neuwirth knew wasn't likely to suit him. But it was work, and it offered him the chance to sing, and he took it. He hated it. The band, Jetzt Anders! ("now different") sang in German, and Neuwirth prefers to sing in English. Plus, he wanted the spotlight only on him. After eight months, "nobody cared about us," and the band broke up.

Three years ago, Neuwirth moved to Vienna and joined a burlesque show, his first foray into performance as a drag queen. It was here he first decided to perform both in women's clothing and with a beard, back then simply because he preferred the way his face looked with a beard and not because it made some kind of statement. Conchita Wurst, a character Neuwirth imagined to be born in the mountains of Colombia but raised in Austria (she can't speak Spanish) was born. When she's not Wurst, he's Neuwirth, traipsing about Vienna with headphones and sunglasses on, declining to be in pictures without makeup, doing chores.

"Everyone liked it," Wurst says. But the burlesque scene is an underground one in Vienna, a place where "there are no rules." It was a safe place to experiment. Bringing Wurst to a more mainstream stage would be a different kind of animal.

That happened in 2011, in another casting show, Die grosse Chance, (The Big Chance) Austria's version of America's Got Talent. Neuwirth slipped into a dress and a wig and became Wurst, figuring she always had the burlesque show as a backup if this didn't work out. She stepped out onto the stage to mouths agape. "I loved it," she says. "They thought I was a girl with a beard glued or painted on, and that's what we (as drag queens) are going for. We want to look like real women. It was quite a nice compliment."

The stunned crowd was quiet at first, Wurst says, unsure what to make of this bearded lady on the stage. After she sang, she says, they applauded. Wurst lost the competition, finishing in sixth place, but she loved the attention. More important, she decided to keep the beard, knowing her career was at stake.

The key, she was convinced, was to make sure everyone knew that this was not a gimmick or a joke. In 2011 she made her first bid for Eurovision, finishing second in the Austrian preselection for the contest behind a hip-hop song called "Woki Mit Deim Popo" (wiggle your ass) and earlier this year she convinced Austrian national broadcaster ORF to nominate her for Eurovision. Wurst was still an evolving character then, and she toyed with reporters by pretending Neuwirth didn't exist—"I don't know who that Tom is you're talking about… "

The more attention she got, the more hate she attracted, but as long as people were talking, Wurst was happy. She was making people think, she says.

Fans sing along with Wurst at the 2014 Almdüdler Trachtenpärchen Ball in Vienna, Austria. Winston Ross

Wurst lost the Austrian entry to Eurovision the first time she competed, finishing in second place, but last year, the broadcaster agreed to send her to Copenhagen. And this time, with a performance of that power ballad "Rise Like a Phoenix," she won.

Wurst sees her victory as a symbol of change in Europe more than Austria, but she's also convinced she's changed some attitudes in her country. She gets fan mail from people who say they went from not caring about her or hating the beard to at least understanding what she's trying to say. "I'm sure there are people who just act like they're so tolerant," she says, "but I'll take it, because it's a step in the right direction. Even if they're just pretending to be respectful, I'll take it."

No one in the gay rights community believes Wurst has revolutionized Europe, or that Europe has completely embraced LGBT rights. Seven of the 10 countries in the world that allow same-sex marriage are in Europe, and the EU prohibits discrimination against LGBT individuals in hiring. Iceland and Belgium are the only two countries in the world with gay heads of state. But while France decriminalized homosexuality in the 18th Century, Armenia didn't do so until 2003. Croatian voters last year approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage in that country as a "union of man and woman," by a 66 percent margin.

A couple of weeks after I interviewed Conchita, vandals made headlines in Vienna for spray-painting "Töte Schwule" (Kill gays) on the exterior of a big pink building here called the Villa De La Rosa. After gay rights activists squatted in this space back in 1982, city officials agreed let them occupy it for 30 years as long as they promised to offer counseling to gays and lesbians. I found Marty Huber there as she arrived for her evening shift as a counselor, opening an envelope from London from a fan who'd read about the graffiti and mailed in a note of kindness. Huber has seen plenty of examples of both progress and retrenchment in gay rights in Austria and Europe, she said. But what tends to happen with all minority groups is a three-step path to progress: first tolerance, then acceptance, then celebration. With Wurst, Austria leapfrogged acceptance and went straight to celebration. Austrians were proud of their victor, the country's first since 1966. That's both a good and a bad thing.

"She's a very important part in changing the discourse, and the way she positioned herself is very clever, breaking down this idea of femininity in drag and creating a nice reference point," Huber said. "But with Austria making this big jump from mere tolerance to celebration, we don't yet have acceptance. She has become a source of national pride, and we all like idols. But she's also far away from our lives. It's not information that changes people; it's relationships."

The next day, I traveled to Parliament, to meet Marco Schreuder, Wurst's communication manager and the legislature's only openly gay member. He's as aware as anyone that this is not a transformed country when it comes to gay rights. But Wurst's victory is more than just a symbol from a television show, he hopes. "If someone supports Conchita because they're nationalist, and they also rethink their own opinions about gay and lesbian drag queens, I'm happy it happened," Schreuder said. "She's a hero here, and this would be unthinkable 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago–a small village celebrating their gay drag pop star."

Schreuder is cautious "not to put too much pressure on Conchita, as she's just one stone in a large mosaic." But he also believes that "what she can do is kick some asses in the right direction. Some people have never even seen a drag queen before. Now they have a chance to make an opinion."

Wurst's mother told her just the other day, she says, "'We have learned so much from you.'" At the lemonade ball, my date (a Viennese attorney at a big law firm) agreed with this analysis. She and her friends weren't that into Eurovision until it became clear Conchita might win. "My daughter asked me 'is that a man or a woman?'" she said, as we watched Wurst sing. "It's a man dressed as a woman," she told her child.

"It looks funny. Why does she do that?" the girl asked.

With no other way to explain it, mom replied: "Because she likes it."

Correction: An earlier version of this article had incorrectly spelled Marco Schreuder's last name as Schroeder and had included an umlaut in the word 'Almdudler.'

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