Bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision contest early on Sunday with the song Rise Like a Phoenix, beating expectations that the eye-catching performance would be too controversial in socially conservative countries.
The 25-year-old performer, whose real name is Tom Neuwirth, took the Eurovision crown in Copenhagen with 290 points compared to 238 points for runner-up the Netherlands, in what Eurovision fans had anticipated would be a more closely fought race.
It was Austria’s first Eurovision victory for 48 years.
“We are unity, and we are unstoppable,” Conchita said after winning the glitzy competition.
When asked what she would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin — who last year signed a law banning “gay propaganda” — Wurst replied: “I don’t know if he’s watching, but if so, I’ve made clear, we’re unstoppable.”
The win was also a victory for all people who believe “in the future of peace and love and tolerance,” said Wurst after the live broadcast, where she cried in front of the cameras.
“I said to myself just this time please just let me be the one with the gold,” she said.
The Eurovision winner secured most of her “douze points” top scores from western European countries, including Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.
However, she underlined that she also had fans in countries perceived as being more conservative. “It doesn’t depend on a country, there are people... also in eastern Europe who believe what I believe.”
In Vienna, the Austrian capital, fans who had gathered at one of the public viewing parties chanted “Conchita” ecstatically after the victory. Some had painted on fake beards in support.
For viewers in Russia, Wurst was the third favourite in the text voting.
The Ukrainian entry came fourth in Russia while Russia’s song was voted third best in neighbouring Ukraine.
Eurovision organisers explained that votes cast in the Crimea region, recently annexed by Russia from Ukraine, were counted as Ukrainian votes for technical reasons.
The bearded Austrian diva was among the top six picks in all participating countries except in Estonia, where the transvestite came eighth.
Following Wurst were The Common Linnets from the Netherlands with 238 points and Swedish singer Sanna Nielsen with 218, meaning next year’s contest will be held in Austria.
Other notable entries included Polish group Donatan & Cleo’s semi-pornographic show featuring women in low-cut milkmaid outfits and Montenegro’s Sergej Cetkovic, who had a faux-ice skater circling around onstage.
The annual competition is supposed to be completely removed from politics. Neither Russia’s entry — teenage twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy — nor Ukraine’s Mariya Yaremchuk, whose routine included a dancer running in a giant hamster wheel, alluded to the recent tensions between Moscow and Kiev.
Still, every time Russia got votes, many in the audience of 10,000 booed, and when Moscow gave its respective eight, 10 and 12 points to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus — all former Soviet republics — more boos were heard.
Many former Soviet Republic countries gave their points to neighbouring countries, except Ukraine, whose eight points to Austria were decisive for the Danish hosts to declare Wurst had won.
The first Eurovision song contest was held in 1956 in Switzerland, and the contest’s most famous winners include ABBA, Celine Dion and Johnny Logan, who won the contest three times — in 1980 and 1987 as a performer, and in 1992 as a songwriter.
Austria last won Eurovision back in 1966 with Merci Cherie by Udo Juergens, and news of the victory was well received by revellers in Vienna.
“It’s just great that a guy can perform like a woman like this, he has such a great presence,” said Karin Springer, who had gone to a bar with friends to watch the event. “It’s been 48 years since Austria won the Eurovision so it’s fantastic to get it back,” she added.
Others emphasised the message of tolerance Eurovision was sending to its viewers.
“I think it’s important that she won because she represents a different part of society that not everyone accepts,” said Fidan Aliyeva from Azerbaijan who recently finished her studies in Austria. “She proved that in Europe, everyone is accepted,” she added.
Austria’s colourful competitor didn’t become one of the bookies’ favourites until Thursday’s semi-final, amid reports that the drag act had prompted shocked petitions in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Even in Austria, the leader of the right-wing FPOe party had called the act “ridiculous”.
‘Fuss over facial hair’
“I have very thick skin. It never ceases to amaze me just how much fuss is made over a little facial hair,” Wurst told AFP on Friday.
Danish public broadcaster DR had transformed a disused shipyard into a purpose-built arena for the event, creating a spectacular stage for a fraction of the price some previous host countries have spent.
The growing popularity of Eurovision, and a desire by some countries to use it as a national showcase, have led to soaring costs, and DR’s 190 million kroner (Dh130 million) budget was considered relatively modest.
Denmark last hosted Eurovision in 2001, when BBC commentator Terry Wogan courted controversy by dubbing the host couple “Dr Death and the tooth fairy”, after mocking them for introducing every song in rhyming couplets.
This year’s show came under fire from social media users who said the comedy segments failed to make them laugh.
“Ever wondered why Denmark exports gritty crime dramas and not comedy? Eurovision currently providing the answer,” British journalist Tim Stanley wrote on Twitter.