Conchita Wurst needs little introduction. The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest Winner became an instant inspiration for the millions who took to heart the message of Rise Like a Phoenix – and the respect and tolerance at the heart of her performance.
Indeed, Conchita has become something of an icon for LGBTI communities across Europe and has performed at several Prides including London and Manchester, attended the Golden Globes and continued to produce inspiring and inventive music – her debut album, Conchita, was released in May. She’s even found time for modelling work. As a cultural expression of inclusiveness and diversity, it’s not difficult to understand Conchita’s immense appeal.
And yet this is simply a small part of who Conchita is. She is also a determined campaigner who has already addressed an anti-discrimination event at the European parliament, performed for Ban Ki-Moon and suggested spending some time with Russian premier Vladimir Putin to better understand his government’s position on LGBTI rights. Graham Norton’s observation that her Eurovision victory was “something that matters just a little bit” has proven to be something of an understatement; the phenomenon that is Conchita Wurst is perhaps better defined by the title of her second single, You Are Unstoppable.
Conchita has become such a symbol of hope that it is easy to overlook the reality that she is the creation of Tom Neuwirth, a 27 year old Austrian who has experienced anti-gay prejudice and social rejection. Tom has had to fight for acceptance and is still working to rid himself of his insecurities. Visiting Glasgow for the inaugural Icon Awards – at which she was presented with the Rising Star Award – Conchita was keen to discuss her new book, Being Conchita, which looks in detail at how a young man pushed to the periphery of society became an international star with a message of love and tolerance.
“It’s so essential to know how it came about” she tells me in immaculate English. “Being a teenager isn’t fun – at least not if you’re different, and for me it was a real struggle. I felt a need to tell the whole story.”
It is a story that is surprising, even shocking. Tom left home at 14 years old, feeling stifled by the limitations of life in the small mountain town of Bad Mitterndorf and the attitudes of some of its inhabitants. Even while discussing her own struggles, however, Conchita cannot avoid seeing the bigger picture: “I’ve never been bullied in a physical way. Of course that doesn’t mean I wasn’t hurting. We in the LGBTI community have a tough time. You only have to look at the instances of suicide among our community.”
The ability to overcome diversity is central to Conchita’s success and her message, and was evident in the aftermath of her Eurovision win. While her performance won millions of admirers, it also attracted criticism from some quarters – much of it thinly-disguised homophobia and transphobia. Russian President Vladimir Putin infamously suggested that she undermined “traditional values”, while another Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claimed her victory meant “the end of Europe”. Closer to home, veteran Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan suggested the 2014 contest had become a “freak show”. Conchita even received death threats.
So how did she deal with such hate and negativity? “In an impolite way”, she explains with a laugh. “Really, I couldn’t care less. I have better things to do than consume these statements.” For a young person, in the limelight for the first time, such criticism from world leaders may have been overwhelming, but Conchita was undaunted. “Successful politicians speaking against me I regard as flattery. Am I that important? I just thought ‘thank you for your time’.”
“There are bigger things I care about. I care about society. I care about respect and love. I take the opportunity to talk about these things. Knowledge is linked to respect, and awareness breaks down prejudices.”
So is Conchita herself a statement of diversity? “If I’ve inspired others and helped them to accept themselves that’s great…my look helps to get heard. People listen. And I’m happy to talk.”
“I tell people my story and try to educate”, she explains. “It’s so beautiful and it works. Education is powerful…people change their minds and become accepting.”
The ability of people to change their minds is something that looms large in Conchita’s thinking. After all, many of those who are leading advocates of equality today at one time had very different mindsets and she pointed to Glasgow as an example. “I was educated today that Glasgow is the most LGBT friendly city in Britain” she told me, after which I felt compelled to point out that when I was in my teens the picture was very different. “Well, there’s your evidence”, she said triumphantly. “People change their minds. And they’ll keep changing them.”
In spite of her status as a cultural superstar, Conchita is uncomfortable with being seen as an icon. “I don’t see myself as an icon – or a spokesperson or role model. In my world, a role model is someone who goes beyond themselves. They put in effort. It needs no effort to be myself, so it’s hard for me to take. I don’t have to force myself to do what I do. I’m just true to myself.”
All of which may, in many people’s minds, qualify her to be the perfect role model. Her appeal, and the esteem in which she is held, is not in doubt – the astonishing achievement of her debut album going platinum within six days (unheard of for an Austrian artist and something she still seems genuinely surprised about) is testament to that. Whatever the future holds for this reluctant icon, she can be relied upon to speak out – and speak up for a more tolerant society and the dignity of all humanity.
Before concluding the interview, I asked Conchita whether she had a message for Scotland’s LGBTI community. Her response was typically direct and uplifting. “Thank you for your support – you are incredible. We all want to receive respect – keep being amazing!”
Conchita Wurst’s album, Conchita, can be ordered from iTunes or Amazon. Her book, Being Conchita: You Are Unstoppable, is priced at £9.99 and published by John Blake.