Watching the Eurovision Song Contest on my computer yesterday in the middle of a sunny afternoon in New Hampshire was odd. It’s the kind of live event for which people in Amsterdam and all over Europe have parties, or gather in bars to drink and scream at the television. It’s the most kitsch, gayest, pop-culture must-see TV of the year. And an audience of some 180 million people in 45 countries watched as a torch-singing bearded drag artist from Austria took home the coveted prize.
Here in the USA most people have never heard of Eurovision, or think it’s a brand of eyeglasses. And it’s hard to explain. “Like American Idol?” they ask. Um, no. I tell them it launched the careers of Abba and Celine Dion. “Like America’s Got Talent?” Nope. I try to make clear national pride is at stake, with a geopolitical element in the voting that runs parallel to the music competition. Their eyes glaze over in confusion. Not for the first time in almost thirty years of living abroad, I feel more than a little European.
As I watched the votes tallied country by country, and the Dutch entry rose in the rankings, I was pleased for them. The fact that their song was a Country Western duet was simply part of what makes Eurovision so indescribable. Not unlike the buxom blonde Polish girls who sang about being Slavic while suggestively churning butter. Or the trampoline bouncing antics of a Greek boy band. Or, for that matter, a glitzy raven-haired Bond girl from Austria who happens to have a beard.
On her website Conchita Wurst refers to herself as The Bearded Lady, created by her alter-ego 25 year-old performer Tom Neuwirth in response to discrimination suffered as a teenager. (Interesting to note: In the late 16th century, the bearded female court dwarf Helena Antonia was a favorite of Holy Roman Empress Maria of Austria and Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain. So we have a historical precedent here.)
“This night belongs to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity and we are unstoppable.” – Conchita Wurst
Conchita’s win with the song Rise Like a Phoenix was a not only a personal victory. Before the contest, Russia and other eastern European countries circulated petitions calling for the singer’s removal from the competition. Politician Vitaly Milonov, influential in passing Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, was the loudest opponent, calling Eurovision “a hotbed of sodomy.”
“Even just broadcasting the competition in Russia could insult millions of Russians,” said Milonov. “The participation of the obvious transvstite and hermaphrodite Conchita Wurst on the same stage as Russian singers on live television is blatant propaganda of homosexuality and spiritual decay.”
But Conchita responded to the controversy with charm and wry humor. “You know, I have a very thick skin,” she said. “It’s just strange that a little facial hair causes that much excitement.” She also noted 80% of autograph requests she got were from Russia and Eastern Europe. “And that’s what is important to me.”
The Big Easy
“I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” – Ernie K. Doe
And tomorrow I fly to New Orleans, a city I’m sure would welcome Conchita Wurst with open arms. I first visited there in 2001 for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and ended up attending the spectacular jazz funeral of legendary musical figure Milton Batiste. In 2012 I returned for two weeks for the full Mardi Gras experience. I dressed up for the balls, grabbed for beads at a dozen parades and even got to march in a couple of them: the Box of Wine Krewe and the Secret Society Of St. Anne. (As you can see in the photo, I did my own, albeit tame version of bearded drag for Mardi Gras Day!)
“Everyone in this good city enjoys the full right to pursue his own inclinations in all reasonable and, unreasonable ways.” – The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, March 5 1851
Saints and Sinners
With its rich musical and literary history, the mix of Creole and Cajun culture, and the distinctly European flavor of the French Quarter, I always feel at home in this most unique of all American cities. So I’m absolutely delighted to be back there next weekend for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, which focuses on LGBTQ literature in all its colorful genres. I’ll be taking workshops with iconic authors Edmund White and Felice Picano. I’ll moderate a panel called News Hounds Today: Gay Headlines and Bylines. I’ll get to meet my favorite author of gay mysteries John Morgan Wilson (who I wrote about a year ago in a piece called Murder Most Queer.) And I’ll be giving the first public reading from my own debut psychological thriller Calvin’s Head.
Without a doubt, I’ll be able to hold on to that European feeling that hit me yesterday while watching Conchita Wurst win the Eurovision Song Contest. And in case you missed her fabulous performance, here it is: