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‘They Are So Triggered by Me’: Conchita Wurst’s 10-Year Roller-Coaster Ride

‘They Are So Triggered by Me’: Conchita Wurst’s 10-Year Roller-Coaster Ride

Looking back at the last decade, Tom Neuwirth is amazed by how far his 2014 Eurovision win as the drag queen Conchita Wurst has reverberated.

“I think this moment, the win, happened to all of us,” Neuwirth said in a recent interview at his team’s offices in Vienna. Dressed in pink corduroys, a black hoodie and white sneakers, he was charming and sweet, jokey one second and quietly reflective the next. “People will tell me where they were and how their life took a turn from then on,” he said. “There are always big stories and emotions.”

That May, 10 years ago, 195 million people watched Conchita Wurst belt out the power ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix,” representing Austria in the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. The annual show is Europe’s longest-running talent competition, in which singers representing their countries perform for a huge TV audience that votes for its favorite act.

This year’s Eurovision final takes place in Malmo, Sweden, on Saturday. The event, which has been referred to “the queer Olympics” or “gay Christmas,” has long been popular with L.G.B.T.Q. people. By 2014, the competition had already seen a number of gay, lesbian and bisexual participants, as well as several drag acts, and a trans winner as early as 1998.

Yet none of those performers received as explosive a reception as Conchita Wurst, whose victory arrived amid widespread advancements in L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Western Europe that included a wave of legalization for same-sex marriage. The singer became a worldwide symbol of the divisions between liberals and conservatives, with some calling her performance a high-profile victory for queer representation, and others seeing it as a sign of the degradation of traditional Western values.

At the time of his win, Neuwirth was 25 and a newcomer to the international pop scene. All he had behind him was a turn on an Austrian talent show, on which he placed second, and a brief period in a boy band that sputtered out.

So his victory was a huge surprise for him and for all of Austria, which had last won Eurovision in 1966. “Everyone was completely out of their minds, like, ‘What, we won that?’” recalled Florian Aschka, a member of a collective that runs the Queer Museum Vienna. “It felt like a win for the whole queer community.”

Invitations for Conchita Wurst flooded in: to headline L.G.B.T.Q. Pride events in Madrid, London, Antwerp and beyond; to perform at the European Parliament and the United Nations; and to appear in a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show.

Around the same time, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which had been on air for a few years, exploded in popularity, and drag queen story hours began in San Francisco. In the decade since, both the TV show and the story hours have turned into cultural phenomena.

Neuwirth said that today, the appearance of a bearded drag queen on Eurovision “wouldn’t be so much of a topic.” But elsewhere in the mainstream media, he said, there has been a growing backlash against L.G.B.T.Q. people’s increased visibility in public life — for example, from people who think drag queens are using story hours to groom children. “I think with all this recognition and visibility, people who do not understand the concept of inclusion get triggered to the max,” he said.

He would know; the blowback to Conchita Wurst was fierce. One ultranationalist Russian lawmaker described her performance as “the end of Europe”; another called it “propaganda for homosexuality and moral decay.” The leader of the conservative Law and Justice Party in Poland echoed those sentiments, and a few years later, Turkey’s public broadcaster, which had been boycotting Eurovision since 2012, said that the spectacle of “an Austrian with a beard and a skirt, who claims not to have a gender” affirmed its decision to step back from the contest.

But Neuwirth wasn’t bothered. He was too busy “living my princess fantasy,” he said. Attention from the haters was, if anything, flattering, he added: “They are so triggered by me that they have to talk about me.”

After the win, Neuwirth spent three years on the road, living his dream as a singer in the public eye, with “paparazzi, being famous and all the things that come with it.” But with time came wisdom. “There was a moment in my career where I thought, this can’t be it,” he said. “Conchita became a very narrow niche.”

Next, Neuwirth created a new, more masculine character called WURST, whose 2019 debut was coupled with an electronic album, “Truth Over Magnitude.” “I thought I was breaking free, but in hindsight I fled in the opposite direction and then again I was stuck in whatever I thought I had to be,” Neuwirth said.

These days, Neuwirth is 35 and starring in his first theater role, as the lead in “LuziWuzi: I Am the Empress,” a kitschy dramedy about a Hapsburg royal, Archduke Ludwig Victor, who was openly but quietly gay, periodically donned dresses and was eventually banned from Vienna by his brother, Emperor Franz Joseph, after he was accused of inappropriately approaching another man in the public baths. The show, which runs at the Rabenhof Theater in Vienna through Sept. 24, has been very well received, with standing ovations and positive reviews.

Neuwirth said he now felt comfortable shifting between his private self — Tom in sweatpants — and his characters, whether it’s a glam Conchita Wurst or a campy Hapsburg archduke.

Finally, he said, “I understood for myself that there are no boundaries.”

“I always said it,” he added, “but I didn’t authentically live it as much as I wanted to for myself.”

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