Eurovision Mixes Politics and Campy Fun Into One Big Queer Show

Mans Zelmerlow from Sweden performs at Eurovision.

Photo by DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

VIENNA—By winning the Eurovision Song Contest last year, Austria earned the right to host this year’s contest, the final of which was Saturday. But while 39 other countries, including distant guest entrant Australia, had traveled here for the competition, it only felt like an away game for one: Russia, which is increasingly viewed as a pariah at Eurovision for both its actions regarding Ukraine and its domestic discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The win by Austrian bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst last year was seen as a particular victory for Eurovision’s significant queer fanbase, who, though stalwarts of the contest for decades, have grown even more visible as acceptance has increased around the continent. In an interview last week, Conchita explained to me why she believes the gay community has gravitated so strongly toward Eurovision.

“My version of explaining that is that the concept of the Eurovision Song Contest is just a beautiful one,” she began:

There’s no judgment going on. There are no rules, in a kind of way. You can come as you are, and just feel free to embrace your artistic point of view, do whatever you want on stage. That’s just beautiful, and I think people can feel that. Really, we are all together because we love music, we love singing, and we love performing, and that’s a great opportunity to show it to the world. That’s kind of the society that we are all longing for at the end of the day, especially when it comes to the LGBTI community. It’s really stepping back from focusing on your sexual orientation or the color of your skin and just concentrating on what matters: the character. And, in this case, are they delivering live or not? Because at the end of the day, these are The Hunger Games.

This year in Vienna, rainbow flags were more visible than those of any single nation outside of Austria. And like last year in Copenhagen, rainbow flags were particularly visible in the first semifinal during Russia’s performance, when several enterprising fans held them up in clear view of the cameras.

But the crowd response was generally less hostile than it was last year, when there were more audible boos before and after Russia’s performances, when they qualified for the final, and when they received votes during the final.

This year, the crowd was implored before taping started not to boo any performer for any political reason, and the message seems to have been respected. While Russia didn’t receive the exuberant support that other favorites enjoyed, there wasn’t the same sort of hostility as last year in Copenhagen.

“The situation last year was, I think, so unfair from the audience,” said Conchita. “These girls [Russia’s 2014 representatives the Tolmachevy Twins] did such an amazing job, and they are not politicians, they are artists. So is Polina [this year’s contestant], and she’s stunning. She looks like from another planet, that beautiful. Her voice, song, dress and everything is just perfect. We love her, and that’s great, because I think people are concentrating, again, on whether she’s a good artist or if she has a good song or not.”

On the strength of her live performance in the first semifinal and an advantageous spot late in the running order of the final, Russia had been given the second-best odds of winning, according to bookmakers, before Sweden’s eventual victory on Saturday.

A Russian win, of course, would have meant that the contest would be in Russia next year, which would have created a battleground between the contest’s gay supporters and the hostility shown by the Russian politicians and public toward them. Even Vladimir Putin himself spoke out after Austria’s win last year, while another member of parliament demanded that Russia withdraw from the competition.

Conchita Wurst, however, felt that a Russian win would have been momentous.

“If she wins, I think it will be beautiful,” she said of Polina before the final and Sweden’s win. “Because we’re all going to go there, if they want it or not.”

Asked if she herself would attend, Wurst was especially emphatic.

“Hello? Of course!” she exclaimed. “Of course I would go there. And I think it would be a beautiful opportunity for Russia to rethink their ridiculous laws.”