It is amazing to think that in 2016, something as innocent as a bearded drag queen could still cause a stir.
Yet Conchita Wurst – 2014 Eurovision winner, ‘We are Unstoppable’ singer, and front woman of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during the 38th Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – still has the capacity to shock.
Although it has been two years since she shimmied into the public imagination, she remains the regular target of homophobic threats and apocalyptic declarations. (Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky once described her popularity as “the end of Europe.”) “It’s always surprising to me that they spend so much time thinking about me and talking about me,” she says of her detractors. “I really feel the need to say thank you, because I wouldn’t spend a second of my time on something that I don’t like.”
That sassy, shake-it-off attitude is exactly what you’d expect from a performer with dazzling Kardashian lashes and locks. She’s all Real Housewives bravado. The man behind Conchita is Thomas "Tom" Neuwirth, a former fashion design student and boyband member, hailing from the tiny spa town of Gmunden, Austria. But it’s not the performer who we meet at the Sydney Opera House for Time Out Sydney’s cover shoot, or over the phone from Berlin for our interview. It’s his creation.
Beneath the drag artifice, there’s enough sincerity in Conchita to launch several hundred Pride parades. Which is lucky for her, because since the Eurovision win, touring the queer festival circuit has become bread and butter for Wurst. “All of the Pride events that I have attended so far [are] so well organised. It’s just unbelievable, most of the time it’s a whole week or even two weeks – I could never host an event lasting for two weeks, I would just go crazy.”
She notes that “every country has their own mentality” when it comes to LGBTQI festivities. Amsterdam has been one of her favourites so far. It was her first Pride event outside of the German speaking world, and she was amazed to see “grandparents were there, even grandchildren covered in rainbow flags … It was just overwhelming that the whole city was on their feet and everybody was celebrating.”
But Sydney will put up some stiff competition. “You guys take it so seriously! It seems like Mardi Gras is the place to be, even for the straight community.” The fact that Sydney has such an electric atmosphere around Mardi Gras doesn’t surprise the performer, “We Europeans really have the picture of this very open-minded Australia,” she says. “And actually it was a surprise to me that marriage isn’t open yet. The government has to work on that.”
One small area of gay rights Australia is getting right however, is access to really fierce weaves. “I can always spot an Australian queen by her high, high end wig. Australian drag queens have the best hair in the world – the best. It’s all Wigs by Vanity, and she’s not even paying me to say that.”
Wurst discovered this secret through her friend, and frequent on-stage collaborator Courtney Act. “I met Courtney for the first time in Vienna actually for Life Ball… we saw each other and we knew instantly ‘okay that’s gonna work’. We’ve sung in concert together ever since.”
While Wurst enjoys the feeling of having her name up in lights, she’s not entirely comfortable with being seen as a role model. “It is an honour and it’s flattering that people refer to me as someone they trust or get inspired from. But on the other hand, I never said I am the spokesperson for anyone but myself right? I’m not perfect… it’s just me. It’s a bearded drag queen. You know I say stupid things and I do things that I would not recommend anyone else do. I don’t see myself as someone you should look up to.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t admire her though. “Ever since I found out about the Sydney Orchestra show, I haven’t stopped showing off,” she jokes. “All my friends hate me.” She’s also already got her outfit lined up. “I can’t say what I wanted to say because that will give away too much. I think it will be an eye-catcher. Let’s put it that way.”