She’s been in Los Angeles for less than 24 hours, but Conchita Wurst doesn’t betray the fact that she’s battling jetlag. She exudes the same confidence she displayed the night she won the Eurovision Song Contest eight months ago as she glides across West Hollywood’s rainbow-colored crosswalk on Santa Monica Boulevard, dressed in a tight black top, royal blue skirt, a pair of tan heels, and brandishing her signature accessory – a perfectly manicured beard.
Moments later, as we’re seated on the patio of a café down the block, I tell her how I’m honored to have the opportunity to meet her during her first trip to the United States, and her face lights up. “It’s so strange to have people saying thank you to me for coming when all I can think is, No, that’s the other way around,” she says warmly.
Despite working on her debut album, the internationally-renowned drag performer says she couldn’t turn down the offer when she received an invitation to attend the 2015 Golden Globes as part of the Austrian delegation supporting nominee Christoph Waltz. “I’m so happy and so thankful just to be here,” she says. “But it’s also been overwhelming because I’ve watched these kind of shows for years and I never dreamed I would be in a position to say yes or no to something like the Golden Globes.”
Since her Eurovision win, the 26-year-old says life has become a series of “unbelievable moments” such as this, but while “Conchita” is thrilled to be a rising queen in the royal court of pop culture, the young man beneath the wig, Thomas Neuwirth, is even happier the character he created is encouraging conversations about how we define beauty and gender. It’s an impact he says he began to believe the character was capable of having shortly after he started to perform as “a bearded lady.”
“When I first created this character and name, I was hosting an underground burlesque show [in Austria], and even in this underground scene where you might think everybody would be open-minded, they didn’t really get it,” says Wurst. “Even though I’m not the first person to perform as a bearded lady, people were still reacting to me, and that’s when I first realized I could really say something with this and make people think.”
That ember of an idea soon began to burn brighter than Wurst imagined possible when the announcement was made that the bearded drag diva was Austria’s official choice to represent the country at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest with the ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix.” An international conversation was sparked within moments of the announcement when several countries with prevailing antigay attitudes – including Armenia, Belarus, and Russia – criticized not only the drag queen’s appearance, but Neuwirth’s sexuality as a gay man and launched petitions to have Wurst either removed from the competition or edited out of the television broadcasts in their homelands.
“I wasn’t surprised people started to speak out against me, but I was surprised they were putting so much effort into it, and it just reminded me that what I was doing was important,” says Wurst. “In Europe, when people think of drag queens they think of a tall man in a dress, with glitter, lashes, and big hair. That’s why so many people were confused by my interpretation of drag. Especially when it came to straight men, because when they look at a drag queen, or me from the back, they can still have the same fantasy. But when I turn around it raises other questions and some people, well, they just can’t handle that.”
But while Wurst is thankful for the international impact her Eurovision win is having on global visibility for LGBT people and the constraints people have traditionally used to define their own sexuality, she says the most personally moving moment occurred after returning victorious to her hometown of Bad Mitterndorf, Austria – a place where Neuwirth was bullied in his youth for being different – and was welcomed by a crowd of cheering fans.
“It was kind of strange going back there after I won, because that was actually the place where I suffered the most and even though I left there at [the age of] 14, those are still old demons to deal with,” says Wurst. “But to come back to that love and support – I realized in that moment what a beautiful change had occurred and I could see [not only how] things really do get better, but how we have an opportunity to change people’s minds if we just stay true to who we are.”
Wurst says the message of people staying “true to who we are” has been underscored in her mind since the recent terrorist attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the role artists play in fighting for freedom.
“The fact that people could do such a thing, just because they have a different opinion… I have no words,” she says, adding that efforts to silence art through fear only add fuel to her fire. “I truly believe artists should never hold back because of fear. Fear is like poison and I know if I ever gave in to that I would not be the same performer. We have to continue to fight against such things and that’s exactly what I want to achieve – to help people realize we don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinions, but we do need to respect one another, and we can achieve anything no matter who we are or how we look.”
Wurst has continued to provide a soundtrack to that mission with her latest single “Heroes,” and says her upcoming album will offer more of the same uplifting message when it’s released later this year. Plans for a tour to support the album are also in the works.
But the stylish songstress is also looking forward to playing her part as a host at the upcoming 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, which will take place in Vienna, Austria this May and marks the event’s 60th anniversary. However, as eagerly as she’s anticipating this year’s contest, she predicts and even bigger reason to celebrate will happen soon.
“I think it will just take America a little more time, but hopefully how awesome Eurovision is will catch on here soon,” she says. “Then it will really become a global event.”
Until then, the LGBT icon who rose like a phoenix, intends to fly like an eagle.
Watch the music video for "Heroes" below and for the latest news on Conchita Wurst, visit the official website.