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The Metamorphosis of Conchita Wurst

Watching Conchita Wurst represent Austria and then win at Eurovision 2014 filled the hearts of many queer people with utter joy. At first it seemed that the image of the bearded drag queen was just an attention seeking gimmick at a competition that has become synonymous with campy bad taste, a really good and unusual one, but a gimmick nonetheless. But the image belied the undoubted talent once Conchita opened her mouth the sing. The winning entry, Rise Like a Phoenix, a torch song whose stirring strings and soaring vocals would make it a good choice for a Bond theme song, harkened back to the days when Eurovision was still a song contest, not an excuse for rock ’n ’roll pyrotechnics. Conchita was up there with the Eurovision greats like Vicky Leandros and Gigliola Cinquetti.

Unlike some recent Eurovision winners, Conchita Wurst, the stage persona of musician Tom Neuwirth, was not just a flash in the pan. A world tour or three, appearances at Pride festivals worldwide, a celebrated concert at the Sydney Opera House with The Sydney Symphony Orchestra with guests such as Courtney Act and Paul Capsis followed. Conchita did wonders for queer visibility. Following her new-found celebrity, Wurst performed at an anti-discrimination event held at the European Parliament in Brussels. Her speech emphasised the values of tolerance, stating that “As I always say, you don’t have to love me, but you have to respect that I’m here”. Conchita also performed at the United Nations Office at Vienna in front of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. A spokesperson for Ban described Wurst as a “cultural icon”. As a fashion icon, Conchita made her modelling debut on the catwalk at one of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Couture shows in Paris, where she took the final spot, which is usually reserved for the designer’s favourite model.

The singer’s first album Conchita was released in 2015.  In October last year the second album From Vienna With Love with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, an album of cover songs by beloved divas such as Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey and Celine Dion was released. It entered the album charts at #1, just like the debut album.

At the same time, the Austrian star had secretly been working on a third album which would mark a departure from the musical style and persona that the public had come to know. It was partly in response to public discussions focused on and questioned the artist’s fundamental orientation. Whether he is a man or a woman has been discussed ad nauseam. Neuwirth has stated that he is not a Trans woman, but a gay man who is also sometimes a drag queen. He uses She/Her pronouns to describe his Conchita character, but He/Him pronouns when referring to himself.

With the third album, titled Truth Over Magnitude, the musical style and the persona of the artist have undergone a complete makeover. With his first track of the album, Trash All The Glam the artist emphasises two musical contrasts, two very different facets of his stage character from now on: Conchita is the feminine media icon who has been creating a worldwide buzz since she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, known for her brilliant blend of Glam-Pop and diva songs. Wurst, on the other hand, is the masculine, uncompromising Electro-newcomer, who seems to care for no one’s opinion and delivers sexy, driving, and thoroughly danceable tracks revealing more about Neuwirth and his life in his lyrics than it was ever possible for the unapproachable character of Conchita. Trash All The Glam is the electronic track that clearly establishes the contrast of these two worlds. “I cut off hands that hold me back, I’m trashing all the glam,” sings Wurst.  “I have come here to be me in peace… I feel the more I trust in me the brighter all my colours be.”

In the video of Hit Me, the second track off the new album, Conchita’s lustrous locks have been replaced by Wurst with platinum silver hair and beard. He does nevertheless still sashay in heels. Neuwirth told Gay Times that he was eager to create a new persona, stating that “with the bearded lady, I have achieved everything I wanted…I don’t need her anymore, I have to kill her”. Much like David Bowie killing off Ziggy Stardust.

Last year Neuwirth came out as HIV-positive, revealing that he had been living with the virus for several years. He decided to share his status after being threatened by an ex. “This is actually irrelevant to the public, but an ex-boyfriend threatened to reveal this private information,” she wrote. “I don’t want to give anyone the right to cause me pain and influence my life in that way.”

Truth Over Magnitude will be released later this year.