Conchita Wurst | Photo Credit: Getty Images

We hope you’ve been giving those vocal chords some rest because its time to start singing along with—and screaming about—the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest, which kick off their semi-finals today in Malmö, Sweden.

The annual music competition pits original numbers from artists representing countries of the European Union against one another in a voted-on performance tournament, and has come to be known as the “Gay Olympics” thanks to its penchant for campy, flashy pop bombast, which regularly draws in a large LGBTQ+ viewership.

But Eurovision has long welcomed queer performers into the competition, too. For example, this year, Years & Years frontman and It’s A Sin actor Olly Alexander will represent England with his song “Dizzy.” In 1998, the contest named its first trans winner, Dana International.

And this year marks the 10th anniversary of a particularly unforgettable queer champion: Bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst, representing Austria with her winning power ballad “Rise Like A Phoenix.”

The success of “Rise Like A Phoenix” in the 2014 competition was a major shock for Austria, which hadn’t won the competition since 1966 (with Udo Jürgens’ “Merci, Chérie”), and for Wurst who was just 25 at the time and had yet to make an impression on the international pop scene.

Out of drag, Conchita Wurst is known as Thomas Neuwirth (he/him), who was born in a small town in the Austrian countryside, where he says he always knew he was different and face homophobic prejudice from an early age.

After placing second in the Austrian talent show Starmania in 2006 and short-lived stint in the boyband Jetzt Anders!, Neuwirth began to develop and perform as his drag persona, Conchita Wurst, choosing to keep his beard as “a statement to say that you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or how you look,” he told Reuters in 2014.

Once Conchita was selected to represent Austria in Eurovision 2014, she was destined to make an impression. Though the contest is known for its spectacle, she went for a more stripped-down performance—she was the first person to win without backing singers or dancers since 1970!—to emphasize her vocals, her gender-bending appearance, and the song’s message about overcoming adversity.

Of course, her mere presence on the stage was sure to be divisive, especially at a time before Drag Race was a globally acclaimed franchise and when same-sex marriage was newly legalized in a number of Western European countries.

Per a retrospective piece in The New York Times, Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win was called “the end of Europe” by one Russian lawmaker, while another labeled it “propaganda for homosexuality and moral decay.” In Turkey, which has boycotted the contest since 2012, a representative decried the “spectacle of “an Austrian with a beard and a skirt, who claims not to have a gender” and said “thank God we no longer participate in Eurovision.”

But, like a Phoenix, Conchita soared above the hate, standing proudly as a beacon of hope for the LGBTQ+ community at a time when the whole world was watching. Hers was a win for queer people everywhere.

“I think this moment, the win, happened to all of us,” Neuwirth tells the NYT. “People will tell me where they were and how their life took a turn from then on. There are always big stories and emotions.”

Since the victory, Chonita Wurst has continued performing, becoming a staple at Pride festivities all over the globe, and Neuwirth even released a more electronic-leaning album in 2019 with their more masclunie persona, WURST. Most recently, he stepped into his first theater role, playing openly gay Austrian royal Archduke Ludwig Victor in the the dramedy play LuziWuzi: I Am the Empress.

This week, to mark 10 years since her unforgettable victory, Conchita Wurst returned to the Eurovision Village and performed a headlining set, including their iconic “Rise Like A Phoenix,” sharing a powerful message about “unity and freedom” at a particularly fraught time in international politics.

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