A phoenix with a fiery beard

If you’re anything like me, whenever you glimpsed a bearded lady in the past, it was because she was in the circus. She’d be the punchline of tired jokes, many of which relied on perceived gender roles within society and notions of ideal beauty. However, on Eurovision, Conchita Wurst —a drag queen with a beard—won the song contest for Austria with her performance of “Rise Like a Phoenix” and was celebrated.

The song sends a message of empowerment, which could probably be presumed just by its title. Her performance embodied what she was saying, encapsulating and conveying her energy to the audience as she basked in the freedom to be herself. Conchita identifies herself as a female, but when not dressed in drag, she sees herself as Thomas (Tom) Neuwirth, for which one would use the pronoun “he.” (On a side note, if you’re ever confused about gender identification, don’t use the gender-binary terms “he” or “she,” but instead consider using the gender-neutral and now increasingly accepted “they.”)

Conchita faced harsh criticism from some other countries participating, mostly from Russia and Belarus. Both countries threatened to not air her performance, but let’s just think a moment. If she won the competition, how could they not televise her? Would Russian and Belarusian fans be left with no winner because of their governments’ prejudice?

If you’re anything like me, your television boundaries start in the Americas and end in Britain. I had never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest, nor had I heard of it by any of its other names: EuroSong, Eurovision, and the acronym ESC. Yes, I’ve heard it before; I know I can be a philistine. Now at least, I know what Eurovision is and how it works, even if I still may be uncultured in certain fields.

EuroSong is an annual singing competition where participating countries, self-evidently mostly from Europe, send one representative each to sing an original song on an international stage. Afterwards, member countries vote on others’ performances using a peculiar scale where the best performance receives twelve points, the second best receives ten, and then odd increments after that. Some countries use a system where people can vote and then a panel of the countries’ representatives award contestants points based on the general public’s vote while other countries just use a panel of judges to allocate points without the public’s input. Conchita won the competition with an overwhelming majority, most likely because she was simply the best singer competing this year.

By winning the competition, she joins a list of other reputable acts coming from Eurovision, including ABBA and Celine Dion to name a few. Her performance, though, was arguably better than any the show has seen before because of its infused social messages. Not every country recognizes people’s basic rights like self-identification. Not only did Conchita say something, but she also brought the concert hall down, moving audiences with her talent, passion, and especially pyrotechnics. Her beard was pretty awesome, too.