They don’t call her the Queen of Austria because she is a drag queen. They call her that because she has in the past nine months become one of this country’s biggest stars. Wurst ranked seventh in Google searches worldwide in 2014, just in front of ISIS and just behind Flappy Bird.
It’s an improbable rise to fame for the man beneath the gown—25-year-old Tom Neuwirth, who has since 2011 taken the stage in one dazzling gown after another and with a full, black beard. This country still yearning to escape its Nazi shadow is not known for its tolerance, and yet somehow, a bearded lady has seized the Zeitgeist. In May, Wurst won the Austrian stage of Europe’s older and more successful American Idol—the Eurovision song contest, in Copenhagen—and now she smiles for flashbulbs everywhere she goes.
Europe is changing, and Conchita Wurst is both beneficiary and agent of that change. Her stardom is proof that Austria is willing to love someone different. Now’s she’s been elevated to a global stage. She fields interview requests from international media outlets, headlined Pride events in London, Madrid and Stockholm, did a fashion photo shoot with Karl Lagerfeld, a voice-over (as snow owl Eva) for the German language version of Dreamworks’ Penguins of Madagascar television show and performed before the European Parliament.
Conversations about Wurst address not just whether it’s OK to be gay but what it even means to be a man or a woman, and whether we should rethink the whole concept. It’s a remarkable achievement for a small-town boy whose classmates once called him “faggot” for showing up at school in clothes surreptitiously borrowed from his female cousins and his mom. And while Wurst loathes the idea that she has become some kind of political figure, she is a big influence in Europe, with a big microphone.