Long before "American Idol" — before "Star Search," even — there was the Eurovision Song Contest. The United Nations of all talent competitions, held every year since 1956, Eurovision features talents from across Europe competing over five days, with each country submitting an original song to be performed on live television. It's one of the most-watched broadcasts in the entire world, with an average annual audience of 125 million viewers in 45 countries, and about 180 million viewers in 2013 and 2014. Compare that to the 111.5 million people who watched the Super Bowl this year, and you get an idea of Eurovision's popularity.
It's also one of the cheesiest broadcasts on the planet. Eurovision is seemingly untouched by time or taste, with the contestants wearing Spandex 'n' sequins outfits and executing variety-show dance moves that wouldn't have been out of place during ABBA's historical 1974 Eurovision number. And Saturday's newly crowned champion at the Copenhagen-based 2014 competition, Austrian "Bearded Lady" Conchita Wurst (aka 25-year-old drag queen Tom Neuwirth), is one of Eurovision's most unique, wild — and polarizing — winners yet.
Tom Neuwirth was a 2007 runner-up on the "Idol"-like Austrian talent show "Starmania," and debuted the Conchita Wurst persona in 2011 on another TV talent competition, "Die große Chance," also placing second. But now Conchita Wurst has triumphed at Eurovision with 290 points.
Singing the fittingly titled, Bond-theme-reminiscent "Rise Like a Phoenix" (written by Charley Mason, Joey Patulka, Ali Zuckowski, and Julian Maas), Conchita wowed with her Bassey-esque pipes, dramatic camera eye contact, glittery gold gown... and full face of scruff, of course.
Conchita was actually declared Eurovision's 2014 winner before Saturday's live finals were even officially over, after results for 34 of the 37 voting countries had been revealed.
However, Conchita wasn't just battling singers from 25 other nations in Saturday's finals; she had to fight controversy over her participation in the contest in general. When it was announced last September that she would represent Austria at Eurovision 2014, within four days more than 31,000 protesters had "liked" an anti-Conchita Facebook page. Later, petitions in Belarus, Armenia, and Russia circulated, demanding that her potentially offensive performance be edited out of the Eurovision broadcasts in those countries.
"This night is dedicated to anyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom," Conchita declared in her Eurovision acceptance speech Saturday at Copenhagen's B&W Hallerne venue. "You know who you are. We are unity, and we are unstoppable." Considering that the Eurovision Song Contest was initially conceived to unite Europe following World War II, Conchita's speech was as timeless as it was timely.