Controversy is deepening over Austria's decision to send a bearded drag queen to the Eurovision song contest.
The Austrian state-run broadcaster ORF announced in September that it had chosen 25-year-old male cross-dresser "Conchita Wurst," known for wearing figure-hugging dresses and sporting a jet black beard, to represent the country at next year's contest in Denmark.
While some applaud the move as a bold gesture of tolerance, Wurst's selection has also sparked an outcry from critics who say the singer's provocative looks discredit both Austria and the time-honored singing competition.
A Facebook page set up against Wurst, whose real name is Tom Neuwirth, has already gathered almost 40,000 "likes." More than 4,500 people have signed an Austrian petition to have Wurst—who prefers to be referred to as "she" when in character—axed from Eurovision.
The outrage has spread beyond Austria, with viewers from all over the world heaping scorn on Wurst's performances online.
A pun is making the rounds that Austria made the "wurst" decision possible.
In Belarus, some 2,000 people have petitioned their country's Information Ministry to prevent next year's Eurovision from being broadcast there, complaining that the international song contest had become "a hotbed of sodomy."
The man behind the initiative, Artsyom Kirashou, says looking at the drag queen makes him physically "sick" and describes the Eurovision selection as an attempt by European liberals to impose their values on Belarus and Russia.
"If we open the doors to everything that they're trying to push on us, it's hard to imagine what can happen," Kirashou says. "So, first and foremost, I'm doing it for our children, who haven't yet developed their personalities and who are very sensitive about the world around them. Secondly, [for] the Belarusian people who live in accordance with Orthodox Christian laws."
Wurst, however, appears unfazed by the criticism.
"I don't pay huge attention to it," Wurst says. "My stance is that I fight for something positive rather than against something negative."
The singer, who is openly gay, says the goal is to promote tolerance by shining a spotlight on discrimination against sexual minorities.
And the controversy surrounding the Eurovision selection, Wurst says, is helping do just that.
"It has often happened that people who were not really my fans, after speaking to me, told me I was actually a nice person," Wurst says. "And I thought, yes, that's the whole point! People should try to look at what's behind the façade."
Tom Neuwirth made his musical debut in 2006 during the Austrian talent show "Starmania." This was followed by a brief stint in a boy band.
Neuwirth only truly morphed into Conchita Wurst in 2011, bursting onto Austria's musical stage at another casting show called "Die Grosse Chance."
Despite initial sniggers from the audience, Wurst's performance won a standing ovation and second place in the contest.
In 2012, she vied to represent Austria at Eurovision but came in second.
Wurst, whose stage names means "sausage" in German, describes her drag costume a work "uniform."
Offstage, she reverts to being Tom Neuwirth, whom she somewhat improbably describes as "an incredibly boring young man."
Wurst, who grew up in a small Austrian town, says she was bullied as a child and hopes her newfound fame will inspire other kids to feel less fettered by social conventions.
Supporters say her message of tolerance is particularly relevant amid mounting homophobia in a number of former Soviet countries, where Eurovision is hugely popular.
Russia, in particular, recently passed a law banning the propaganda of "nontraditional sexual relations." Another bill is in the works to take children away from their homosexual parents.
"What's happening there is terrible," Wurst says. "It's a human-rights violation that should not be taking place in the 21st century. Considering our world's history, we should not be picking on such things. There are really bigger problems."
Eurovision, whose stated aim is to bring together people from different nations and backgrounds, is no stranger to controversy.
In 1998, transsexual singer Dana International caused an uproar in her native Israel when she was selected to represent the country.
Despite efforts by conservative Israeli groups to have her participation voided, she won the contest and went on to sell almost half a million copies of her hit "Diva."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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