How drag and trans acts became the Eurovision constant

2 Nov

59th Eurovision Song Contest

Picture: Georg Hochmuth/EPA

Decades ago Eurovision was consisting of ballad queens, crooners and acts doing the fun, upbeat, sometimes “cheesy” songs and performances. Traditional gender roles were the only way to go, with a clear distinction between what was a “masculine” and what was a “feminine” performance. However in 1986, something else made a debut – the drag acts. Wikipedia defines the word “drag queen” as:

“The term drag queen occurred in Polari, a subset of English slang that was popular in some gay communities in the early part of the 20th century. Its first recorded use to refer to actors dressed in women’s clothing is from 1870.

A folk etymology, whose acronym basis reveals the late 20th-century bias, would make “drag” an abbreviation of “Dressed as A Girl” in description of male theatrical transvestism. However, there is no trace of this supposed stage direction in Dessen and Thomson’sDictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642.”

Based on this article, drag culture has been involved long time before its use in today’s Western society – as a part of the LGBTQ community. Back in the 80s Eurovision and LGBTQ weren’t so closely connected, particularly due to LGBTQ still being marginalised and later on also stigmatised (due to the hysteria caused by the AIDS epidemic). The debut of Great Garlic Girls as part of the performance of the host entry, “Romeo” by Kjetil Stokkan didn’t go down very well with the juries, making him finish 12th with 44 points. The drag group however earned nation-wide fame and is still performing even today, albeit in a different line-up.

Fast forward to 1998. The LGBTQ community’s position in (Western) Europe was improving and the wave of positivity and tolerance due to successful economy was widely present. During that time, Isreal (for many known as the country of three most important monoteistic religions) sent a trans act to the contest in Birmingham. The trans act was Dana International, a man (Yaron Cohen) who changed sex and gender and became a woman (Sharon Cohen). Despite the tolerance towards LGBTQ being bigger, Dana’s selection was welcomed with a massive outrage and protests from the Orthodox Jews in her native country. Those groups even tried to prevent her from going to ESC altogether. However as the popular saying goes “all publicity is good publicity” Dana became one of the odds’ favourites to win the contest and as at the end of the very tense voting she indeed emerged as the contest’s winner, being the first ever openly LGBTQ act to do so. It’s interesting to point out that a year earlier, Iceland’s Paul Oscar (being openly gay) had only finished on 20th place, with the majority of points coming from televoting. In 1998 televoting was used in the majority of the countries taking part, which was a great help for Dana and her modern Eurodance anthem “Diva”, which also became a big summer hit and a minor commercial hit – something which wasn’t entirely common as only few years back, Eurovision had been struggling with making a commercial impact on the charts. Dana and “Diva” gave the contest some well-needed publicity and that publicity contributed to what would be the major change of image, in the years to come.

Moving on 4 years later, to winter 2002. To my country (Slovenia), to be precise. The national final, EMA, that year ended up in a complete chaos in which the winners were the three drag queens known as Sestre (or as their older name Štrumpantl Sisterz). It was shown however, that Sestre had won due to the massive jury support, rather than the televoting love. Karmen Stavec, the runner-up of the selection was seen having a massive meltdown because of the defeat and during that time the general director of RTVSLO, Aleks Štakul, made a statement about the re-vote likely to be held. His statement split the Slovenian public into two camps – the conservative LGBTQ-skeptics and the liberal LGBTQ-supporters. While the former were supporting the idea of a re-vote (as they wanted for our country to be represented by “someone proper” rather than “three freaks putting our country to shame”), the latter caused a major counter-reaction, supporting the shift in mentality in our country, rooting for our society to become progressive and liberal, rather than homophobic and conservative. The whole debate even got its place in our parliament and government, both siding with the LGBTQ skeptcis instead. The reaction of our political elite even made the news in the major worldwide press and caused the establishment within the European Union to question our ability to really join the union (we eventually joined 2 years later). Eventually the whole controversy faded, the re-vote didn’t happen and finally Sestre started receiving praise from the public. Their song “Samo ljubezen” is now considered Eurovision-classic, still used in student and bachelor parties all over the country. Sestre released the album the same year and were considered among the most important people of the year. LGBTQ support won.

After drag/trans acts failed to make to Eurovision the following years (the most noted examples being After Dark from Sweden and Queentastic from Norway) or did not make any big impact, (the Bulgarian drag queen Azis as the backing vocalist for Mariana Popova in 2006) in 2007 drag came back with a venegance, multiplied by 2 even. Denmark sent DQ (his real name is Peter Andersen) and Ukraine sent Verka Serduchka (his real name is Andrey Danylko). While the former didn’t really create any big sensation with his schlager-pop song “Drama Queen” and was eliminated in the semi final already, the latter took Europe by storm. First there was a controversy because of the song (“Dancing Lasha Tumbai”)’s lyrics as people, especially from Russia, thought the part of the lyrics went “I want to see – Russia goodbye”. The members of the parliament in Ukraine protested loudly against Serduchka’s participation, refering to LGBTQ culture as “pseudoculture”. Verka’s song became a viral hit, her performance is still shown in all sorts of pre-Eurovision shows as one of the most memorable acts of the contest and her song was a bigger chart hit than the winning entry from Marija Šerifović (also a part of LGBTQ community).

In 2008 the backings of French entrant Sebastien Telier were drag, but didn’t leave a lasting impression and when in 2011 Dana International made a comeback in the contest, which “made” her, her story ended with a disappointing non qualification, In 2012 one of the acts in Austrian national selection was a bearded drag act Conchita Wurst, singing an empowering schlager pop song, but was eventually voted off by a very “masculine” act. So it seemed as if the era of drag and trans acts doing well was “passe”. Until September 2013. At the beginning of the month Copenhagen was announced as a host city of 2014 contest, there was a big buzz and a sigh of relief spread across the Eurofan community as the majority had supported the choice of Denmark’s capital all along. However, about a week later Austria dropped a bomb – Conchita would represent the nation in B&W Hallerne! The reaction among the ESC fanworld was very negative, with many people disgusted and appalled by the choice. There is a page on Facebook named “NO to Conchita Wurst in Eurovision!”, which at the time had more likes than the official Conchita’s page. People disgusted by her automatically wrote her off in terms of result in the contest. People said she wouldn’t qualify. People said Austria were heading for a major embarrassment. Conchita however kept her profile low and when other national selections kicked off, she was put on a sideway a tad. In March 2014 the song, “Rise Like A Phoenix” was released. People started paying attention to her, but she still wasn’t one of the main favourites for the victory. In April, on Swedish preview show, the former Eurovision winner Charlotte Perrelli tipped Conchita to win the whole show. Conchita started gaining attention from the mainstream press, but wasn’t really taken seriously. On May 8th, she performed as 6th in the second semi final and from being one of the underdogs she shooked the whole social media-o-sphere and suddenly became the act to beat. By the time of the final Conchita was the centre of attention of both the press and the public and was destined to do very well. It was that Saturday when people who had been her fans since day 1 started believing in her victory. In the final it was all about Conchita, from the moment she stepped on stage until the end of the show. And indeed – she won! An underdog from a small Austrian village conquered the whole continent and became the overnight sensation. Cher, Elton John and Kylie Minogue were just three of celebrities mentioning Conchita in the social media after her win. However, as there was love, there was outrage as well. Several politicians shaved their beard as a protest, called Conchita a sign of “Europe’s downfall”, some ESC fans started making assumptions that EBU rigged the contest in Conchita’s favour, in order to gain publicity. Conchita’s win showed to be one of the most divisive things to happen in ESC and many people within the Eurovision fanworld now question the contest’s credibility and future. Former BBC’s commentator Terry Wogan even insulted Conchita, implying he was right all the time, in thinking Eurovision was nothing, but a camp freakshow

In my opinion some kind of agreement needs to be reached, at least among the Euro-fans. Drag/trans fans should be more tolerant also to the people with a different opinion and develop understanding that perhaps people just preferred other songs instead. It doesn’t make one living in the middle ages, if one preferred other songs. Drag/trans skeptics on the other hand should realise that any critisism they give to those acts doesn’t really contribute to anything, but more publicity to them and to what they stand for. So – you dislike people like Conchita, boycott and ignore them. Simple as that. And to answer to the question who’s to “blame” for drag/trans acts having such impact in ESC – I would say Dana International back in 1998. I do think had she not won in Birmingham that drag/trans acts’ impact in the contest would have been much smaller.

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2 Responses to “How drag and trans acts became the Eurovision constant”

  1. Retsfef November 2, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    A well written article…but I don’t like such acts in ESC! They just add fuel to all kind of silly ESC stereotypes – ESC is a “gay thing” etc. I respect it as such, but it’s probably what ESC needs least of all!

    • Retsfef November 2, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

      BTW…Kudos for you for NOT mentioning the rather tired “lots of male ESC-fans are gays” clicihe in your article…from what I could read at least! This article doesn’t really deal with that stereotype, which is good!

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