LONDON – It’s the beard that divided a continent.
The victory of Austrian whiskered drag queen Conchita Wurst in the Eurovision Song Contest had celebrities from Nigella Lawson to Russell Brand posting bearded selfies on the Internet in tribute — and some conservative Russian men snapping clean-shaven pictures in protest.
For millions of viewers, the annual Eurovision show is a cheesy music competition renowned for its camp, kitsch and electro beats. But the nation-based contest is also a potent mix of patriotism and politics in bubble-gum wrapping.
Wurst’s win has exposed a divide between Europe’s progressives and conservatives that British tabloid The Sun cheekily described Monday as the “Furred World War.”
The statuesque brunette with the soaring voice of a diva and a full dark beard called her first-place finish in Saturday’s contest a victory for tolerance and respect. Austrian President Heinz Fischer said it was “not just a victory for Austria, but above all for diversity and tolerance in Europe.”
But Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that Eurovision had shown the true face of European integration: “a bearded girl.” On social media, a variety of Russian men posted shaving-foam selfies alongside slogans such as “Get shaved, don’t be like a woman!”
Pro-Kremlin legislator Olga Batalina said the Eurovision victory proved the need for Russia’s contentious law banning so-called gay propaganda.
Batalina — deputy head of the family and maternity issues committee of the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament — said Wurst’s victory showed “it’s not enough to have a talent and a good voice to win Eurovision; you also need to reject your nature, identity and traditions.” She chalked the win up to “aggressive and persistent” gay propaganda.
That may sound like a lot of rhetoric over a talent show but Eurovision has always been more than a simple singing contest.
Founded in 1956, the competition pits European nations against one another in pursuit of pop music glory. It has helped launch the careers of stars including Sweden’s ABBA — victors in 1974 with “Waterloo” — and Canada’s Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988.
But it is more generally loved, and mocked, for its parade of often cheesy tunes from quirky performers. The live telecast is watched by some 180 million people and has a particularly strong gay following. It also faces perennial accusations of regional block-voting and geopolitical games.
“(Eurovision is) the one forum in which countries can pass judgment on each other without repercussions,” said Paul Jordan, a political scientist who did his Ph.D. on Eurovision.
Jordan said voting for Wurst “allowed gay fans their revenge on what is happening in Russia.”
“The song and performance were very strong, but other things were going on,” he said.
Western anger at Russia over the crisis in Ukraine also spilled over onto the Eurovision stage.
Eurovision winners are decided by the votes of viewers and national juries from 37 participating countries. During Saturday’s final in Copenhagen, Russia was loudly booed by the audience each time its act — teenage twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy — won points. Russia, which came seventh, got most of its support from neighbors, and gave its maximum points to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, all former Soviet republics.
Politics, both personal and international, has often intruded on Eurovision.
But Jordan said that despite the divisions it revealed, Eurovision is a unique European institution.
“It gets people talking about what it means to be European,” he said. “It captures people’s imaginations in a way I don’t think the European elections do.”
And for all the noisy rhetoric from some Russians, official results showed that the bearded Wurst was the third most-popular act with that nation’s Eurovision voters.