AUSTRIA – She stunned the world to take out the Eurovision song contest with a soaring power ballad in 2014. Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like A Phoenix earned Austria a whopping 290 points with its themes of transformation and rebirth, clocking up more than 13 million views on YouTube in the years since. Four years on, the “bearded lady” who is a stage persona of 29-year-old Austrian Tom Neuwirth, still feels the need to make it clear her performance is “no joke” after being forced to reveal her HIV status under threats of blackmail from an ex-partner.
“I feel I need to prove myself each and every time [because] I’m a drag act,” she told the BBC ahead of the 2018 Eurovision to be held this Saturday in Lisbon.
“It’s easy to say, ‘This is just a joke.’ You know, the bearded lady? And I feel the need to smash it with every performance just because I want to be clear this is not a joke.”
It’s a stark admission from the star who created her alter ego in 2006 as a way of projecting confidence on stage.
Last month, she was forced to use every ounce of it in a personal Instagram post disclosing she was HIV-positive and had been for many years, which she described as freeing her from the “sword of Damocles” above her head.
“This is actually irrelevant to the public, but an ex-boyfriend threatens me to go public with this private information, and I will not give anyone the right to frighten me and influence my life in the future,” she wrote, saying she has been in medical treatment and is unable to pass on the virus.
Conchita said she did not want to go public for fear of how it would impact her family and friends, believing that the information is only relevant to those “with whom sexual contact is an option”.
But she decided “coming out is better than being outed,” saying: “I hope to build up courage and take another step against the stigmatisation of people who have become infected by HIV, either through their own behaviour or through no fault of their own.”