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Austria's Conchita Wurst wins Eurovision amid Russia, Ukraine tensions

By Laura Smith-Spark and Tim Hume, CNN
May 11, 2014 -- Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Austria's Conchita Wurst wins Eurovision Song Contest 2014 in Copenhagen
  • Russia and Ukraine made it through to final
  • Tensions between the country have been high since Moscow's annexation of Crimea

(CNN) -- Russia and Ukraine faced off again Saturday, far from their volatile border region, on the glitzy stage of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Tensions between the neighbors gave an added piquancy to the competition's grand final in Copenhagen, Denmark, in which both nations were fielding entries. Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in March and eastern Ukraine is currently roiled by pro-Russian separatist protests.

On the night, however, it was a much talked about 25-year-old from Austria who stole the show. Conchita Wurst, the onstage drag persona of Thomas Neuwirth, was the runaway winner for a performance of the ballad "Rise Like A Phoenix."

Wurst also refers to himself as "the bearded lady," he says on his website. In his private life, he calls himself "Tom" and refers to himself as "he."

The annual Eurovision contest sees a continent united for a night of high-energy songs, spangled costumes and ill-advised drinking games. This year's Grand Final takes place in Copenhagen on May 10. The annual Eurovision contest sees a continent united for a night of high-energy songs, spangled costumes and ill-advised drinking games. This year's Grand Final takes place in Copenhagen on May 10.
Bright lights of Eurovision
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Copehnagen for Eurovision winners and losers Copehnagen for Eurovision winners and losers

In the role of Conchita Wurst, who Neuwirth calls an "art figure," the artist refers to "herself" as "she."

Neuwirth created Wurst -- which in German means sausage but can also mean 'who cares?' -- in his teen years to cope with feeling discriminated against.

Performing in a skintight dress with long hair and a full beard, Wurst scored 290 points to become Austria's first Eurovision winner since 1966.

"For me, my dream came true," Wurst told reporters after the contest. "But for society it showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement."

Wurst's presence in the competition had proved controversial in some countries. In Armenia, Belarus and Russia -- where a law against "gay propaganda" was passed last year -- petitions were circulated calling for the singer to be removed from the competition or edited out of the broadcast.

In Russia, Wurst's win drew boos in some places where audiences had gathered to watch the contest.

Wurst's manager, Rene Berto, described the win as a victory for tolerance, one of the main themes emphasized by the contest's organizers.

"Let's change the world and make it a little bit better," Berto said. "Conchita always says: 'Wish for the moon and you'll reach at least the stars,' but now we just landed on the moon. Let's change our way of thinking -- Conchita is just a woman with a beard."

Non-political event?

Created in the aftermath of World War II to encourage good relations between neighbors, Eurovision has been held every year since 1956, and today draws a television audience of about 180 million people in 45 countries.

Contestants are often eccentric, colorful, unusual -- on the fringes of mainstream music in their home countries.

The organizers describe the event -- known for its combination of over-the-top costumes, kitsch pop songs and sometimes questionable talent -- as non-political.

But in reality, politics inevitably colors both the voting and the performances.

This was demonstrated to an unusual degree Tuesday, when Russia's entrants -- 17-year-old twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy -- were booed by the audience during their semi-final performance.

William Lee Adams, a Eurovision expert and the editor-in-chief of Wiwibloggs.com, the popular Eurovision website, told CNN that the contest is about national identity as well as music.

"Months of frustration over Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and Putin's anti-LGBT laws have left Europeans angry," Adams said.

"The booing was a release, a statement of solidarity with Ukraine and Russia's sexual minorities."

It doesn't help that Russia's love song features lyrics that some see as hinting at a border incursion. It goes, "...living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line, one step at a time ... maybe there's a day you'll be mine."

Ukrainian singer Mariya Yaremchuk, who performed a song titled "Tick-Tock," said Tuesday that she was proud to be representing her country.

"Actually, my main position is that I'm proud that I'm Ukrainian and everything I do here is for the Ukrainian people," the 21-year-old said.

"I'm not standing alone on the stage, there are 46 million Ukrainians behind me on the stage."

The countries involved in the contest award a set of points from one to eight, then 10 and finally 12 for their favorite songs. They can't vote for themselves and they must announce the score in both English and French.

Television viewers can cast votes in their respective countries through telephone hotlines, which count for half the final tally. The remainder of the vote is cast by national expert juries.

The country with the highest points total wins -- and has the rather expensive honor of hosting the following year's event.

In the end, Ukraine's Yaremchuk scored slightly higher than her Russian rivals, finishing in sixth place with 113 points, while Russia's Tolmachevy twins took 89 points to finish seventh.

A duo from the Netherlands finished in second place, with a Swedish entry coming in third.

CNN's Tara Kelly and Jim Stenman contributed to this report.

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