DATUM Interview (English Translation)
This is the English translation of the Interview that appeared in DATUM on 3 May 2019 (https://datum.at/ich-habe-keine-zeit-angst-zu-haben/). Photo © Stefan Fürtbauer
Am I speaking with Thomas Neuwirth today?
Yes, and thank you for having me.
Alongside Thomas Neuwirth you use two more fictional characters for your performances: Conchita and „Wurst“. Do you use different voices depending on which role you’re performing?
Yes, this happens somehow. Nevertheless, I do think that the overlap is greater than many believe. My guiding principle is: In the end it is always “Wurst”. I don’t say different things as a dressed up version of myself, if you consider Conchita like that, than I do as “Wurst” dancing in a window wearing a string.
Your public life since 2006 sounds like a coming-of-age novel. Who are you today? What are you about?
Certainly, in each situation I think to myself, I’ve got it, I’ve finally arrived, now I’ve completely understood. But one year later and you think: hey, I I really still moved on. I think I’ve lost a lot of my superficiality. My major goal was always: I want to be famous, I want to be a star.
No matter as what?
Exactly. I thought, I can entertain people and that’s what I am doing. Over time you figure out that being a celebrity is worth nothing. You’re just performing things you think people want. Then, suddenly you’re successful and you’re thinking: ok that sells. After a while you start to wear out a bit and become repetitive. You’re saying the same things and you look the same. I, myself, locked myself up in a cage and realized that this is not what I want. I’m simply fed up with answering questions like “what’s your favorite dish?”. I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but talking during the last four years. I didn’t take care of myself, I haven’t developed my art and all of a sudden it all came back to me. Emotionally, in my private and professional life. I realized I should go back to what that I knew before, because in my early days I knew I was capable of something and believed that my natural performance was good enough. Meanwhile, I lost that self-esteem because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity “Conchita Wurst” was offering me.
You have to become famous to realize that the meaning of life is not about being famous
I really think so. You always hear: Money doesn’t make you happy, success doesn’t make you happy. Sure, it is nice if you can pay the bills by doing the things you like most. But from a certain point on, your happiness doesn’t grow just by feeding it with material things.
What is it about?
Right now, it is my intense impression that I’ve reached a point where I am doing the things that I love. I’m showing without compromise the beauty that is inside my head. For the first time in a long time, I feel needed, I feel needed by myself. You know, I hated doing my homework. Anything forced on me to improve the product, really annoys me. Now I’ve reached the point where I understood that the process can be joyful. I had suffered a bit from being so impatient and not wanting to do the preparatory creative work, and only wanting to deliver a product. But now I once again enjoy rehearsing and working on and developing my music.
Your win at the European Song Contest was five years ago. What kind of advice would you give Thomas then, from today’s vantage point?
I am not someone who has regrets. Do you know the Netflix series Outlander, where they travel through time and she is thrown out of the year 1948 into the 17th century, where they try to help the Scotts not to start a revolution because she knows that they are going to lose the battle? I watch this and I think, I wouldn’t want anybody to come up to me and tell me what to do because otherwise this and that will happen in the future.
You are also a product of TV attention economy. What have you learnt about show business?
I learned that it’s really easy to entertain people.
What is the trick?
In my case, only a few people could handle the fact that I am uncompromising in doing whatever I want. All my life, that’s how I’ve attracted attention. I went to kindergarten wearing a skirt, most likely not thinking about becoming the center of attention, but at the same time, I didn’t mind it. One or two years ago I was running around thinking “Please don’t look at me. Hopefully you didn’t recognize me”. In the meantime, what I’m thinking is, “I’m certainly here now, and I want you all to know that I’m here”. I rediscovered my curiosity for people. That’s liberating. I feel so joyful – joyfulness the whole day long.
After your win at the ESC it seemed Austria became a country of diversity overnight. What is your view of Austria?
I am a lucky fellow. I never experienced loss or pain. So, I start to romanticize when talking about Austria. I grew up in the mountains which was wonderful. I love living in this beautiful city of Vienna. The people surrounding me. I love Austria. What I have learned here I will always connect with beautiful things because I was able to thrive. Maybe I’m a little bit ignorant about negativity. I don’t know if this crazily praiseworthy, but things only grow because you give them attention and I simply don’t like it if people are mean to each other.
Black-Blue (note: the colours of ruling conservatives and far right parties in Austria) are exerting pressure on minorities. How do you experience that?
I do feel it. But personally, I’m also a little unimpressed. So what! For example, I attend the Opernball the way I want to. I simply think to myself – it’s nice that everybody has an opinion on my appearance. I like to take this opinion with me and put it alongside all the other ones. But of course, I’m in a very privileged position. There are people who are significantly more influenced by our government in their everyday lives. People who have to give in to the pressure. I would like to see a government that supports peaceful coexistence in all diverseness, a government that does not favor one at the expense of another or one that tries to play off different one group against another. But what should I do? Should I get scared? Fear simply paralyzes people.
The countenance you show towards hostility is stunning. You never use any of the words I would use.
Because I don’t care. Negativity doesn’t strike me often. In the past, after a show, if someone told me:” your hair didn’t look great” or “You didn’t sing well” I would beat myself up for weeks. But if someone is simply bitching about something, they’re disqualifying themselves. In the meantime I’ve moved on, I simply say I’m happy that you have an opinion and I take it with me.
In the past 5 years you’ve travelled a great deal. What did you learn from that?
Of course, I only know a small part of the truth, because the places I go to, people welcome and respect me. Here, too, I am a lucky fellow.
We all live in our bubbles.
Absolutely. But, and this is important, everybody can decide for themselves. If I’m grumpy all day and just complain „this doesn’t work and that doesn’t work“ that in itself is a decision someone takes. That’s the reality, many people are leading difficult lives, but you still have the possibility to decide what kind of view you want to have on what’s happening. I’m not saying things are always easy for me. But luckily, in situations like that, I quickly realize that it’s my vanity and my ego that’s in my way. It is very irritating if you cannot blame someone else for your bad mood. That is the moment when you have to admit to yourself you might have some faults and you might be more jealous than you want to be. But I’ve always learned you have to put your own house in order before you get angry.
In the bubble you’re in, are people feistier? Are they scared?
I do not have the feeling there is a need to fight. And I stopped asking anyone for permission. For sure, in many areas, equality is not a given. We still have a lot to do, and “jeh” and “ohh”, but I’ve simply stopped complaining about that. Minorities are sometimes playing their part of the game by excluding themselves. Sure, it’s nice to be among friends, you can talk about the same topics. But the danger is to get into a rut.
You mean minorities in their fight for rights and recognition?
Absolutely. I simply stopped asking for permission. If I want something, and I don’t limit someone else’s freedom with it, I don’t ask anyone for permission, if I’m allowed to or not. Nonetheless, there are still some areas even in our country where we do have to fight for equality, and take to the streets.
What does Europe mean to you?
The moment where I definitely began to understood Europe was winning the Song Contest, because it offered me the opportunity to travel around. Before that it was just an abstract construct for me.
Did you go on Interrail?
My mother inflicted such a fear of travel on me, it took me until I was 14 years old to leave my home valley. But with my first trip without my parents and some Halligalli I lost that fear very quickly and, in the meantime, have grown to enjoy traveling. I was 21 when I first travelled to the sea.
It was an all-inclusive trip to Turkey, that was my first holiday at the seaside.
So, you discovered Europe for yourself after your win?
Yes. The more I travel in Europe the smaller it gets, and the distances I used to imagine are disappearing. Because I have seen so much, I now feel so much closer to Europe. My wish is for today’s Europe to be preserved. We are so lucky to have such a continent. I wouldn’t like it if someone would split my hometown Bad Mitterndorf. After all, I know who’s living over there in Neuhof or in Krungl. I would appreciate being able to travel around without any problems also in the future – both in my own country and also in Europe. I’ve met a lot of people, some of them became friends, and from the moment on where you make an emotional bond, things become clear. So I suddenly realized the benefits of a common Europe.
In 2014 you sang about a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Since then, nationalism, populism and racism are on the increase. Do you have the feeling your, our freedom is growing or getting smaller?
It depends which bubble you’re in. In the YouTube and Instagram world, I see a generation of young people who are celebrating themselves without restraint – they are living their individuality and freedom. They dress as they want and expose themselves to situations which could cause conflicts. For example, there are some androgynous make-up artists who have built an empire with their products. All of these people are taken seriously. This proves that there are parts of society which are confident enough to express that it doesn’t matter whether you have long hair or fit into gender roles, or even care about them. These kids are not just celebrating themselves, they are sensitive and clever. When I see that, I’m confident our freedom will grow.
What is interesting the simultaneity. You can be in Belgrade or Warsaw and live in this fearless, global and colorful YouTube-Instagram world. And when you close your laptop and go out on the street, suddenly you are exposed to heavy social pressure. You’ve travelled a lot in Eastern Europe. How did you experience that?
The situation is much more tense, because people do not have the same liberties that we have. I realize this when I’m traveling in Eastern Europe and I find myself with round the clock security guards, for example.
Don’t you have them in Berlin or Amsterdam as well?
No, I don’t. During a visit to St. Petersburg they made huge efforts to guarantee my security. Never before had I had an escort both in front of and at the back of my car. And that’s no fun. It is rather frightening. But the experiences I had there were not negative at all – whether in a restaurant, in the hotel or in the street. But I was a guest! The people living there who are part of the same community definitely have different problems.
The European elections are coming up. There is an EU-campaign calling on people to vote and you’ll be supporting this. Why are you getting involved with it?
I don’t want to claim I’m playing a big role in it, but I know people react to me. I attract attention. And I use this attention shamelessly to point out what I think is important.
Emotionally, I do not understand the concept of hate and exclusion, the idea that this is mine and that is yours. I was not taught this and therefore I cannot understand it. Once I was in Dresden at a community event, and by chance in front of the opera house there was an assembly of PEGIDA (note: national/right wing protest group). At first, I didn’t realize what was going on, I just heard people demonstrating. There was this murmuring, and it wasn’t nice. Without knowing what it was, I didn’t feel comfortable. And then you heard hate speech over a megaphone, and you really thought you were in a historical documentary, back in 1942. This really upset me. I was scared, and for the first time I saw that people like that really exist. There are people who are able to scream and cheer with such horrible undertones, and approve of this hate speech – I thought this can’t be – you can’t be serious about that. This isn’t possible. And I don’t understand it. I don’t understand this concept. What is it that interests them? Where’s your problem? What’s your benefit if someone else gets less? If you don’t gain from it, why do you have to bother other people?
So this was your political awakening?
I think it was the first time I had this sensation and I thought: This makes no sense. I do not have time for this, I do not have time to be scared. I accept that things like this exist, and I prefer to concentrate on things I can get done if I can do something. With Brexit I felt this anxiety that there are people who are capable of destroying a system in the blink of an eye. And I thought to myself:” Oh my god, we cannot leave it that way.” Last year I decided this is going to be my focus this year and I’m going to concentrate on this. And so, I started collecting material, wonderfully supported by the people around me. My starting point was: I want everyone to go and vote! By myself, I could not answer the question of what is important in Europe. What is it that we have to protect and to build on? I’ve understood through much discussion, reflection and talking to people, that we are not alone. We are connected to Europe. I try to explain to people that every vote has an impact. It doesn’t matter if you are 17 and unemployed or 55 and stinking rich – every vote has the same value. This thinking of “I am not interested”, “this doesn’t affect me”, “it doesn’t change anything anyway”, is not true. What Europe is doing to keep this society together is huge. We are living in the land of milk and honey, we are doing well here. No one has to worry when they leave the house in the morning whether they will return alive in the evening. Or think of the fact that people are fleeing their homes, risking their lives to get here. I never thought about this so intensely before. But what does it mean? It means, we in Europe have got something that is of great value – and it is under threat. We have to protect it.
These are the most important European elections of our lives!
Even the Identitarian Movement (note: right-wing movement in Europe) and all their allies are mobilizing their voters. So, I think if they have such a big interest in mobilizing their voters….
…then we should as well?
Absolutely! All of us! We have been in a situation before where we thought: “they cannot be so stupid as that.” It isn’t possible that anyone votes for Trump. Nobody would ever leave the EU. And than it happens because many people thought “they cannot be as stupid as that”. Therefore all of us have to vote. And this time they predict a higher voter participation, which is good, because statistics say: The higher the participation, the less the likelihood we drift into a situation where the people and minorities are oppressed. I think at the end of the day we all want to live a beautiful life, in peace. If we just listen to the people who shout the loudest, this might be but a skin-deep satisfaction. But If you do not read the small print, you should not complain about the side-effects afterwards.
Do you want to give a recommendation?
No. I do not want to press anyone to vote for a particular party. That is not my business, but I want to recommend to go to the polling stations to make your voice heard. Afterwards the result has to be accepted.
There is an Austrian party that was thinking of winning you over for the European elections.
I don’t think I would have anyone win me over. (laughs). I don’t think I have the skills for this. I am good at the stuff I’m doing right now, and I am good at stuff I know. I don’t know enough about politics. I know my world. Once I was the elected representative of the pupils of my school, that’s enough. That time I was requesting a red sofa for the break room – and we got it.
So, you are ruling out any political engagement even for the future?
Do you always vote?
That would be lying. When I was a teenager I didn’t realize how important it is. In the countryside you have to go to the polling station when the mayor is elected. But in the meantime, I understood that there is a higher interest in it. Even from a very egotistic point of view: I want to have it good. I want everybody to have it good. I think that’s what everybody wants.
You seem to be confident about that.
Yes (laughs). Otherwise I’ll lock myself up and never come out again. There is the possibility that my confidence was in vain. But until then I’ll keep trying to do whatever I can.
The European elections take place from 23-26 May 2019.