Give Us an Ordinary Bearded Lady

The Eurovision Song Contest of 2014 ended with the winner pleading for tolerance and respect. In her press conference, Conchita Wurst said that her winning the contest

showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement

Her performance was certainly brave and her victory real. What’s more, in the face of the homophobic backlash that has also been going on in Europe (but do these people watch the Song Contest?) and a song that was less than catchy (I left the couch with Dana International’s ‘Diva’ stuck in my head rather than ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, even though I had just heard the latter twice) the audiences and juries of Europe have decided to make a statement indeed.

But was it simply a statement of progress? Did we indeed ‘move on’? Could Conchita Wurst not have performed her song a hundred years ago?

Wurst’s image reminded me of a character in a novel I read a long time ago: Mathilde, in Ted van Lieshout‘s masterly Raafs Reizend Theater.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo (by unknown photographer) edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Mathilde with her hair up. Drawn by Ted van Lieshout for the cover of Raafs Reizend Theater (Amsterdam, 1986).

Mathilde earns her living as the Bearded Lady in a show. Precisely: a little bit like Conchita.

But we can go further back.

Nineteenth-century fairgrounds formed the workplace of many people with ‘curious’ bodies: from the ‘miniature man’ to the ‘fat boy’, from ‘Anita the Living Doll’ to ‘Lofty the Dutch Giant’. Relics of these and other performers can be found in the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield.

To what extent they were performing voluntarily must have varied. To what extent the features they were known for should be seen as disabilities or, quite the opposite, as skills, is an equally nuanced matter. But what is, I think, true for all of these people, is that they lived with certain bodies and minds every day of their lives: that to themselves they were their ordinary selves: ordinary selves which they had to cope with; ordinary selves which they might enjoy.

As soon as they got onto the stage, however, their bodies and/or minds became a spectacle, a curiosity, a matter of entertainment.

And that is, of course, also exactly what Conchita Wurst was at the Eurovision Song Contest: a stage performance.

The Bearded Lady as a stage performance is not new. Bodies that cross the borders of what is deemed normal are not new. To display them is not new.

If people want to truly ‘move on’, as Wurst hoped, they must be able to see Conchita’s beauty off stage as well as on stage. They should see her feminine beauty and her masculine beauty all at once, in the dressing-room as well as under the spotlights. And the same, of course, applies to the ‘midget’ and the ‘giant’.

I am not sure such a thing will ever happen, because if the extraordinary becomes ordinary, what will we watch on a Saturday night? We crave the spectacular alongside the normal.

But in as far as it concerns the ‘freaks’ I have been writing of – that is, in as far as it concerns real individuals who are turned into curiosities – it may be something worth striving for.

Conchita, I hope to meet you drinking an ordinary Eiskaffee on an everyday Vienna terrace this summer!


N.B. As far as I know, Raafs Reizend Theater has not yet been translated.

3 thoughts on “Give Us an Ordinary Bearded Lady

  1. Mooi commentaar. Ik sluit me aan bij je wens voor algehele acceptatie en een ontmoeting op een terras in Wenen.

  2. Pingback: The hairy-women scale | Historian at large

  3. Pingback: An unkempt hair from a bushy tail | Historian at large

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