A bearded drag queen who was initially written off as too provocative for some socially conservative countries is now a favourite to win today’s Eurovision Song Contest, tinged as always with regional politics.
Since the first votes were cast in 1956, Eurovision results have been closely intertwined with politics and the 2014 competition is no exception.
Russia's Tolmachevy Sisters were booed on Tuesday when it was announced that they had made it to the final, while experts believe Ukraine could benefit from sympathy votes.
Things didn't get any easier for the Russian twins after Eurovision buffs claimed to find a Ukrainian subtext in one of the verses of their song "Shine".
"Living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line a step at a time," the lyrics say.
Although incidents suggest otherwise – last year the failure of Azerbaijan to vote for ally Russia prompted a president-ordered recount – artists still insist it's all about the music.
"I have lots of friends, relatives in Ukraine," said Yvonne Gruenwald, the half Ukrainian singer of German hopefuls Elaiza, in an interview with AFP.
"Of course I'm afraid of threats to Ukraine. But I think in Eurovision, people must vote with the heart, not with the head.
"This is about the best artist, regardless of nationality," she said.
Conchita Wurst, the hirsute alter ego of Austrian performer Tom Neuwirth, will represent his homeland with the Bond theme-like ballad "Rise Like a Phoenix," drawing ire from socially conservative viewers.
In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine petitioners have demanded that the 25-year-old drag artist be dropped from the competition, while the leader of Austria's right-wing FPOe party has called the act "ridiculous".
"I have very thick skin. It never ceases to amaze me just how much fuss is made over a little facial hair," Wurst told AFP.
But much like the title of her song, the singer yesterday rose to second place in the odds table after winning over viewers with her performance in Thursday's semi-final.
Earlier in the week the frontrunner had been Armenia's Aram MP3, who stirred controversy when it was reported that he had said Wurst's lifestyle was "not natural" – a comment the stand-up comedian later claimed was a joke.
"I have to say that if it's a joke it's not funny ... but he apologised and that's fine for me," Wurst said.
Highlighting a cultural divide between eastern and western Europe, the city of Copenhagen said three gay couples from Russia tied the knot there as part of a Eurovision-related event celebrating 25 years of same-sex unions in Denmark.
Other artists predicted to do well are Sweden's Sanna Nielsen, who late in the week was the frontrunner with a power-ballad penned by one of the country's veteran Eurovision songwriters.
Dutch duo The Common Linnets are also seen as a contender for the top spot with a Nashvillle-inspired and somewhat unlikely country song in a contest known for kitsch pop and sparkly frocks.
Audiences in Britain and France routinely complain that their countries suffer from a lack of European voting allies and tend to take the competition less seriously than the countries of the former eastern bloc that joined in the 1990s.
"Everything could be political but we don't really care, because we are artists and what we are doing is music," said Lorent Idir from France's Twin Twin.
If France wanted to win – a feat it hasn't accomplished since 1977 – its artists needed to add a bit more "fun and colour," he suggested.
The mainstream appeal of the Eurovision Song Contest has grown over the past two decades after strict rules on singing in the national language and performing with an orchestra were scrapped.
It has also benefitted from the popularity of TV talent shows, and several of this year's artists have previously competed in programmes like The X Factor.
The growing size of the event, and a desire by some countries to use it to showcase themselves to the rest of the world, has led to soaring costs.
According to some estimates the price for regenerating Azerbaijan's host city Baku in 2012 was around one billion dollars (720 million euros).
Danish broadcaster DR has pledged to spend around 190 million kroner (25.5 million euros, US$35.4 million) on Eurovision, which last year drew an audience of 170 million viewers.
"We're upping the pace a little to increase the suspense," executive producer Pernille Gaardbo told AFP.
"When the artists leave the stage we will show their immediate reaction... We want to make it as dramatic as possible," she added.
Elsewhere in Europe, broadcasters continue to struggle with budget cuts and Bulgaria, Cyprus and Serbia have all said they will not be competing this year. – AFP, May 10, 2014