VIENNA Conchita Wurst came home to a heroine's welcome in Austria on Sunday after the bearded drag queen won the Eurovision Song Contest in what she called a victory over the forces of intolerance, including Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Sporting high heels, a tight dress, butterfly eyelashes and a full beard, Wurst - whose birth name is Tom Neuwirth - swept to victory with her "Rise Like a Phoenix" ballad before a global TV audience of about 180 million people in 45 countries.
"I share the opinion that this was not a victory just for me but for the people who believe in a future that works without discrimination and is based on tolerance and respect. This transcends borders," the 25-year-old "queen of Europe" said.
The Danish organizers had declared tolerance a main theme for this year's event, and the rainbow-colored flag symbolizing gay pride flew in many places in Copenhagen over the past week.
Visibly moved by her triumph, the openly gay Wurst had told the enthusiastic crowd in Copenhagen that the movement she has come to symbolize was "unstoppable".
"This was of course directed against some politicians that we know and I just wanted to tell them that in the end good always wins and is unstoppable," she told reporters on Sunday.
Asked if she was referring specifically to Putin given Russian campaigns against promoting homosexuality to young people, she said: "Among others."
But she noted that the fact she won votes from Russia as well showed not all Russians were intolerant.
Austrian media have generally celebrated Wurst's budding career, but many in the largely conservative, Roman Catholic country have had mixed feelings about her rise to fame.
An online poll for the populist Krone tabloid found just 23 percent of respondents were proud of the singer whose journey from a rural boyhood to hirsute drag queen has gripped the nation.
The annual Eurovision Song Contest, which has a huge gay following, will take place in Austria next year after the country's first win since Udo Juergens took the prize in 1966 with the gentle song "Merci, Cherie".
Reaction to Wurst's appearance highlighted Europe's geographical divide on attitudes to homosexuality. Largely accepted without controversy in the West, it prompted criticism by some in the East where anti-gay rhetoric remains more common.
Online petitions emerged in Belarus, Armenia and Russia - whose government passed a law last year banning "gay propaganda" among minors - to have Wurst removed or edited out of broadcasts in their countries.
"With the beard she expresses the image of opposing homophobia and I find this good," said 12-year-old Jakob de Raaij from Tullnerbach near Vienna, sporting a painted-on beard as he waited with a clutch of Conchita fans outside her airport news conference.
Neuwirth moved to Graz at the age of 14 to study fashion design and created the persona of Conchita Wurst at an Austrian talent competition in 2011.
"The beard is a statement to say that you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or how you look," Wurst told Reuters in an interview last month.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)