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Ukraine crisis, bearded drag queen vie for Eurovision limelight


Politics look set to take centre stage at this year's Eurovision contest in Copenhagen, with the Russian contestants facing boos Saturday in a final bookies say could see a bearded Austrian drag queen triumph.

Since the contest was launched in 1956, some results have given off more than a whiff of politics and the 2014 event is likely to be no exception, with the Ukraine crisis spilling into proceedings.

Russia's Tolmachevy Sisters were jeered on Tuesday when it was announced that they had made it to the final and connoisseurs of the pageant's inner workings predict Ukraine's entry could benefit from sympathy votes.

Things turned worse this week for the Russia act after Eurovision buffs claimed to have unveiled 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 song goes.

The lyrics went viral among Eurovision fanatics with suggestions they were a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea indicating that the crisis could boost support for Ukrainian singer Mariya Yaremchuk.

- Message to Russia -

Ukrainian boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko called on Eurovision nations to vote for Ukraine in a show of support.

"It would be an amazing message if European viewers gave special support to the Ukrainian contestant," he told German newspaper Bild.

Despite a long history of incidents that suggest otherwise -- last year Azerbaijan's failure to vote for ally Russia prompted a recount -- the performers themselves insist Eurovision is all about the music.

"I have lots of friends, relatives in Ukraine," said Ela Steinmetz, 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" she said.

-- Drag Queen ban call --

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."

In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine petitioners have demanded that the 25-year-old drag queen 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 the singer won over viewers with her performance in Thursday's semi-final and shot up the bookies' table.

Armenia's Aram MP3, another frontrunner, stirred controversy earlier this week when he reportedly said Wurst's lifestyle was "not natural" -- a comment the stand-up comedian later claimed was a joke.

- Cultural divide -

Other artists tipped to vie for the top spots are Swedish balladeer Sanna Nielsen and Dutch country duo The Common Linnets.

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.

If France wanted to win -- a feat it hasn't accomplished since 1977 -- its artists needed to add a bit more "fun and colour," said Lorent Idir from France's Twin Twin.

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.

But the growing size of the event, and a desire by some countries to use it as a national showcase, 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 only around 190 million kroner (25.5 million euros, $35.4 million), which last year drew an audience of 170 million viewers.

But as broadcasters continue to struggle with budget cuts, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Serbia decided not to compete this year.

To mark the event, Copenhagen turned its main shopping street into a "Eurovision fan mile" offering free concerts by event performers.

The cheer was briefly interrupted on Saturday afternoon as right-wing extremists clashed with anti-fascist activists in front of the Danish parliament.

Copenhagen police said there were 11 arrests.