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Eurovision Song Contest final kicks off in Vienna (dpa German Press Agency)

Vienna (dpa) – The Eurovision Song Contest final started Saturday with last year’s Austrian winner Conchita Wurst soaring above the heads of 10,000 spectators who gathered in Vienna’s Stadthalle venue.

The drag queen’s singing and campaigning for tolerance has prompted several of the 27 pop acts from as many countries in this year’s final to follow her example and present songs with messages of peace, personal courage or self-acceptance.

With an expected 100 million viewers, the annual competition is Europe’s largest television event, as well as the world’s longest-running TV music competition.

Over the course of rehearsals and two semi-finals in past weeks, Swedish singer Mans Zelmerlow and Russia’s Polina Gagarina have each won strong fan support with their smoothly crafted pop anthems.

A win by Gagarina would make Russia the host of next year’s contest and could add a political dimension to the event, by bringing fresh public attention to Russia’s human rights record and its role in the Ukraine conflict.

A similar situation could result if Israel’s entrant, Nadav Guedj, wins with his dance number Golden Boy, which has emerged as another fan favourite.

Bookmakers and fan clubs predict good chances for Italian pop-opera trio Il Volo, who have been successful in the US market and are hoping to use the Song Contest’s exposure for expanding their popularity in Europe.

Australia was invited to field a candidate for the first time this year. In case of a victory by the country’s entrant Guy Sebastian, next year’s Song Contest would nevertheless take place in a European country.

Among the favourites, Belgium’s Loic Nottet self-composed edgy and spare song sets him apart among the most popular acts, which also include those from Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Serbia and Azerbaijan.