Updated May 11, 2014 12:54 a.m. ET

COPENHAGEN—Austria's popular bearded lady, Conchita Wurst, won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night in a result that promises to reinforce the tolerant tone the event has sought to strike in recent years.

Ms. Wurst's onstage drag persona was created by a 25-year-old singer named Thomas Neuwirth. Sporting a skintight glittery dress, long brown hair and a beard, Ms. Wurst won the contest with a song titled "Rise Like A Phoenix."

The victory came following a gradual snowballing of support for the drag queen in the days leading up to the final in Denmark. A polarizing figure, Ms. Wurst attracted a flood of respect for her views on gender and sexuality, but she also became the target of criticism, including from a prominent Russian politician known for holding antigay views.

Following the win, Ms. Wurst said "this night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom…we are unity and we are unstoppable."

Ms. Wurst wasn't the only subject of controversy at the 59th Eurovision contest. At many points in the evening, particularly during the voting session that follows official performances, Russia received a chorus of boos, forcing organizers to remind the audience that the event is about love and respect, not politics.

Geopolitical tensions have escalated in Eastern Europe following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region earlier this year. Meanwhile, violence has recently flared in Ukraine's eastern regions, with pro-Russian separatists planning to hold a referendum on independence Sunday, a vote that the government in Kiev says is illegal.

At the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night, Russia's performers this year, the 17-year-old Tolmachevy Twins, had to endure a bit of negative reaction throughout the night even if their own musical performance was well received. Ukraine's entrant, Mariya Yaremchuk led off as the first of 26 performers to hit the stage.

The contestants from Russia and Ukraine finished well behind Ms. Wurst, whose performance resulted in Austria's first contest win in several decades. Voting in dozens of nations delivered a wide margin of victory over closest rivals the Netherlands and Sweden.

Even before Ms. Wurst had earned a spot in Saturday's final, the performer was ensnared in a political thicket. In some Eastern European countries, online petitions were set up to protest her participation, and Vitaly Milonov, a Russian politician known as a force behind his country's antigay laws, called the performer "sick" in a Danish newspaper interview.

Eurovision has long been known for over-the-top antics, and organizers have for decades sought to keep politics on the sidelines. Past winners have been no strangers to drama and some are rarely heard from after winning. Others, including ABBA and Celine Dion, established a legacy that long endured.

The last two Eurovision winners before Ms. Wurst were women from Scandinavia who staged relatively modest performances. In 2006, Finnish heavy metal band Lordi won the competition with its "Hard Rock Hallelujah."

Eurovision has long attempted to preserve or create unity in a region sometimes split by ethnic or political tension. Ms. Wurst will likely be remembered in the Eurovision history books for what she represents rather than the song that secured her victory.

In a news conference Saturday, Ms. Wurst was asked if a message was being delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin with the win.

"I don't know if he's watching, but if so, I said clearly, we are unstoppable," Ms. Wurst said. "I really dream of a world where we don't have to talk about unnecessary things like sexuality, where you're from, who you love."

—Frances Robinson and Clemens Bomsdorf contributed to this article.

Write to John D. Stoll at [email protected]