SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — That night, Bozo Vreco risked everything.
After seducing the audience with his crystal clear voice, Vreco disappeared from the stage and returned moments later to continue his concert — dressed as a woman.
In notoriously macho Bosnia, where gays mostly stay in the closet, it took some time for people to realize what had happened.
But when the truth sank in, the audience roared its approval.
"I was not afraid," Vreco remembers. "I wanted to see their reaction to who I am. To see whether it is enough to be honest for people to love you. And it is."
Two years later, the 31 year-old cross-dressing singer is one of Bosnia's most beloved stars, his voice described by fans as "mesmerizing" and "magical."
Vreco's honesty and his emotionally charged interpretations of "Sevdalinka" — Bosnian folk songs about lovesickness — have often left the audience, and himself, in tears. His passion and artistry force even hardened conservatives to forget their prejudices, sometimes for good.
Vreco expresses his feminine side on stage wearing dresses, long tunics or floating coats which he whirls around on stage.
Born in the eastern town of Foca, Vreco lost his father when he was 5 and grew up poor with a mother and two sisters. He was also bullied for coming across as effeminate in a conservative culture.
"I swallowed my portion of torture, disapproval and dark moments while growing up," Vreco said. "I was a child and did not learn to make what is ugly bounce off me."
As he studied archaeology in neighboring Serbia, Vreco realized that his real passion was Sevdalinka. One day, the ethnic Serb gathered courage and traveled to Sarajevo — the heart of traditionally Bosnian Muslim Sevdalinka music — where he had no friends and no family, and where he could have faced another layer of prejudice because of memories of Serbian aggression during the Balkan wars.
A few days later, alone in his hostel room, Vreco opened the window and watched the snowflakes falling on the city's rooftops — an image of fleeting beauty that gave him courage.
"That's when I told myself, I will make it here," he recalled.
A local musician heard him sing in a cafe. In no time, Vreco was part of a band and recorded his first CD. Then he embraced his identity for everyone to see at that fateful concert.
"I am happy now, Vreco said. "I am who I am, both in private and professionally."
His eyes glow when he talks about his music — and his fans.
"I am surrounded with so much love," he said. "All the messages people are sending, all the stuff they say on the street. If I ever wished anything for myself, it's this."
Hamida Besic, a 76-year-old Sarajevan, saw Vreco in concert last week.
"People love courage," said Besic. "Not only has he crushed all the prejudice, but he has completely defeated all of the provincial primitivism of this society ... He also broke national barriers. He crushed everything."
"And the voice," she said. "It is as if God had placed an angel into his throat."