from drag queen to national treasure, rory o’neill charts the rise of his alter ego panti bliss
Ireland’s internationally celebrated drag performer talks transgression, politics and pulling pearls out of her bum.
Panti Bliss used to be Ireland's most smart ass drag queen, going as far as to pull pearls out of her behind in the name of performance art. But as the campaign for marriage equality took hold in the country, Panti - real name Rory O'Neill - became a lightning rod for the LGBT community's burgeoning political spirit.
In January 2014 after Rory was threatened with legal action for suggesting a number of Irish commentators had been homophobic in their contributions to the debate, Panti took to the stage of the national theatre and made a speech - her Noble Call - on the matter that went viral, turning the controversy in to a cause célèbre.
The turn of events is captured in The Queen of Ireland, a documentary telling Rory's story - of growing up gay in small town Ireland, finding himself and Panti in 90s gay club culture, being HIV+, turning into an 'accidental activist' - that also charts the course of gay liberation in Ireland up to this year's triumphant Yes vote in the marriage referendum. We sat down with Rory to ring the changes.
You have become a national treasure in Ireland. Are you surprised by the turn of events?
Yes, of course. Both the director and I thought we were making a small character documentary with this film. We had no expectations. I don't think he knew what he would get. Two years into it [when legal action was threatened], he was fucking thrilled. I started giving out to him, saying 'I'm in trouble here and you're loving it!'
The film includes home footage of you sissying around as a kid. Do you remember feeling different then?
I do have a very clear memory of being in class one day and the teacher is complaining that I haven't gone to the football training. He's pushing me to go in front of the whole class. And I just announced 'But I don't like football'. I thought 'I am different than all of you'. They couldn't understand why I didn't like football and I couldn't understand why they did. I had no frame of reference for gay. When I went to art college I was really thinking I would find lots of queers there.
You spent your summers in London then. Was that how you met Leigh Bowery?
The very first night I arrived, my brother had a party in his place to introduce me to his friends and Leigh Bowery was one of them. I was 17 and I met this insane creature in my brother's kitchen. The rest of the summer I would work in the fish restaurant in Covent Garden and then go out to Bang or Heaven or the Fridge in Brixton. I was in the big city being super gay for the first time and Leigh Bowery was keeping an eye on me.
The film makes the 90s gay underground scene seem so exciting. Do you yearn for that now?
I was attracted to it in the first place was because it was underground, transgressive, fuck you, discombobulated in nature. So I'm not so comfortable when it becomes mainstream and easy. Which is weird because at home in Ireland I've almost become establishment. It's a weird tension for me and I'm always trying to work out can I still be a discombobulating, transgressive drag queen and be on the cover of the TV guide?
Does that mean you're poised to do something bold?
Probably. That's usually what happens. On the other hand I'm 46. I can't do some of the stuff I dod in my 20s because it would just be gross now whereas when you're 23 you can pull things out of your ass.
We see some of that in the film. Tell us about Pearl Harbour.
It started out with Pearl Harbour. We did a whole series of them. I'd be on a rotating platform, lip synching to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Niall [Sweeney - Rory's best friend and long time collaborator] would pull the pearls out of my arse. We did millions of versions. I would squat above an inflatable globe, douche with milk and squirt it out while lip syncing to Karen Carpenter's Top of the World. We'd shove mincemeat in my mouth, turn a handle and pull a string of sausages out the back.
You describe yourself as an accidental activist. Was there a point where you decided to take up the political baton?
I've always been mouthy, made speeches, my shows have always had a political point. The gays at home in Ireland are very used to that. I would host Pride and make speeches so there was always that element in the time when we were discussing civil partnerships. Then other people started to see me in that way. It happened by accident. I spent 25 years trying to get people to take me seriously because most people have a very limited view of what a drag queen can be.
During the Yes campaign you switched between appearing as Rory and Panti. Which had more impact?
Before I did the Noble Call my lawyer suggested I do it in boy drag because he was worried people wouldn't see past the drag. But I knew that drag amplified my voice. More people hear it when you do say as an entertainer. And more people are annoyed by it if it comes from a person [like a drag queen] they think is further down the ladder than they are.
How was knocking on people's doors to canvass during the marriage referendum?
It was inspiring because you'd meet people who were out there every single night doing it. It was mothers, older people, and friends. On the other hand, it was humiliating. You are knocking on strangers' doors and asking them to approve of you, asking them to allow you to be treated the same as everybody else. There's no other group, minority or not, whose had to do this in Ireland.
Did you feel a personal conflict on the doorstep given that you aren't a marriage advocate?
A gay person should have the exact same choices in life as a straight person. Gay people should be able to choose to get married too. Do I want all gay people to make that choice too? No I don't. One of the thrilling things for me when I came out is that gays had rejected all these things, all the pressures to settle down. It was thrilling that the gays were building another version of society from scratch and deciding for themselves how to have relationships and be happy. My worry now is that gay people will feel pressure to conform.
You have described yourself as post gender. Do you feel culture is catching up?
I think the conversation has only just begun. We're in an awkward phase where everyone is hung up on gender even people who think they're not. Every so often there's tension between drag and trans bubbling up and that's because it's so early in this conversation. I can't wait until everyone is post gender.
The Queen of Ireland is on DVD and VOD from this week.
Text Colin Crummy
Images courtesy Panti Bliss