Interview: Panti Bliss – 'I'm hoping to illuminate a larger truth even though I'm telling my own story'
Drag Queen Panti talks politics
When drag queen Panti Bliss took an impassioned stand against homophobia during Ireland's gay marriage referendum, the story went global. Kaite Welsh learns all about that furore and more from Panti's alter ego, Rory O'Neil.
When future generations look back at the key political figures of the early 21st century, among the Barack Obamas and Theresa Mays will be Panti Bliss, the superstar drag queen who made headlines speaking out against homophobia in the Irish media during the referendum on gay marriage. Panti – also known as Rory O'Neil – caused a furore by naming names of the worst offenders and, later on, a speech he gave in 2014 went viral and was remixed by the Pet Shop Boys. Now he's taking his latest show to Edinburgh, where he'll be paying homage to an unlikely influence from Morningside in what he calls 'a comic monologue with serious parts about how an HIV-positive drag queen from a small town in the West of Ireland becomes a national fucking treasure and part of the Establishment.'
Establishment or not, after 30 years of drag, he's not afraid to tackle the big issues. 'It delves into things like gender and sex and power. I'm hoping to illuminate a larger truth even though I'm telling my own story.' Drag, he says, is the perfect medium to discuss challenging subjects - 'Drag queens are like the old court jester, they're allowed to get away with more than just a bloke in a t-shirt – they are larger than life, they're cartoonish. They can say things that if someone said it in the street you might be upset, but at a drag show you sort of play along. I hope it gives people pause to think about these things – not to shock them or anything like that, but to make them less sure of the things they've always taken as given, what gender actually means.
'Most people think the drag is the act,' he says, 'when really it's more analagous to stand up comedy – nobody would say Bernard Manning is the same as Chris Rock. Drag is the same – drag is just one element of the show, which in some ways makes it more interesting because you can talk about gender and all sorts of stuff.'
While many people may be most familiar with the glossy, hairsprayed version of drag from RuPaul's Drag Race, O'Neil was more influenced by the punk scene of the 80s. 'The reason I got into drag in the first place was partly because it's fun but it was fun for me because it was transgressive and underground and discombobulating. It was sort of punk, a real two fingers to the Establishment and if you think about how men are meant to dress and how women are meant to dress. It was two fingers up to the idea of a stationary, binary idea of gender too. I loved it for all those reasons and for me it still has that.'
While some drag queens are entirely embedded in a theatrical environment, for O'Neil, Panti is more organic. 'I see the line as being very blurred. Panti is just a version of me, like going to a job interview in a power suit. They're both authentic, just different versions. My background is in the club scene, where the drag queen is in the real world, talking to real people and hanging out at the bar. When someone in a club asks a drag queen a question, they want a real answer because they're talking to a real person. The drag queen culture I come out of is very different to, say, Dame Edna Everage and Mrs Brown. The gay subculture of drag that I come from is different, the line between the performer and the performance is very blurred.'
When he first started exploring drag and its possibilities at art college, 'the drag I was doing then was much more arty, nutty stuff. Then I lived in Japan and took that opportunity to erase the drag I was doing before and start afresh. I started doing a proto-version of Panti then, influenced by the people on TV I was obsessed with, like Farah Fawcett.' Panti's main influence was his glamorous American aunt 'but also the big influence is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A lot of the visual references come from that performance. Panti is kind of a drunk, fun aunt or art teacher. She's more colourful than the other stuff around her.'
Has his status as a 'national fucking treasure' changed his performance? 'It hasn't really changed my work, but it's changed how my work is perceived from the outside. I spent 25 years trying to get people to take what I do seriously – people have a very limited idea of what a drag queen can be – and now I'm trying to get them to take it less seriously. Certainly in Ireland, I'm taken so seriously – if I make a throwaway comment it's analysed in the papers the next day, journalists will call wanting my opinion on the government. I have to remind them that I am an entertainer first.' So if you're looking for agitprop in heels, go elsewhere – his show may have that transgressive edge, but it's not a polemic. 'I'm more careful with what I say in public, but in my live shows I had to make a conscious decision not to let it affect that. If you're paying to come and see me live, you should have some idea of what to expect. But I am aware that the audiences can be very different if I'm doing it in Soho to [doing it at] the festivals. I know the audience has changed over the years – there'll be older ladies mixing with activist types.'
So what would young Rory have made of Panti? 'He'd think it was fucking amazing. I grew up in the 1970s and everything seemed small and restricted and unglamorous. Ireland was a different place at the time. I had a lovely childhood but I always felt like a square peg in a round hole.'
It may have taken a few decades, but both Rory and his alter-ego have found their place at a time when exploring your identity is part of the zeitgeist. Gender is performative – and when it comes to Panti Bliss, it's one hell of a performance.
Panti: High Heels in Low Places, Traverse, until 14 Aug, times vary, £20.50 (£8.50--£15.50).