Friday 9 December 2016

The man behind the legend - Panti Bliss

From the same sex marriage referendum to addressing the nation on Christmas Day, it's been quite the year for drag artist turned activist Panti. We met the man behind Ireland's most formidable woman

Eoin Butler

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

The man behind Panti: Rory O'Neill. Photo: Kip Carroll
The man behind Panti: Rory O'Neill. Photo: Kip Carroll
Panti celebrates the Referendum result at Dublin Castle.
Rory O'Neill and Penny at PantiBar. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Panti
In Panti's dressing room.

It's December 8, Culchie Shopping Day in Dublin, and the streets are packed with Christmas shoppers. Inside Capel Street's most famous gay pub, one of the city's most celebrated culchies is perched at the bar, totting up the previous night's takings, while a barmaid mops the floor.

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Though glamorous by night, PantiBar is just a regular, nicely furnished, city bar by day. But this has been a bumper year for business. During the Marriage Equality campaign, it was a focal point for the vibrant Yes campaign.

When the referendum passed, it was the scene of some of that campaign's most euphoric celebrations.

"The day of the referendum result was just the greatest ever," says the 'landlady' Rory O'Neill. "I'll always remember it with huge affection."

But the drag performer, better known as Panti Bliss, stresses that times weren't always this good. "We opened six months before the crash," he recalls with horror. "Within a year, half our customers emigrated. The other half just stopped going out. So the first five years were extremely difficult."

In person, Rory O'Neill is tall, dapper, thoughtful and occasionally flighty. "What am I promoting again?" he booms mischievously, as we take our seats downstairs. The TV3 Christmas thing, I reply. "Oh God, yes," he grins. "I'm glad one of us remembered."

That thing is the Queen of Ireland's Christmas Day Message, which Panti is set to deliver on TV3 at 3pm next week. It seems a fitting way to sum up what has been a momentous year for both Ireland and Panti.

The man who would become Ireland's woman of the year was born 47 years ago in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, the fifth of six children. From a young age, he admits, he had an inkling he was different to other boys.

At 18, he left for art college in Dún Laoghaire, where he first performed in drag. He came out shortly afterward, firstly to his friends, then his family. All were very supportive.

In his early 20s, he developed the Panti character and was soon performing in drag around the world. In 1995, however, came a hammer blow. He was diagnosed as HIV positive. At the time, this was considered a death sentence.

He has described breaking the news to his family as a much more painful experience than coming out. Happily, today his HIV status is a "manageable condition" and one he has talked about openly in recent months in the hopes of lessening the stigma around the disease.

By now, it feels almost redundant to recount the sequence of events that propelled O'Neill from a popular local drag artist to a certified national treasure. O'Neill and Panti first came to national prominence when he was caught up in the RTÉ "homophobia" controversy in January 2014, known as 'Pantigate'.

I ask if the intense media attention he was subject to at that time was difficult to cope with. "Look, if you have any kind of public profile at all, and the profile is seen to represent a particular viewpoint, you already get it in the neck from online weirdos all the time. So I was able to tune that stuff out. I didn't take it personally."

O'Neill's response to the controversy was a Nobel Call oration, delivered in character as Panti, onstage at the Abbey Theatre. As a writer, it's galling to learn that this remarkable speech was cobbled together in just a few hours. "I always feel embarrassed admitting that," he laughs. "But, you know, I had something I wanted to get off my chest. So it came very easily."

And Panti recited it from memory? O'Neill points to the white iPhone that's been vibrating intermittently on the countertop throughout our conversation. "I wrote the speech up in the Notes app on my phone there," he says. "Just recently, I was going back through my notes. Most of them were old shopping lists and stuff, so I was deleting as I went.

"Suddenly, I came across my original notes for the Nobel Call. I never had time to learn the text as written, so it was interesting to see just how different the notes were from what I ended up saying."

What followed was a whirlwind. A YouTube video of the speech went viral around the world, earning kudos from everyone from Graham Norton to Madonna. Personal appearances followed at the St Patrick's Day parade in Queens, to Mardi Gras in Sydney. Panti's one woman show High Heels in Low Places began to tour internationally.

By the end of 2014, Panti received two standing ovations when she picked up an Editors Special Award from Attitude magazine in London. In Dublin, she was presented with a People the Year Award by Stephen Fry, who said he "would have swum over the Irish Sea [to be there.]"

By the time of the Marriage Equality campaign this spring, PantiBar was the destination of choice for politicians looking to burnish their gay-friendly credentials. Enda Kenny's visit must have been surreal? "It was interesting," O'Neill replies. "Five years ago, there is no way a Taoiseach would have visited a gay bar. But now it's seen as a vote winner, not a vote loser.

"I'll be honest, many in the gay community weren't very happy about [the influx of politicians.] A lot of people grumbled 'Oh, they're only here for the pink vote.' My attitude was 'Great, I want them to care about the pink vote!'"

The events of the election itself scarcely require recounting here: Panti's rock star reception at the count in Dublin Castle was covered by virtually every major news outlet in the world. I fish a copy of the recently published book Ireland Says Yes from my bag and ask O'Neill if he feels bittersweet, at all, that such a wonderful moment for the country is now receding into the pages of history?

"Oh, but I don't agree that it is," he replies eagerly. "I always assumed, the day after the referendum passes, alright, gay people can get married now. But everything else would continue as it was. And that's not what's happened at all. The referendum has had a transformative effect. Gay people in Ireland feel much more confident now and secure of our place in the culture.

"And because we had this massive national conversation, the wind was blown through all of these arguments. All of these insane objections were raised, but the people still voted Yes. In fact, I believe if the referendum were held again tomorrow, it would pass by an even higher margin."

O'Neill believes the effect of the referendum is now felt far beyond the gay community. "The Yes campaign has now focused people's attention on equality in other areas," he says. "I don't believe things like the Waking the Feminists [a protest against the lack of female playwrights included in the Abbey Theatre's 1916 programme] movement, for example, would have happened without the Yes campaign.

"The Repeal the Eighth movement [on abortion rights] has likewise been energised. Women have come forward to tell their abortion stories. I don't think that would have happened if they hadn't seen the power of personal stories during the Yes campaign. I even went to a Travellers Rights demo where the Nobel Call was mentioned."

Next on the agenda for O'Neill is the Christmas Day message on TV3. The station came to O'Neill with the idea. With a film documentary just released, and a TV project about the history of drag pencilled in for the new year, overexposure is something he worries a lot about. But this seemed like a fun idea, so he decided to give it a whirl.

Fintan O'Toole called Panti's Nobel Call "the most eloquent Irish speech since Daniel O'Connell was in his prime." I ask if O'Neill feels under any pressure to live up to the standard he has set for himself? "A tiny bit, yes," he concedes. "People have such high expectations every time I open my mouth.

"I was very annoyed when I made the Nobel Call speech. It was very personal to me. But that was two years ago now, and those two years in between have been a really wild ride. So this is going to be very different."

I remind O'Neill that the last Irish icon offered a Christmas Day television slot to address the nation - an episode of Father Ted when the title character won a 'Golden Cleric' award for heroic behaviour - used the opportunity to settle a host of old scores. Would Panti be tempted to follow Fr Ted Crilly's example and namecheck the people who had "fecked him over'? O'Neill laughs. "Listen, it's going to be a bit of fun. I am treating the speech like The Queen would treat hers. It will be inclusive of everybody and I'm not going to be triumphalist or mean spirited."

But seriously, I press, how does he really feel about his old Pantigate and referendum adversaries today? "There was a time when I felt really angry with them," he admits. "Furious even. It felt like 'Interfering busybodies, get out of my life!' But now, honestly, I just feel sorry for them.

"I know, if they read this, they'll think I'm a patronising ass****. But I cannot for the life of me conceive of a reason why someone would be so concerned about other people's personal relationships, that they would go out and start campaigning against it. That's such a weird place to be in. I'm sorry, but I can only assume it comes from an unhappy place."

Today, all of Panti's enemies have been vanquished. She is the undisputed Queen of Ireland and hailed by many as the woman of the year. Is it possible, I ask, for one to be too much vindicated? "Oh God," O'Neill mutters, for once sounding a little flummoxed.

His little dog Penny scurries beneath our seats as he considers the question.

"Well, I'm glad with the way things have turned out," he offers. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel I'd won the day... Oh God, that's such a funny question."

He offers a story he says meant more to him than any of the accolades he has received. He recalls a visit to Dunnes Stores on North Earl Street. At the milk fridge, he found himself next to an old lady in her 70s. "She was a typical Dublin woman, everybody's granny, who'd probably just come from mass in the Pro-Cathedral."

"She was staring at me and I could tell she was trying to work out if I was who she thought I was. Finally, she leaned over and looked me in the eye. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'Those people don't speak for me.' It was such a sweet moment. This was at the height of Pantigate, long before the referendum. That was the moment when I knew the country had changed."

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