Rory O'Neill is tall with matinee idol looks -- a cross between Brian O'Driscoll and Ewan McGregor in the face yet he chooses to perform at all times in drag, sharing the same life story with his drag creation Panti, a gamey Marilyn-from-Mayo blonde whom Rory plays with lipstick-withering coquettishness.
"Panti doesn't pretend to be from Los Angeles," Rory says. "She's a Mayo girl. The daughter of a vet. She is exactly the same as me. I am the son of a vet. I was never shy as child." No codding.
Walking down Grafton Street, he makes the point that as Dame Edna, Barry Humphries is playing a defined role that has to stay within certain confines of a comic character. "Whereas," Rory explains, as he waves to a woman, "a drag character is essentially your own character with the elements magnified. Therefore drag characters can talk about real issues or their real life because in a way, unlike a comedy character, they are living in the real world."
"Panti does run a bar," he adds, referring to The Pantibar on Capel Street in Dublin which opened in November 2007. "Panti does run down the street and get taxis. So there is that kind of weird overlap that doesn't necessarily happen in a traditional, theatrically designed character." And Panti is dragging his one-woman show, A Woman in Progress to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin as part of the Theatre Festival. The show (spoken-word with bitchy bells on) is about life and love and religion. Panti is anti-religion: Rory was brought to Knock as a baby and still hasn't recovered.
"It is also about the death of gay culture," Rory quips like Dorothy Parker with PMT. "Because gay culture has gone more mainstream, I think young gays are more accepting of what's given to them. And if you haven't struggled, it is not the same. Struggle had its advantages. It makes you question everything. I think gay culture has atrophied."
You could never accuse Rory of atrophying. "The personal is political," he says. "That's what A Woman In Progress is about."
But what is Rory O'Neill about? His earliest childhood memory was the smell of the plastic as he drank out of a cup "that have those soother things on them". His was a "real idyllic-y Mayo childhood," he says. "Until I was a teenager it was fabulous, there was nowhere better to grow up than a small country town, especially in Mayo where they seem to have a very relaxed attitude towards child safety. Everybody in Ireland seems to have a trampoline in their back garden but in Mayo they never had the net around them," he laughs.
Born in 1968, Rory grew up in Ballinrobe. His father, also named Rory, was the town vet. His mother Finn was very much, he says, "skirts, flat shoes, pillar of the local community".
There were six kids in the family: boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, Rory explains. "I'm number five." The O'Neills lived on the edge of town. Rory would often go swimming in the lake at Lough Mask. He can remember being inadvertently thrown in the deep end with a splash as a teen in Ballinrobe: he found a copy of Desmond Morris's evolutionary tome Man Watching lying around the house. He immediately flicked open the section on human sexuality. Bingo. Young Rory would regularly peruse the chapter on homosexuality and be, he says, "really excited by these clinical descriptions of sex". He was equally thrilled by the non-judgemental tone.
It was a similar sense of non-judging that Rory felt when he came out to his big sister, Aoibheann, six years his senior, when he was 19 at her house in Dublin. (His older brother Lorcan, seven years Rory's senior, actually came out after him.) His earliest crushes were on the RTE news reader Michael Murphy -- "He had like a little Seventies moustache" -- Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele and Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man. Rory was also heavily into Farrah Fawcet, aka Jill Munroe in Charlie's Angels, in the late Seventies. "I am still a huge Farrah Fawcet fan," he says, "and I was horribly disappointed for her to die in the same week as Michael Jackson. I have always had a huge soft spot for Farrah. She is responsible for a lot of the look of Panti." The whole message of Farrah Fawcett in Charlie's Angels to a young gay teenager like Rory was mesmerising: "that you could be gorgeous and glamorous and also fight tough as a detective", he explains.
"It was also that you could be what you want to be. Those kind of shows that showed a glamorous world beyond Mayo appealed to me." Another big influence was his American aunt Qy -- real name Columba Brumby -- who married a US navy officer 25 years older than her who took her off to Washington. "She would appear," Rory recounts, "every three years in pants suits and smoking Menthol cigarettes, with a very husky Katharine Hepburn drawl. She was impossibly glamorous, like Jayne Mansfield." So is Panti.
His "first proper grown-up sex act with another proper homosexual" was on a one-night stand when he was 17. He had earlier gone to a gay youth meeting in the old Clarence Hotel. After the meeting, Rory went to a gay bar and ended up kissing somebody he fancied.
Rory is honest enough to admit that he has only had four boyfriends in his entire 40 years on terra firma. "I'm not one of those couple-y types," he says. His first boyfriend was a student doctor called Eoin in college when he was 19. After that, Rory's first "serious, proper boyfriend" was in Japan when he was 22 with a French boy called Bruno who worked for a tea company. He says he sometimes thinks wistfully of Bruno when he drinks a certain brand of posh French brew. Then there was an artist called Martin -- "not his real name but we'll call him Martin" -- in Dublin when Rory was in his early 30s. And most recently there was Bob, the love of Rory's life. Bob dumped him three years ago and broke his heart. Rory readily admits that he still pines for Bob, who now lives in New Zealand and runs a restaurant. "He's the one who messed me up the most," he says. "My love life is incredibly dull." Rory lives alone with his dog, the ever-faithful Penny. He is not, he says, inundated with offers from suitors. "I think being the giant big woman on the scene doesn't help. I think they are intimidated by me."
In fairness, once you see past the Amazonian lankiness, Rory O'Neill is not intimidating. He is a perfectly pleasant gentleman with a Wildean way with bon mots. Rory was dispatched to boarding school in Gormanston near where his granny Margaret lived in Co Meath in his mid-teens. It wasn't his happiest time. He didn't play GAA (he preferred tennis) and he wasn't interested in the sciences. He wanted to do art in his Leaving Cert and that proved, he says, "almost impossible. I had to study art on my own outside the class hours."
When he finished college, the manager of Sides nightclub on Dame Street, who had seen his student drag performance, asked him if he wanted some work as a waiter. He started to do some drag on the club scene. "It was Eighties Dublin and it was so depressing," Rory winces.
Looking for inspiration, he read Paul Theroux's Riding The Iron Rooster (Theroux spent a year exploring China by train) and set off to do the same in 1990. He went through Russia and Siberia and got as far as Japan before he ran out of money. He ended up staying there for five years. It was here that he started doing Panti on the club scene as part of a double act. "It was less art school and more theatre than what I did in Dublin."
When I ask if he thinks Ireland has become less homophobic in the 20 or so years since he came out, Rory says he is hesitant to use the word "homophobia". He prefers to see it not so much as fear or hatred of gay people as ignorance of that culture. "It is just so obvious how much that has changed over the years," he says. "When I was 19 you had to search where Shaft or The George or Minskys was; whereas nowadays your granny can tell you where The George is," he says referring to the famous gay emporium on Dublin's George's Street.