Glamour queen is not amused
Panti, the vet's daughter turned 'Marilyn from Mayo', was inspired by the late Farrah Fawcett, who showed that a woman could be gorgeous yet tough. Barry Egan meets Panti's alter ego, Mayo man and vet's son Rory O'Neill, creator of 'A Woman in Progress', and relishes the drag artist's dose of righteous anger
Published 06/09/2009 | 00:00
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 teachers would say to him that his school days would be the happiest days in his life he would tut and think to himself "if I look back and think that these are the happiest days of my life I will shoot myself right now". Thankfully he didn't, or we would have been deprived of Panti. After boarding school, he went to Dun Laoghaire College of Art. Three years into the four years of the graphic design course Rory decided he didn't particularly want to be a graphic artist.
"So I spent my last year in college just doing stuff that I was going to get some enjoyment out of," he says. "I didn't care. In my last year, I designed and performed a drag show with costumes and sets. The college was unsure how they were going to assess that so they made sure I did graphic posters and designed the set, etc."
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.
"And every 14-year-old in Mayo can go online and get involved in discussions about what the bouncer of The George said to who last night. It is totally different. You can just see by going out how many gay young people there are on the scene. They are very confident about their sexuality in a way that I and my generation never was."
And he can get angry about apathy among gays. In a recent blog entitled 'No More Mr Nice Guy', Panti wrote about attending a demo in April on Dame Street to support the campaign for gay marriage "and against the weak, second-class, civil partnership bill that is due to come before the Dail -- though I wouldn't hold your breath. There were about 150 people there." But Panti was only warming up his venom: "When Alexandra and a bunch of other people you'd never heard of a few weeks earlier, make it to the X Factor final, you won't leave the house and no one can get through to you because you're furiously text voting, but when you're told you're a second-class citizen and your relationships aren't real relationships, you can't be arsed walking over to Dame St from H&M because the cute assistant has just gone to check if they have that cute jacket in your size. Where the f*** is your righteous anger?"
"And don't bother telling me that you're not interested in marriage. That you think it's an outmoded institution, a hangover from a patriarchal society that was only about the protection of property. I don't give a crap. Plenty of other gays do want to get married, and you should be furious on their behalf. Furious that something as basic and fundamental as marriage, something that is taken for granted by everyone else, something that society expects, encourages and cherishes for everyone else, is closed off to them, and them only. Anyone else can get married. Any race, any creed, any gender ... Hell! Any idiot, murderer, rapist, child molester. Any a**hole, racist, queer-basher. Any dumb-f*** soccer hooligan. Any mentally disturbed lunatic. But not the gays! The sky will fall down!" Ouch.
"I do think apathy is an issue and until this whole marriage debate, I was very depressed about young people's attitude to those things," says Rory adding: "But it is getting better. There were 5,000 at the last march on Sunday. So, oddly, I think the gay marriage debate has made me realise that they can get off their asses and do something about it. They just needed to have a fire lit under them."
The gay community isn't a monolith, he says. There are differences of opinion. The Civil Partnership Bill will be debated in the new Dail session. "It looks fairly positive that it will pass," Panti's creator says, adding there are two viewpoints on that. One is that the bill is a fabulous step forward and will solve a lot of problems for a lot of gay couples who are urgently in need and have been together for many years, he says.
"So if the bill comes through," he continues, "I'll celebrate." But Rory will celebrate with big caveats because the second point is that the Bill is, he believes, "enshrining discrimination, because the idea that they are creating a separate institution [mocking twee voice] 'especially for the gays' reeks of prejudice. In other countries that have done the same they have had to upgrade, if you will, to gay marriage in the end once they realised it was silly and unnecessary."
The government is using a constitutional argument against gay marriage, he believes. "They have it on legal advice that it would be unconstitutional because our constitution, while it doesn't mention men and women, it does say that you have to protect the institution of marriage," he says. "And the government's legal people think protecting the institution of marriage means keeping the gays away from it. I think the government should have some gumption here and open marriage to gay couples. If some mean-spirited person wants to take a constitutional case against them, well let them and let it go through the courts and let it be decided in the courts whether or not there is a constitutional bar to gay marriage."
He mentions Kevin Myers and Brenda Power and Mary Kenny and John Waters as having no grasp whatsoever of the real issues. They are trying to turn it into a debate about gay adoption -- "suggesting that gays are just going to be wandering into adoption agencies and saying [mocking camp voice] 'Oh, I'll have that baby.'"
Your parents must be very proud of their baby, Rory.
"Oh, they are very proud of me. Especially when I am on the radio debating. They are very happy that I am happy." With that, he is off home to Penny.
A Woman in Progress will be at The Project Arts Centre, Sept 24-26 and Oct 8-10 as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Tickets at 01.8819613 www.project.ie or www. dublintheatrefestival.com