Tuesday 12 December 2017

Rory 'Panti Bliss' O'Neill: The day I had my childhood epiphany in Knock

Rory O'Neill
Rory O'Neill
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

Rory O'Neill - aka Panti Bliss - had an idyllic upbringing in Mayo, but he knew he was different. In a frank memoir, he tells of his journey of discovery.

So just how did a Ballinrobe altar boy grow up to become one of Ireland's most powerful and glamorous women? That's the mystery solved by the latest autobiography to hit bookshelves here.

Before January, there were probably plenty of people throughout the land who were blissfully unaware of Miss Panti Bliss.

In the wake of Pantigate - the RTÉ homophobia row that resulted in an €85,000 payout - however, the Mayo drag queen otherwise known as Rory O'Neill has gone from gay icon to national treasure overnight.

And it all began with the Pope's visit to Knock in 1979.

Even at the age of 11, herded into a drizzly country field waiting for Pope John Paul II to pontificate, O'Neill recalls knowing that, as Michael Jackson would put it four years later, he wasn't like the other guys.

Panti Bliss, who came into being in Tokyo
Panti Bliss, who came into being in Tokyo

"During the interminable Mass I had looked around me and had an epiphany of sorts," he tells in his debut tome, Woman in the Making. "I looked at the hundreds of people muttering as one and I didn't feel any wonder.

"I was already beginning to be aware that I didn't feel I really belonged in Ballinrobe.

"The Pope's visit made me think - really think - for the very first time," he adds. "It made me question what was presented to me. That day, a crack opened up between me and the world around me."

Despite a privileged upbringing, surrounded by family, friends and assorted farm animals, that chasm continued to grow when he went off to a Franciscan boarding school in Balbriggan. "Growing up in 1970s Ballinrobe, the much-loved son of the local vet and his well-respected wife, surrounded by five noisy brothers and sisters and countless animals, it was idyllic," says the 45 year-old, "easy, free, fun. And yet I was lonely.

"As I went through my teenage years I started to suspect I might be gay, but it was still such an alien concept, that I mostly buried these uncomfortable suspicions.

"I'd never met or even, for sure, seen a real, actual, bona fide homosexual so the idea that I might actually be one was almost impossible to process."

"[But] the kind of things I was becoming interested in - drawing pictures, being one of Charlie's Angels, Tony Danza - weren't things my friends were interested in and I felt myself becoming more distant."

Attending art college in Dún Laoghaire, where he staged his first drag show in a seventies-style frock made entirely from surgical gloves, O'Neill took a high-heeled step closer to at least two of those ambitions.

And it doesn't get much more distant than Japan, where, as one half of drag duo CandiPanti, the graphic design graduate and burgeoning Miss Bliss soon became a familiar painted face on the Tokyo club scene.

Rory O'Neill
Rory O'Neill

"For the first time in my life I realised that I didn't have to be defined by Ballinrobe, Co Mayo," explains O'Neill, who now owns popular Dublin gay bar, PantiBar. "I could define myself. I was the master of my own destiny!

"As a gay 22-year-old foreigner in Tokyo, I was free to be whomever and whatever I wanted. And it turned out that what I wanted to be was Panti."

Originally known as 'Latitia', O'Neill reveals he only morphed into 'Panti' because it was easier for locals to pronounce.

"Panti isn't a name I would have chosen deliberately," he tells. "When people hear it for the first time, they think I chose 'knickers' as a stage name and imagine all sorts about me and my show.

"As for the surname Bliss? One night after a gig, the club wanted me to fill out a payment form, which had a space for a family name. . . so I put down the first thing that came into my head.

"[But] I've embraced [my name], and, on the bright side, people don't forget it!"

After finding escape and self-expression in sequins on the other side of the world, the newly-crowned queen returned to the capital, where he now lives, in the mid-1990s.

School of life: A young Rory O’Neill
School of life: A young Rory O’Neill

Things were just going well for the young glamtrepreneur at the helm of legendary club nights GAG and HAM, as well as the juggernaut that was Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI), when three other little letters entered his life: HIV.

While now in good health thanks to the "magic pill" he pops once a day, almost two decades ago, O'Neill admits to thinking his lip-syncing number was up: "[The doctor] started to explain some things but I wasn't really listening and didn't need to.

"I was a 27-year-old gay guy. I knew people who were sick, I knew people who had died, I'd been to AIDS funerals.

"I was under absolutely no illusions about what this meant.

"I was going to die. And it wasn't going to be a nice Hollywood passing away, it would be an ugly death."

"For the next few years my life was lived around taking medication," he continues. "I couldn't even forget about it for longer than an hour or two because my watch would start beeping, reminding me to take whatever combination of pills and capsules and enormous retch-inducing tablets my schedule told me needed to be taken at exactly that moment."

But the bitterest pill of all to swallow was telling his parents: "How do you tell your parents you have HIV? I'd rather tell them a hundred times over I was gay than tell them this.

"I felt no guilt for telling my parents I was gay - I didn't choose to be gay, I simply was gay - but this was different. Of course, I hadn't chosen to be HIV positive either, but it wasn't an intrinsic, inevitable part of me.

"I might not have known when or how or whom, but somewhere along the way, I'd taken a risk. I'd made a decision that had landed me here, a guy full of drugs and 'a big disease with a little name'."

Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, poses with NYC mayor Bill de Blasio
Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, poses with NYC mayor Bill de Blasio

Sixteen years on, although he still has the big disease with the little name, as Prince famously sang, he's no longer full of drugs at least.

"When I was first diagnosed with HIV it was almost all I could think of," says O'Neill. "Now I rarely even think about it.

"I didn't know it at the time but I was lucky to be diagnosed when I was, on the very cusp of new, effective HIV treatments.

"I now have a chronic manageable condition. I take one small pill a day, visit the clinic a couple of times a year, and get on with my life."

More than getting on with her own life, by now, Panti has changed many others along the way. Most notably, in the wake of Pantigate, the drag queen's 'Noble Call' speech at the Abbey Theatre went viral after being translated into 15 languages earlier this year.

Like the women herself though, perhaps the story of how a wasp-waisted, big-wigged grown-up altar boy from Ballinrobe led 'Team Panti' with the rallying cry, 'Feck off out of my life!', should remain part-mystery as it goes down in history.

"I never planned to be a drag queen," tells the man behind the enigma. "I was just trying to have fun and pay my rent. I always imagined that the next gig would be my last and soon I'd have to get a 'proper' job.

"Before Pantigate I was well known to the gay community, but almost overnight Panti became a household name," says O'Neill.

"It is true to say I breathed life into Panti, but is it equally true to say that she breathed life into me. Sure, she's brought me some trouble and a few heartaches over the years - attracting the attention of lawyers and scaring off a few boyfriends - but all of that pales in comparison to what she's given me.

"I don't know who or what I'd be without Panti," he adds, "but I know I wouldn't be any happier."

Woman in the Making: A Memoir by Rory O'Neill, published by Hachette ­Ireland, is out now.

Panti Bliss, AKA Rory O'Neill
Panti Bliss, AKA Rory O'Neill

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