Sunday 20 January 2019

'I feel very white, ordinary and middle class now' - Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill talks to Barry Egan about his 'hermit' lifestyle, his ideal husband, his tears over the murder which sparked the Gay Pride movement, and how he would never go into politics but the Aras is a different matter

Rory has 'one foot in the night world and one in the respectable day world'
Rory has 'one foot in the night world and one in the respectable day world'
Rory AKA Panti is just back from LA LA Land where meetings took place to discuss a new TV show

'Panti doesn't pretend to be from Los Angeles. She's a Mayo girl," Panti's creator Rory O'Neill told me in 2009. Last November, Rory found himself not pretending to be from Los Angeles but instead, briefly, the toast of Los Angeles. He had been flown over to La La Land for a sit-down with Netflix and Hula apropos of his imminent comic drama on Sky, set in, and about, his Panti bar on Capel Street in Dublin.

"We were in the back of a fancy car in Hollywood, laughing, going, 'What the f**k?' I was having meetings in LA that I never looked for, or wanted, but people I know would f**king kill for! We were like, 'Oh, hi!' It was gas."

Early last year, award-winning TV demi-god Colin Nigel Callender, who, having watched some of Rory's speeches on YouTube, contacted him about doing a witty TV drama with, and about Panti. Rory then got Philip McMahon and John Butler involved to produce a series about "Dublin and queerness".

The pitch was, he says Queer As Folk meets Cheers, directed by Pedro Almodovar and set in the Dublin gay bar. At the back of the aforesaid watering hole on Capel Street (which opened in November, 2007), a new venue on Great Strand Street is in the process of being set up by Rory. "It'll be a kind of sister venue to PantiBar," he says, "and will be called Penny Lane, a nod to my Jack Russell, Penny."

Rory AKA Panti is just back from LA LA Land where meetings took place to discuss a new TV show
Rory AKA Panti is just back from LA LA Land where meetings took place to discuss a new TV show

Born in 1968 in Mayo, Rory, now lives alone in Dublin with his four-legged friend Penny. Despite what you might imagine from watching Rory as Panti in the 2015 movie, The Queen Of Ireland, he and Penny's lifestyle is decidedly ascetic. Rory has, he says, "hermit qualities" that he is "perfectly OK with". He cooks a basic meal. He never watches TV. He used to have the TV on as background noise as he read something, but it is months since he turned his television on.

"I never go out. I sit at home with the dog and read. I'm really actually boring, very boring. When I was younger, I went out a lot but only because there was nothing to keep me in. Whereas nowadays? I can't remember the last time I went out. I never go to restaurants, or go to nightclubs."

Does Penny the dog ever say to him, 'Can we go out tonight?'

"No. She is getting a little bit old. Her back legs were never great anyway. If she had it her way, we would never leave the house. Also, I do a lot of writing - the speeches and the various projects I am working on." Next week he is away in Stockholm and Amsterdam to speak at various Aids conferences with doctors.

Rory, who has HIV, meets me primarily to publicise his support for the My HIV, My Rules, My Journey campaign which aims to help gay men, aged 35-60, who are living with HIV to navigate their lifelong journey with the condition. HIV can accelerate the ageing process and it's important to be aware of the risks that HIV can pose to your physical and mental health, and make any small changes to your lifestyle accordingly. Different illnesses are more likely to affect people living with HIV and/or affect them at an earlier stage than HIV-negative people.

These may include heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and disorders of the liver, kidneys and brain. So, it is really important that those living with HIV maintain a healthy lifestyle and regularly monitor health risks associated with HIV. HIV diagnoses in Ireland continue to rise, and anyone at-risk should speak to their doctor and get tested.

Rory is a much-in-demand talking head at international Aids seminars and the such-like. "It is a weird thing that I have ended up being. It annoys me sometimes, because I have one foot in the sort of night world and one foot in this very respectable day world. And the night time people think nothing of calling me at midnight on Saturday or Sunday and the day time people think it is perfectly reasonable to call me at 9am on Monday.

"And that," he says, "drives me mad."

Which world does he prefer?

"Oh, I'm naturally still the night person," says Rory who looks like a fusion of Michael Fassbender, Brian O'Driscoll and Ewan McGregor. "I never go to bed before 2am ever. Ever. Ever. I can't. I just can't."

Has gay culture gone too early-to-bed respectable, lost its outsider edge? "For me, in parts of the world like this, absolutely. Obviously, I was one of the people who fought for all the things [to achieve gay marriage and LGBT rights etc]..."

But you don't miss the violence, the aggression, the bigotry and the homophobia, I say?

"No. But what I do miss is the underground, dangerous feel about it. About a year ago, I went to meet someone in a Dublin nightclub, a young straight club, the straightest club in the world, and the music is exactly the same - trashy remixes of Rihanna - that you would hear in any trashy gay club. That was depressing to me, because when I was their age, people went to gay clubs for cutting-edge good music and now there is no difference. Straight people and gay people are listening to exactly the same music. Maybe a few extra Lady Gaga numbers in the gay clubs. That is weird to me."

Has he read Martin Duberman's book, Why LGBT Activism Needs to Return to Its Radical Roots, I ask. In it, the gay rights historian argues that LGBT campaigning has lost its way - and its fire - in search of vanilla acceptance. "I haven't read the book so I can't really comment directly, but I do sometimes worry that some of the radical, status quo-challenging nature of queer activism is being lost as the community achieves more mainstream acceptance.

"One of the great joys of my youthful discovery of the then underground LGBTI+ community was discovering a community that was so outside the mainstream - they had no choice in the matter - that they had a kind of freedom to imagine completely new and exciting ways of living and forming a community.

"One that was, 'Of the gays, by the gays, for the gays - one gaytion under Diana Ross'. And as a queer person, I was relieved of the pressure my straight brother would have felt to get a steady job, marry a nice nurse, and settle down in the suburbs with a Labrador, and a Toyota Corolla.

"That wasn't an option for me," says Rory, who grew up in Ballinrobe with his three sisters, Clare, Edel and Auveen and two brothers, Lorcan and Fergal. His father, also named Rory, was the town vet; his mother Finn was very much "skirts, flat shoes, pillar of the local community". In his early teens, he found a copy of Desmond Morris's evolutionary tome Manwatching and flicked open the section on human sexuality. Young Rory would patiently peruse the chapter on homosexuality and be intrigued by the clinical descriptions of sex. He was enthralled by the non-judgemental tone. One of his first crushes was on the RTE news reader Michael Murphy - it was something to do with the fact that Murphy had a little 1970s' moustache - followed by crushes on Pierce Brosnan in Remington Steele and Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man. Rory came out to his big sister, Auveen, when he was 19 at her house in Dublin.

"So there was no social pressure on me to do that," Rory says, meaning settling down in Co Mayo with a nurse and a Labrador that would never suit living in inner-city Dublin, "which left me free to live in a lesbian commune and make goat's cheese if I wanted. Whereas, nowadays, I think even young queers feel a pressure to bring a nice fella, or girlfriend, home to meet Mammy. Not that I would change anything we've achieved! I think it's great that young queers can now be as unexciting as their straight siblings if they want to. I just hope that they don't forget that a lesbian commune and making goat's cheese is an equally valid life choice too."

How did he feel about Leo Varadkar's apology to men and women of all ages in Ireland who - as An Taoiseach put it in his moving speech in the Dail - "tried to live and love and be themselves in a society where their identity was feared and despised".

"That was a weird one, because," Rory says of the emotions it stirred in him, "I went to the official event in Dublin Castle and I thought I am just going along to this thing and it is just another thing in the evolution. Declan Flynn's nephew spoke and I don't know anything about what he does, but, clearly, he's a speaker. He just spoke about his uncle and what the family remember of him and think of him," referring to 31-year-old Declan Flynn who was attacked and murdered in Fairview Park in Dublin on September 9, 1982, an event which is considered to be a catalyst for the LGBTQ Pride movement here.

"I was blubbing like a baby. I was really not expecting that to be that affecting. But the people there... there have been a lot of older gays and lesbians who had been marching and campaigning for 40 years or whatever, and it meant so much to those people. And to think about it, what they have seen and what they have achieved: to have a gay prime minister apologise for the way that they were treated 30 years ago is massive, it really is big. So, yeah, a fully changed world. Is there a little part of me that misses the excitement of secret gay clubs? Yes, of course, there is. I feel very ordinary and middle class and white now - and I used not to."

You've become vanilla, I joke?

"Yeah! You can't be a rebel any more by being a queer really. It's harder. But would I change it? No, I wouldn't. I'm glad the way it has turned out. It's great. But at the same time, I do miss the dodgy underground gay clubs."

Is he going to get married and have kids? "Oh no, no, no," he says, an expression of abject horror writ large on his matinee idol-sculpted visage.

"I have never been that type and I doubt it is going to change. Maybe, if I fall in love tomorrow with some Brazilian waiter, that might change!"

So, are Brazilians his type?

"No. No. It's not that at all. It is nothing to do with the type. It's just, if you are my age, or you are me on the Dublin gay scene, I know every single person or they know me, or whatever, because I have been around for 40 years. And the only ones who don't know you are the foreigners. So they are the only ones that I end up going on dates with, because they don't come with all the baggage."

'Brazilians' is shorthand for handsome foreigners, he explains.

Is Rory in love at present?

"No. You are always niggling away for my thing."

People are curious.

"I know people are curious. For example, when I wrote the book," he says meaning his 2014 autobiography, Woman in the Making: Panti's Memoir, "people say why didn't you write about any boyfriends. Because they were never that important in my life. That's just the way it is. I have had lots of boyfriends, but I have never been a 'serious relationship' person. That could change tomorrow. Maybe I would meet somebody and feel differently about it."

And, with what kind of man does Rory feel that U-turn might happen?

"Are you asking me, who would be my fantasy husband? My fantasy husband is a quietly handsome, ordinary, quiet guy who allows me to run off and let me do stupid things but is steady. A steady person."

I ask him, would he really find that kind of person attractive?

"I do, yeah. I'm not interested in the showy types."

Is that because Rory wants all the spotlight for himself?

"Maybe!" he laughs. "But I think it is more about what I have learned from relationships. I mean, my parents' relationship is fabulous and has been all of my life, and my dad is a very steady, quiet person. Always does the same thing. So I have always liked the kind of quiet person."

And might that steady, quiet and hypothetical boyfriend say to Rory some evening, 'Can we go to bed before 2am?' "He might. He might."

Does Rory fear becoming boring?

"No. But I want a boring guy who lets me go off and do me thing. This is all fantasy stuff!" he laughs. "I might hate him in reality."

He seems to want a male version of a 1930's country wife? "Kind of, yeah. I want an indulgent man who is very solid in his own thing. I like people who know exactly who they are, and aren't affected by other things around them. So, if they like Irish country music, for example, they don't care what you think."

So, if this fantasy boyfriend was suddenly into Detroit House Music, would that put you off?

"That would totally put me off. Unless he was always into Detroit House Music." Given that everyone knows Rory on the Irish gay scene, what is it like to go out on a date with him?

"I think it is annoying to be my date. I don't really go out. Most of my friends are settled."

Are they forever fixing him up on dates? "I wish they were. I give out to them. They should be fixing me up!"

Why does Rory think they don't set him up with potential boyfriends?

"Because they don't meet anyone either. Dublin is small."

Asked why he doesn't move to London, Berlin or New York, he rolls his eyes and says he could never live somewhere like that, where if you want to meet a friend for coffee, it takes two weeks of phone calls to arrange it, an hour on the train.

"I like Dublin. I like being able to wander around and bump into people. Go to the same places. I'm a bore," says Rory, whose first boyfriend was a student called Eoin in college when he was 19. Post-Eoin, Rory's first proper boyfriend was a French man called Bruno, who worked for a tea company, when Rory was 22 in Japan. Rory once told me that he sometimes thinks wistfully of Bruno when he drinks a certain brand of fancy French brew. Then there was an artist called Martin - "not his real name but we'll call him Martin", Rory told me in 2009 - in Dublin when Rory was in his early 30s, followed by the love of Rory's life, Bob, who ditched Rory circa 2006 and allegedly broke his heart.

"I think being the giant big woman on the scene doesn't help. I think they are intimidated by me," he quipped to me in 2009.

Has Leo ever asked him to go into politics? "Leo? Oh, no, no, no. Other people have suggested it. That's only because I am not a bad speaker - 'Oh, he should go into politics' - but I'd be terrible at it. I hate meetings and photocopiers and having to shake hands with people that I'm not interested in."

Why not run for President then?

"Now that one I'd be good at. I do give a good speech. That would be one of the big requirements. Two, I would look great in pictures because I have been posing with drag queens all my life. And occasionally Panti could do it, which would be more fun. So I would be an excellent President."

So why won't he run?

"Because a) it is a fun idea but it isn't very realistic and b) I have other things which I am doing at the moment which are much more fun and interesting. Maybe when I'm older! Because my sister Edel keeps saying, "Christmas in the Aras would be amazing!' And she is right about that! But I am doing things at the moment that I find more interesting than the Presidency."

You could transcend the role of President, Rory. "That's quite true but I could transcend it when I'm 65," says Rory, who will turn 50 on November 16 this year.

For further information on the 'My HIV, My Rules, My Journey' campaign visit

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