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Rory O'Neill: 'For years I didn't pay my taxes, I thought I'd be dead from HIV'


13 Jan 2015;  Rory O'Neill 'Panti'.  Pantibar, Capel Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

13 Jan 2015; Rory O'Neill 'Panti'. Pantibar, Capel Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

13 Jan 2015;  Rory O'Neill 'Panti'.  Pantibar, Capel Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

13 Jan 2015; Rory O'Neill 'Panti'. Pantibar, Capel Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn


13 Jan 2015; Rory O'Neill 'Panti'. Pantibar, Capel Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Last year was a bit of whirlwind for gay rights activist and drag performer Rory O'Neill AKA Panti Bliss. Up until then, Rory was primarily known for his Panti Bliss theatre shows and performances around Ireland.

However, 2014 brought a culmination of events which would catapult both Panti and Rory onto the world stage. First there was Pantigate, the name given to the subsequent controversy caused by Rory's appearance on the Saturday Night Show on RTE during which homophobia was discussed. The State broadcaster later took a decision to pay out a total settlement of €85,000 to a number of those mentioned in the segment, who threatened legal action.

Then in April 2014, Rory's alter ego Panti delivered a guest soliloquy, 'Panti's Noble Call' during the Abbey's performance of James Plunkett's The Risen People, and the gut-wrenchingly honest and emotive message within quickly travelled around the globe via various social and mainstream media networks.

Even Madonna weighed in to commend Panti's eloquent speech. It's a little wonder that over the next 12 months Panti Bliss will be packing up her heels, hitting the road and going truly global.

"Yesterday, twice, people stopped me in the street saying nice things. That still happens a year later," Rory tells me. "Before all of that, obviously all of the gays knew me and the theatre types, that sort of world, but random women in the street did not and especially out of drag. Whereas yesterday these women stopped me here on Capel Street, saying 'Oh Mr Panti!" Rory laughs.

"I get that quite a bit! And then the woman on the till in Tescos tells me 'Oh! I am reading your book!' Of course the people who don't like me are less likely to come up to me on the street and tell me, but in general people are lovely and I think that is an honest reflection of Ireland now."

Next month Panti is travelling to Prince William and Kate Middleton's former haunt, St. Andrew's University in Scotland, to address the student body.

"I am doing quite a bit of speaking at universities this year," Rory explains. "I am going to St. Andrew's in Scotland and I am going to Canada and to universities in Detroit. Then I am going to Australia for Mardi Gras to be on a float and I am doing some shows in Sydney and then New York and then a week in London. So basically the show that I toured Ireland with last year I am doing more of that, but abroad now," Rory tells me as we sit in his now infamous pub, the PantiBar on Capel Street.

"That's what is happening immediately and obviously then there is still the bar here plodding along and there is the referendum looming."

Victory in the impending marriage referendum is not something Rory is taking as a given, he is cautious about overestimating support to the detriment of what he feels is the most important thing to happen for the gay community since the decriminalising of homosexuality in 1993.

"I think that this referendum is still going to be very hard to win. All of these polls saying that 70pc of people are in favour, I think that's very soft that support.

"When people start coming out and bringing up all sorts of things that have nothing to do with it and scaring people about it, I think it will be very difficult. I think it will be a proper fight," Rory adds.

The overwhelming political support for gay marriage, he believes, may not be such a good thing.

"To be honest, in the current climate there are plenty of people who will vote against anything that the Government proposes, just to give the Government a kicking," Rory grimaces.

However, Rory doesn't just view the referendum as important within the gay community. It is, he feels, a statement from the whole of Ireland, which the entire world will hear.

"Ireland is the very first country in the world to put it to a referendum," he tells me. "I think it is important for the movement as a whole around the world. If it fails, I think that will be really terrible."


Rory is currently 'mulling over' the idea of writing another book, following the success of his debut Woman in the Making, which he describes as 'part memoir, part rant' last year. Writing it was, he admits, both a revealing and educational experience.

"In some ways my theatre shows have always been rooted in things from my life, so I am quite used to digging things up," Rory tells me with a smile.

"Obviously, though, it is more intense and I was writing more sort of personal stuff, like about by family and that sort of thing. So it is definitely quite an intense thing and it also crystallises things for you in a way that maybe you already knew but might not have ever really dwelled on."

Rory grew up in Ballinrobe Co. Mayo, as one of six siblings. His parents were always, he says 'very principled people' - a trait which their son has, no doubt, inherited.

"For me, one of the really big revelations I found in writing the book was what a huge influence my parents have had on me. Everyone knows their parents have some influence on them, but it really crystallised it for me; how much that is true," Rory adds. "As I thought about how I have dealt with various things in my life and I became very aware of how like my parents I am in some ways and the things that I got from them, that became much clearer.

"I am not easily freaked out, I don't panic - that's something I definitely got from my dad - and then I have this way of dealing with things and plodding on in the kind of very practical way that my mother does," he smiles.

Rory had to rely on these traits heavily in the mid-nineties when he was diagnosed with HIV. While now in good health, thanks to the huge advances in treatment for the illness, at the time, Rory took the news like a death sentence.

"It was obviously a massive thing in my life and it short changed my life in loads of ways," he tells me. "For years there was a lot of going to the clinic and new experimental drugs and all of that stuff and really takes over your life, but I didn't freak out and lose my head over it.

"I just got on with it, started reading about everything and going to the clinic when I had to go to the clinic and taking the drugs when I had to take them. So I was lucky that those two characteristics were something that made dealing with it simpler."

"Everyone wants me to say that it really transformed my life and from then on I lived every day as if it were my last," Rory says with a wistful giggle. "But I would be lying if I said that; for the most part if was just a very practical thing," he grins.

"You know, for years I didn't pay my taxes because I thought 'Who cares?' I honestly thought I'd be dead long before they ever came looking for me," he laughs. "So that came back to bite me in the ass and I had to sort all of that out!"


"Did it change my life in a dramatic way? No, because you still have to get up and wash the dishes, life just goes on. You have exactly the same concerns, just another big one to also contend with,"

In his memoir, Rory describes the intriguing, mutually beneficial relationship between himself and his alter ego, Panti Bliss, as one identity very much breathing life into the other.

Panti was born on a stage in Tokyo, where Rory lived for a couple of years after finishing in Art College.

"I had just finished college and it was the '80s here and it was horrible to be a young person; there was no work and it was a grey and pre-boom and I wanted to go off somewhere exciting - to one of the biggest cities in the world! Tokyo or New York, that is all I wanted, basically as far away from here as possible!" Rory explains. "My friend and I both happened to read this book about train journeys across China, so that's how we eventually ended up in Tokyo."

"I only came home then to visit, Paris was what I vaguely had in mind next, but I arrived back in 1995 and it was the beginning of the boom and Dublin was a very different place. It was an exciting and fun time to be in Dublin, so I stayed," Rory remembers.

Thankfully, Panti also made the journey home.

"It's not a very divided thing because Rory and Panti are so intertwined," he tells me. "I do think of her in the third person mostly. There are definitely things that I would do or say as Panti that I just wouldn't as Rory.

"Panti is more comfortable at it, she is designed for public appearances in a way, she is a theatrical, sort of public persona. So in general I would prefer to do everything as Panti, but there are practicalities to think of, Panti takes forever!"