She can hold an audience in the palm of her hand, or round up a crowd with a click of her well-manicured fingers – so how did Rory O’Neill go from being a small-town boy in Co Mayo to becoming Panti, the grande dame of Dublin’s gay scene?
Here’s an interview I did with Rory O’Neill aka Panti as All Dolled Up Restitched takes over the Peacock Stage at the Abbey Theatre.
And if you want more, listen to Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s interview with Rory on Aoibhinn And Company on RTE Radio 1 here.
Rehearsal spaces aren’t very fabulous. Upstairs in a building on Marlborough Place in Dublin, next door to Barney’s Amusements and a glance away from the Abbey in an area busy with daytime drug dealers, All Dolled Up Restitched is undergoing a read-through, with Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon, of the company Thisispopbaby, at the helm. Rory O’Neill arrives, makes a cup of tea, brushes the crumbs of a croissant away, and sits at a table with a clutch of Abbey staff. He settles into one of the first lines of the script: “Let me start by asking you a question. What are you looking at? Or at least why are you looking at me?”
These are Pandora Panti Bliss’s words. This is not just the alter ego of O’Neill, but a constantly overlapping identity that has become something of a spaghetti junction of drag, performance, personality and brand over 20 years. There is, of course, an aesthetic distinction between Panti and Rory. Panti is a towering presence of strategically padded glamour and over the top yet impeccable make-up. She is cutting, wry, a cross between a wayward head mistress and a tipsy Hollywood legend who has seen it all. O’Neill is a little more standoffish, calm, sweet and intelligent, handsome with a hint of Platoon-era Willem Dafoe. With both, the voice is utterly distinctive, a theatrical drawl with a frequency of its own.
For more than two decades, Panti has been a woman in progress, leaving a tumultuous wave of creativity in her wake: the Alternative Miss Ireland, the influential clubs GAG, Powderbubble and HAM, a drag queen who can run with the best of them internationally, countless shows, and eventually a HQ at Pantibar on Capel Street, a gay bar that shuns the commercialism of super- pubs.
When Panti or O’Neill talks, the gay scene listens. All Dolled Up Restitched is a flip book of a story that shouldn’t seem universal yet feels utterly so: a small-town boy from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo rejects Catholicism, goes to art school, immerses himself in the burgeoning gay clubland of London, ends up in Tokyo, and then returns to Dublin to blaze another trail.
In Panti’s dressing room at Pantibar on Capel Street in Dublin, elaborate frocks line the walls and O’Neill smokes in front of lightbulb-framed mirrors. His dog, Penny, plays on the floor. O’Neill thought he would end up as an illustrator or artist while doodling as a child: “It was very gay and camp, drawing Hollywood glamour-style, what might look like fashion illustrations, cartoonised women. Looking back now I think ‘God, I was such a gay kid.’” But performing was not yet on the cards; instead he went to art college in Dún Laoghaire.
The summer before his final year of art school, O’Neill moved to London. There he met Leigh Bowery, the legendary performance artist who became a lightning rod for everyone from Alexander McQueen to David LaChapelle, his look ripped off a million times by club kids everywhere. O’Neill worked at a fish restaurant beside Drury Lane; he remembers spotting Princess Diana attending the premiere of Miss Saigon. When the restaurant was quiet, the manager, “this big flamer with long hair”, spent hours reciting old movies, “the real classic gay stuff that younger gays don’t care about anymore: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, the absolute classics.”
O’Neill hit the clubs after late-night stints in the restaurant. “I remember going into one club, Bang I think it was, and Boy George was hanging out chatting to the person at the cash desk, and he’s like ‘Oh look at you darling, you’re always coming in late.’ And I just thought ‘Oh my God. A: Boy George has recognised me as a person he’s seen before, and B: spoken to me briefly.’ I just thought it was all amazing. It was probably tacky as hell but I didn’t care.”
The combination of discovering clubs through Bowery, and spending hours with an old movie nut, led O’Neill to design a drag show as his final-year project. “The only drag queen around was Mr Pussy, and he worked off in the straight suburbs. The idea that you could make a living as a drag queen? It never crossed my mind. I just thought it was a bit of silliness on the side.” A performance at Sides nightclub in Dublin followed, but, while working in the newly opened Elephant and Castle in Temple Bar, he got itchy feet.
Obsessed with trains, he undertook an epic journey via Hungary, Russia and China before ending up in Japan. “At the time you could make money walking down the street in Japan. They had a big bubble economy, and they all wanted to learn English.” O’Neill ended up staying for five years. “My memory of it is chaotic and crazy. I was of that age, throwing myself into the club scene, doing the drag, eating loads of drugs. I was doing all of that stuff. It was chaotic but it was also really fun and brilliant … I was a mess probably, but a good one.”
Japan also gave birth to the name Panti (O’Neill was initially “Leticia”, after his pet sheep) when he formed a double act called CandiPanti with an American drag queen, Lurleen. They ended up on tour with Cyndi Lauper. “She was really good fun. My big memory was when she hurt her foot, Diana Ross (who was also performing in Tokyo at the time) came to Cyndi Lauper’s show and after we were all sitting there and the door swung open and Diana Ross just goes ‘RICE.’” O’Neill makes a dramatic hand gesture. By that, Ross meant “Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.”
In 1995, O’Neill returned to Ireland for a visit before planning to leave for Paris. The Dublin he left was now transformed and club culture was taking off. He started dressing up and going to clubs; The Kitchen, Pod: “Basically I would make a spectacle of myself, and after going a few times, I’d say ‘Right, pay me, and I’ll continue to come.’ That’s how I started making a living: going to clubs and being a nut, crawling over the bar and whatever. The funny thing is, people hadn’t really seen drag queens like that before.”
The often outrageous club nights O’Neill collaborated on, many with designer Niall Sweeney, are a far cry from today’s more sedate scene. “I sometimes look at some of the kids now, and you see them on Facebook going on about the great night they had and they think they’ve been clubbing,” O’Neill says, “and I’m like ‘That’s not a nightclub, that’s not what nightclubbing is about. You’ve been to a corporate bar.’ I think all the creativity was sucked out of everything. But, since the end of the Tiger, that stuff is beginning to creep back, I think.”
The lack of creativity is also evident in the “baby drags” who mimic polished pop stars, a far cry from the brilliant weirdness that O’Neill and co’s Alternative Miss Ireland unleashed until the final curtain fell last year. But there’s more to Panti than frocks and frivolity. The combination of being the doyenne of the scene with a searing, political edge and being ferociously entertaining crosses boundaries for LGBT people of all sorts. A blog post O’Neill wrote chastising the laziness of people for not marching for their right to marry after he returned from a poorly attended protest in February 2009 was a turning point in the marriage equality movement, mobilising countless people. O’Neill plays it down, saying he feels guilty for being compared to “real” gay-rights campaigners: “That’s all accidental, too. I’m just a bit gobby, and I have a platform of sorts to express my opinion, so I just do.”
He reserves greater insight for his opinion on “younger gays” who he feels lack the reference points and sense of history to be creative, which is feeding into a wider apathy: “There have always been people who are completely apolitical, and I’m sure if you went back 40 years ago, you’d find queens who were only interested in Judy Garland and nothing else, but it does seem to me that the younger generation are so apolitical, they just have zero interest in anything outside of their sphere. And that depresses me. It’s the same about creativity; you can’t be creative unless you’re saying something. And if you have no reference points and if you’re not interested in stuff beyond the Lady Gaga video you just watched, you can’t say anything because you’ve nothing to say. So I do find that disappointing. They’re happier I guess. Maybe that’s what happens when you get comfortable. I always hear myself and I just think ‘Oh, I’m whinging, aren’t I?’”
And now, to the Abbey, perhaps an unlikely destination for the Panti of past. “I don’t feel that I’ve been mainstreamed, I feel that the mainstream has made a little room for me, if you get the distinction I’m trying to make.” He flashes a mischievous smile. “I’m still going to be talking about butt sex.”