Conversation drags as Ní Shuilleabháin holds back
RTÉ’s new host is a welcome female voice, but could learn from Miriam O’Callaghan’s empathetic style
Miriam O’Callaghan’s theatrical but palpable empathy is something new Sunday morning radio show host Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin could learn from. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Given the phalanx of male broadcasters that dominates RTÉ’s radio schedule, the first Aoibhinn and Company (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) came as a refreshing change, featuring a brashly feminine persona, hell-bent on blowing away gender stereotypes. The only problem was it was not the presenter, Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin, but rather her guest, Panti, Ireland’s best-known drag queen.
In truth, Ní Shuilleabháin was interviewing Rory O’Neill, Panti’s alter ego, but even in this guise his presence eclipsed that of his genially inoffensive host. A scientist, a singer and a former Rose of Tralee as well as a broadcaster, Ní Shuilleabháin on paper appears the kind of strong female figure capable of filling the key Sunday morning slot currently vacated by Miriam O’Callaghan. On air, however, she struggled to stamp her personality on proceedings.
Given the focus of her programme is the interviewee, this was not necessarily a bad thing. Apart from remarking that she shared the Mayo birthplace of her guest, Ní Shuilleabháin allowed O’Neill the space to tell his story. “Is Panti braver than Rory?” was the closest thing to a probing query.
It helped that O’Neill was an upbeat chap with an interesting tale. A “disconnected” teenager, he came to terms with his sexuality after “a slow-burning realisation that I was different”: in the rural west of Ireland in the early 1980s, he had felt like “the only gay in the world”. He also spoke about his initial shock at learning he was HIV-positive in the mid-1990s, though the news did not bring on the dark funk so beloved of confessionally inclined interviewers. “I amazed even myself,” O’Neill said. “I didn’t super freak out about it.”
Ní Shuilleabháin gamely attempted to bring more shade to proceedings, suggesting she “would have crumbled in that situation”. O’Neill, however, was not swayed from his natural optimism, which he attributed to his laidback father and secure family upbringing. There were more glaring gaps, such as divining what drew him to dressing in drag in the first place.
Being Panti, he said, is like wearing a mask that exaggerates the more outrageous aspects of his personality while inviting others to spill their secrets. “People relate to drag queens in an open way,” he said, “perhaps because they think you’re not going to be shocked or judgmental.”
Ní Shuilleabháin came across as similarly unflappable, but may yet need to reveal her more personal side if she is to get less forthcoming guests to open up on the show.
Neither host nor guest held back on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), as the presenter, George Lee, conducted a forthright conversation with anti-austerity author Mark Blyth. A politics professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, Blyth’s Scottish accent emphasised the fact he was not from privileged Ivy League stock, as did his bracing broadside against hairshirt policies.