'Gay Christmas' is cancelled. So long, Alternative Miss Ireland

Sat, Oct 15, 2011, 01:00

The 2012 Alternative Miss Ireland will be the last of these ‘hectic, hilarious, fun’ beauty pageants. Why?

‘DEAR DOLLY PARTON, in your infinite wisdom and really great wigs, help us to choose wisely, and may the best queen win.”

That’s the introductory oath that kick-starts Alternative Miss Ireland, and has been repeated loudly and proudly throughout the event’s history. But this week, along with the call for entries for the 2012 pageant, the organisers of what is known in the Irish gay community as “Gay Christmas” announced that next year’s would be the last Alternative Miss Ireland. The news was greeted with surprise and sadness, and many wondered what the contest’s “family”, a large, talented production team, would do next.

The remit of Alternative Miss Ireland is “expanding definitions of beauty through spectacle and gender augmentation”. It is a hilarious, controversial, fun and hectic beauty pageant to find the next queen to reign over the scene until forced to return her Medusa Crown of Shamrocks the following year. (The second prize is the Golden Briquette; the third is the Silver Shillelagh.) Anything goes, and entrants blur gender, popular culture, performance art, comedy, campaigning, politics, offensiveness and endearment in equal measure.

The event began in 1987 in Sides nightclub, on Dame Street, Dublin, as a fundraiser for the Rape Crisis Centre. It was judged by Linda Martin and Mr Pussy, with Niall Sweeney, the acclaimed Irish graphic designer now based in London but still a driving force behind the pageant, designing the posters. But it wasn’t until 1996, when it was reborn as the first public event in the newly opened Temple Bar Music Centre, that it began to develop into today’s form. It subsequently moved to the Red Box in the Pod complex, and finally to its current home in the Olympia Theatre, where it sells out every year on the Sunday closest to St Patrick’s Day.

The contest ignited the careers of Shirley Temple Bar and Katherine Lynch and has featured judges as diverse as Twink, David Norris, Marc Almond, Nell McCafferty, Ivana Bacik and Brendan Courtney. As a fundraising vehicle for HIV and Aids charities, it has raised more than €335,000.

The current reigning queen is Mangina Jones, otherwise known as Cian O’Brien, who has just been appointed creative director of Project Arts Centre. “I think it’s really sad that it’s ending up, but I understand why,” says O’Brien, whose victory this year was sealed by a thrilling performance of River Deep, Mountain High. “It’s such a huge undertaking every year, and entirely voluntary, so it must be very hard to gain that energy year after year. I think it will be a big loss to the calendar. I hope something comes to replace it.”

Phillip McMahon, part of the Alternative Miss Ireland family, says the reasons for calling it a day are simple: people have less time to pull everything together, and the time is right to go out at the top. He adds that speculation about the lifespan of the event has “been for many years in the ether”, going back to the 1990s.

“How many times can you do a crazy drag explosion?” McMahon says. “As we approached 18 it just seemed perfect. The contest is a debutante; send her out into the world.”

When the event rolls around next March, McMahon will be immersed in Alice in Funderland,the new musical he has written, which will be staged at the Abbey Theatre. “If you were to draw a grid of creative things, Alternative Miss Ireland features prominently in the centre,” McMahon says of its legacy. “It has inspired the queers to go out and do other things, and in the wider cultural context of the city it’s firmly established as an incredible night out that has, in a weird way, become something for everyone.”

But times have also changed, and there is a sense, especially among a younger generation of gay people, that the underground is now the overground. In Pantibar on Capel Street on Thursday nights, Panti, the presenter of Alternative Miss Ireland, aka Rory O’Neill, is presiding over the bar’s popular craft night, Make and Do Do.

“I guess it could go on forever if we were prepared to give our baby over for adoption, but in some ways that would be really hard,” Panti says. “Some of the people involved in the beginning have already moved on, moved abroad. When we started they were underemployed, or waiters or whatever, and now they’re running big institutions.

“I’m really proud of it; what it’s done, the money it’s raised, the careers it’s launched, and how nutty and wild and future-forward it has been. And it has been incredibly good fun, so of course I’ll be a little sad.” The queen is dead; long live whatever rises in her place.


To enter the 2012 Alternative Miss Ireland, see alternativemissireland.com

To view an online slideshow of Alternative Miss Ireland, see irishtimes.com/slideshows