Rory O'Neill/Panti: The drag doyenne who’s the queen of the scene
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
Pandora Panti Bliss
Pandora Panti Bliss
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.”