Team Panti: the making of a queen

Panti, Rory O’Neill’s drag queen, is the subject of a new film. Her persona and what she represents are the result of decades of collaboration

Una Mullally speaks to Director, Conor Horgan, about his documentary, The Queen of Ireland. It follows the expolits of drag queen, Panti Bliss, during the Ireland same-sex marriage referendum.

 

Rory O’Neill and Panti are both separate and inextricably linked. O’Neill’s part of their Venn diagram contains characteristics that are alien to Panti. O’Neill is reserved, slightly stand-offish, shy. Panti is pronounced, vivacious, magnetic. Then the lines blur. Panti can deliver a line about HIV being the Kylie Minogue of viruses – “first the gays got Kylie, but now everyone gets Kylie” – while riffing on O’Neill’s diagnosis. And both use the salutation “Hi, chicken.”

Panti’s part in club culture and her transition to the theatre stage and, now, film have been the result of collaborations. O’Neill is, of course, the foundation of Panti, but along the way many others have helped to build the persona of Panti and what she has come to represent. A documentary about Panti is out next week. Here are the people who helped to make the film and the woman who has become the Queen of Ireland.

Where it all began

“I actually met Rory my first night out in Tokyo, in 1992,” says Angelo Pitillo, a university administrator in the US and drag artist who lived in Tokyo at the same time as O’Neill. “We hit it off . . . We talked about the people we knew in common in NY and London, Leigh Bowery and those people.”

Friends of Pitillo’s who were promoting a club asked them to perform. “We wanted a name for our group that would also be a name for each of the characters, and that was also something Japanese people understood, you know, ‘sexy kawaii’ ,” Pitillo says, using the Japanese term for cute.

The new duo came up with CandiPanti. It was the tail end of the Japanese bubble, and things were becoming a bit austere after a time when huge amounts of money had been sloshing around Tokyo’s clubs. The foreign gay drag scene in the city was a small world, Pitillo says, and one closely connected to media , showbiz and fashion. CandiPanti ended up dancing for Cyndi Lauper on TV, being rushed by crowds in small cities and generally having a grand old time.

“Clubbing in Japan was just a hoot. It was so much fun. The Japanese kids loved drag, and we both spoke Japanese, so you could get easy laughs.”

In Atlanta Pitillo “was in the scene with RuPaul and Lady Bunny, and back then we had seen it as alternative drag. Atlanta had been a hot spot for older, more traditional showgirl drag that had come out of the 1960s and 1970s. But there was a youthful, smart drag that incorporated a bit of ironic humour and a wink while at the same time enjoying the trappings of traditional drag.

“I always say drag is first of all so much about references and appropriation and taking things from elsewhere and repurposing them. And drag is so much about the interaction between audience and performer . . . Rory had already been doing drag himself in more of a performance-art European style, and I think I exposed him to [something else]. But that’s really as far as I can see my influence. He took it and ran with it.” Still a close friend, Pitillo sees O’Neill as “very, very even. Very cool and calm. No Drama Obama.”

Let’s talk about fax

While in Tokyo, Panti had access to a fax machine, the height of technology at the time. Wondering who in Dublin would have access to one, the graphic designer Niall Sweeney came to mind, as he was at Trinity College. “Late-night faxes from Rory would arrive in the afternoon,” Sweeney says, “so we got to know each other over a fax machine. He’d send drawings and insane stories from Tokyo.”

When O’Neill returned to Dublin, in 1995, he shared a house with Sweeney and Sweeney’s boyfriend. “That’s when it really all kicked off,” Sweeney says. “We started doing clubs together because we were bored.” That clubbing collaboration left an indelible mark on Dublin club culture with Gag, Gristle, Ham, Powderbubble and more. “I’m a real egg-er-on-er,” Sweeney says. “It is something to do with an interest in puppetry.”

Sweeney incorporated Panti into his own work, and gradually the iconography of Panti grew, most significantly with Alternative Miss Ireland posters – the photographs were taken by the man who became The Queen of Ireland’s director, Conor Horgan – and the design for Pantibar, on Capel Street, which O’Neill owns with the restaurateur Jay Bourke.

“I know Panti would say a lot of the ways people remember her are by no small amount the visuals we’ve created of her. They’ll remember a poster, and they’ll blend the things together. I like the way, when people think of her, they blend the hypervisuals with some of the real thing, rather than any harsh reality.”

Nightclubbing

Tonie Walsh, the Irish queer pioneer, says Panti’s first “appearance” at a Dublin club was at Elevator, at the Ormond Multimedia Centre, on Ormond Quay, in 1993. O’Neill had shipped over a video of Panti, and it was projected on the club’s screens. “Gag” – the club night – “in 1996 was the perfect vehicle for our individual and collective madness,” Walsh says. “That accelerated a year of building up a lot of trust and also encouraging our own innate madness and twisted view. I found a kindred spirit in Rory in terms of going out and shaking up the scene.”

Panti went from “drag queen about town” to hostess to clubbing institution to pub landlady; Walsh hopes the film shows a wider audience “that in our midst we have this wonderful person who is extraordinary, erudite, well read, and is angry and trying to modulate their anger about the inadequacies of Irish society through a particular brand of humour that will hopefully grab us by the balls and shake us out of our stupor”.

For the laugh

Comedy has always been at the core of Panti’s persona. O’Neill’s friendship with the comedian Katherine Lynch prompted an infamousescapade. Eager to bag free flights to New York, they applied to take part in Maury, a daytime talk show, pretending to be brother and sister in an episode entitled Please Turn My Daughter Back into My Hunky Son.

Concocting a story about Rory as a child running after a funeral cortege dressed in his mother’s wedding dress, Panti ends the tale with his mother bringing him back to their house and saying, “It was a funeral. You should have worn black.”

Sitting in the television studio, they can barely stifle their giggles.

A life in drag

Alternative Miss Ireland, run by a large family of creative queers, became known as Gay Christmas in the gay community, raising money for HIV and Aids organisations. Noel Sutton, the manager of Dublin’s Gaze International LGBT Film Festival – and the drag queen Dizzy – says that Panti set the bar for drag in Ireland. “Panti was accessible. Here was a drag queen who was friendly, chatty, inquisitive, but also a polished piece of work. That set the tone for a lot of what came after that. You had the likes of Shirley, Veda and Panti – that is the trinity,” he says, referring to Shirley Temple Bar (aka Declan Buckley) and Veda Beaux Reves (or Enda McGrattan).

Dizzy and Panti host Sundays at Pantibar. “What I love about what’s happened to him over the last couple of years is his humbleness,” says Sutton, who adds that Panti has put endless hours into lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender fundraisers and events. “Underneath everything he’s so humble and appreciative of everything. But, you see, Rory is a grafter. He’s put his time into the community, and he always says yes, never asks about money, never asks about fees.”

To the stage

“I suppose I bring discipline and dramaturgical shape,” says the theatremaker Phillip McMahon. McMahon remembers seeing Panti at Gristle, a drag show that took place before the club night Ham, at the Pod on Harcourt Street. Then, at Shirley Temple Bar’s bingo night at the George, the gay bar on South Great George’s Street in Dublin, he saw her perform Jennifer Hudson’s And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. After that, McMahon says, he religiously went to karaoke on Tuesdays at the Front Lounge bar. At the time the club promoter Buzz O’Neill ran a Tuesday night at the Dame Street club Rogue.

“There would be me and Will St Leger, and two other f***ing people who don’t work on a Wednesday ,” McMahon says. “You could always get the vibe that [Panti] hated it, standing at the bar, drinking her gin and tonic, and talking to losers like us. Anyway, I got drunk one night and said to her, ‘Will you make a show with me?’ And she essentially said, ‘Who the f*** are you?’ ”

McMahon had one show under his belt, the award-winning Danny and Chantelle (Still Here). That first show with Panti, In These Shoes?, opened to 66 people at the New Theatre in Temple Bar in 2007. Another show, All Dolled Up, followed a few months later at Dublin Fringe Festival.

“Her voice has always been so clear, but, in terms of the confidence of performing and revealing things about yourself, I think it was the first time that the Rory/Panti line started to blur a little bit. Panti is telling real-life stories, but they’re about Rory, right?

“All of that made for a very vulnerable show, and it also made for a very electric show. It was in that show that she first talked publicly about being HIV positive. The tension in the room was the audience being dazzled and also wanting Panti to be okay, wanting to support. That was kind of a big moment, that show.”

The accidental activist

O’Neill describes himself as an accidental activist, but Panti’s role in the LGBT-rights movement cannot be overstated. Her rabble rousing and articulacy have repeatedly crystallised the urgency and importance of fighting for one’s rights. On June 29th, 2009, the LGBT Pride parade marched through Dublin a day after the government published the Civil Partnership Bill. In the gently sloping amphitheatre of Dublin City Council’s offices on Wood Quay that sunny day, Panti stepped on to the stage. “Anyone can get married in this country except you. Any soccer hooligan, any fascist, any murderer, any sex offender can get married, but you cannot.” The cheers were deafening. “Get behind the campaign. Do your bit.”

As the movement for marriage rights for LGBT people grew, so did Panti’s commentary on it. Grainne Healy, a director of the Yes Equality campaign, says, “Panti poked the LGBT community into action when he spoke about his righteous anger at the exclusion of gay people from marriage. He prodded the wider community to consider what it must feel like to have to check yourself daily as a lesbian or gay person . . . He is one of the most influential, intelligent campaigners I have ever met.

“As a long-time marriage-equality champion, he played a clever game during the Yes Equality campaign, one I hope he gets recognition for, as that chapter of history gets written by many.”

The Queen of Ireland

O’Neill had been asked to make documentaries before but trusted Conor Horgan. “Beardy bloke with a camera running around after a giant drag queen” is how Horgan describes his collaboration with Panti. Horgan says he felt indulged in many ways. “Rory said, ‘You’re not going to ask me to walk down the street in Ballinrobe wearing a dress, are you?’ And I said, ‘That’s the last thing I’d ask you to do.’ It turns out it was the last thing I asked him to do.”

Horgan says O’Neill is an “amazing collaborator”, willing to try things, willing to get things wrong. “I’ve seen him doing that with Niall. Niall will do all of the graphics to do with Panti, and Rory will have this level of trust which is kind of remarkable, because normally somebody in his position would be more interferey, and he’s just not. He knows who he likes collaborating with, and he trusts them.”

Horgan came of age during punk, running around town with bleached hair and a leather jacket. He says O’Neill and Sweeney expanded the underground with their clubs in the 1990s. Horgan got to know Panti through Sweeney, back when Sweeney installed Panti Claus on a swing in the window of Makullas, the clothes shop on Suffolk Street in Dublin. Horgan was already filming for three years when Pantigate broke.

“What every documentarymaker wants more than anything else is to have events, real, significant meaningful events, happening right in front of your lens,” Horgan says, “and that’s what we got with Pantigate, and that’s what we got with the marriage referendum, and that’s what we got with the whole rest of the film.”

It’s an extraordinary thing to have happened while a documentary was under way, and it meant the act of filming became part of the story. Horgan was at the Abbey to film Panti’s “noble call” speech, which resonated around the world. Even now he gets emotional watching the film he has made, predicting his state at the upcoming premiere as “director carried out of cinema blubbing furiously”.

He brims with pride and love for this film, and for its subject. “We live in such a small country. In many ways it seems as though there are so few people who stand up and are as f***ing fabulous as they can possibly be in this country without going somewhere else and staying there and doing it from abroad. There’s something about sticking your head above the parapet that I really admire. I wish there were more people like that. There are few people who aren’t picturesque drunks or creative writers in our history who have just been big and bold and brave the way that Panti is.”

 

Click here for the chance to win a pair of tickets to a preview screening of the The Queen of Ireland at Dublin’s IFI on Wednesday, October 21st, followed by a live satellite Q&A with Rory O’Neill, Antony Cotton, Katherine Lynch and Pauline McLynn

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