“My theatre shows are essentially monologues – comedy with a bit more of a serious message wrapped up in them,” Rory O’Neill explains. “The show is just stupid fun. But I hope when you leave it’s given you something to think about.”
If the name doesn’t ring a bell yet, you might know him better as the man behind celebrated Irish drag queen Panti Bliss. And Panti’s latest theatre show High Heels in Low Places explores, among other things, the unexpected and tumultuous events of recent times that thrust her onto a political platform – and the world stage.
“I got into drag in my early twenties and it was fun, it was transgressive, playing with gender and an alternative to the mainstream in many ways. It still has those things I enjoy about it,” he says. “And the weird thing for me now is I’m an establishment figure – they give me honorary degrees, I open science fairs, and I’m taken so seriously in Ireland now it’s totally bizarre.”
What became known as ‘Pantigate’ began early last year when Rory, out of drag, gave an interview on Irish television accusing two journalists and a religious lobby group of holding anti-gay views. In short, this led to the channel voluntarily paying damages, removing all trace of the interview from the internet, and apologising on air, amid accusations of censorship and stifling free speech. Before long, the handling of the situation was being debated in the Dáil, and support from the public and figures including Stephen Fry and Graham Norton flooded in.
Already at that point an “accidental activist”, Panti went viral after giving an eloquent and heartfelt Noble Call speech about oppression and homophobia at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin at the end of the final performance of James Plunkett’s The Risen People (see below). By then, Madonna and RuPaul were lending Panti their support and the issue of homophobia was being debated in the European parliament.
By the spring, Panti had turned her attention to spearheading the yes campaign in Ireland’s gay marriage referendum, which the public memorably voted in favour of, this May.
It was an equality issue, Rory says. “Drag queens and gender variants have always been at the forefront of LGBT causes, because they are very visible. If a drag queen is walking down the street, everyone notices.”
Rory started doing drag in the 80s, and created Panti while working in Japan with a queen from Atlanta, Georgia. A mix of that bold American chutzpah and – his biggest influence – Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie took his style from “crazy art school stuff” to a more polished, yet amplified femininity.
For Rory, it is not about hiding behind Panti on stage or needing to adopt an alter-ego to perform. Simply put: “Drag queens are more visually interesting than a guy in a shirt!”
“I don’t think of her being another version of me, she’s not a character,” he explains. “The drag that comes out of the gay scene is different to that of drag characters like Dame Edna, Mrs Brown or to an extent Lily Savage – nightclub queens live in the real world, hang out with the punters in the bar – you can’t be a fake character, created for a fake world, and the gays understand that.
“I’m 47 now and obviously Panti has become a more mature ‘woman’ in the same way I’ve matured. Like now, she wouldn’t be caught in a mini skirt…”
It takes two hours and a “special effects make up job” to get ready as Panti, a transition that Rory finds liberating.
“When a guy dresses up in drag it brings so many things to the table. It frees a man,” he says. “The fact that it is somehow seen as demeaning to want to look like a woman, as the ‘weaker sex’ – is , conversely, what gives drag it’s power.”
Now, even the mainstream press describes Panti as “one of Ireland’s most powerful and glamorous women”, and she is generally regarded as a national treasure. Who knows where it may take her next?
“When I started doing drag I’d never even seen a proper drag show, I just blindly worked out my own thing. I never set out for it to be a career, I did it for fun. And I’m still trying to work it out as I go along.”
Catch Panti Bliss’s High Heels in Low Places – her first ever performance in Liverpool – on Saturday night (November 21) at the Epstein.