Rory O’Neill - the face behind Panti Bliss, the outspoken drag queen who became a joyous spearhead of Ireland’s triumphant same-sex marriage referendum - finds it kind of hilarious that everyone takes him seriously now.
“I spent 20-something years of my life trying to get people to take what I do and drag more seriously,” O’Neill chuckles over the phone from his home in Dublin, where he’s in the midst of washing a basin full of Panti’s wigs. “I would be known in the gay community here for activism stuff and all that, but generally the world saw me as an entertainer, and especially when you are a drag queen, you want to have the freedom to say what you want and whatever.
“But now, often, people see me as an activist first and an entertainer second and that can be kind of awkward… it means I have to be a bit more careful about what I say, because people take everything I say very seriously now.”
Propriety be damned; that razor sharp wit is here to stay. A revealing look at the rollercoaster of the last few years, Panti kicks off her latest Australian tour, Panti Bliss: High Heels in Low Places, at Arts Centre Melbourne during Midsumma, before heading to Brisbane’s Melt Festival, Adelaide’s Fringe Festival, Perth’s Astor Theatre and then winding up at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre for Mardi Gras Comedy Festival, including a spot on the inaugural Mardi Gras Comedy Gala.
O’Neill is a former alter boy from the small town of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, located on the opposite coast from Dublin’s thriving queer scene. He never set out to become a drag queen and ‘National Living Treasure’.
“I was the annoyingly loud gay kid, I’m sure, and I definitely used that as a sort of defence, but it wasn’t until I was in art college that I started performing, and even then it was an art project,” he reveals. “I never expected to continue on. I was just doing whatever was fun at the time and running around nightclubs dressed as a cartoon lady where people are paying you to get drunk and be the life and soul of the party, I mean, that’s fun, what 20-year-old wouldn’t want to do that?”
His parents have always been supportive. “When I started making a living in drag and that, they didn’t really think anything of it, because they didn’t really understand it. They thought I was being crazy, arty Rory, you know?" he says. "It wasn’t until many years later, when I opened Pantibar [in 2007], and suddenly my dad totally understands what a bar and what a small business is, that he was all over that. It’s a Dublin landmark.”
The explosion of Panti’s popularity worldwide was a happy accident borne of unfortunate circumstances. Always outspoken on equality for LGBTIQ people, O’Neill faced possibly ruinous legal action after calling out the perceived homophobia of prominent Irish figures on RTÉ One’s Saturday Night Show.
Known as Pantigate, the threat of defamation was quickly settled by the broadcaster’s chequebook, much to O’Neill’s annoyance. With radio and television stations suddenly reluctant to have him on, he accepted a long-postponed offer from old friends at Dublin's Abbey Theatre to have his right of reply on the final night of traditional Irish play The Risen People.
Known as the Nobel Call, an old Dublin tradition, each show was followed by a 10-minute response from a prominent public figure. Panti’s inspired takedown of the creeping effect of homophobia on the queer community raised the house. As it happens, it also went global as filmmaker Conor Horgan had, for years, been working on a documentary about the star that would, very rapidly, become The Queen of Ireland.
“I was taking it quite casually,” O’Neill swears. “I thought that only people who were there that night would see it. Obviously I was really annoyed at the time and I had plenty of things I wanted to say. I had no expectations of it. I just thought ‘I’m giving another bloody speech’.”
The speech went viral, and that propelled O’Neill, as Panti, to the front of the ultimately successful referendum debate.
“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “I mean, obviously we’d had six months of campaigning and it was, at times, very difficult and depressing, but then to not only get a yes but a very emphatic, strong yes was incredible, especially because, even though the referendum question was simply about same-sex marriage, it felt like it was more than that. It felt like a referendum on gay people.”
The vote, on May 22, 2016, was 62% in favour of allowing same-sex couples to wed, with only one tiny constituency - Roscommon South Leitrim - voting no by a very slender margin. One week later, O’Neill - in full Panti regalia - returned to Ballinrobe, as captured in The Queen of Ireland.
"The whole bloody town was out and they had little pride flags up and down the village,” he says. “They put up a marquee in the car park of the local tyre business, with the old ladies sitting on packed chairs and the old lads down the back with their bottle of beer, all to see their local drag queen come home. It was terrifying, but also wonderful.”
His advice for marriage equality campaigners in Australia? “It must be demoralising at the moment, because everything has just stalled when there was so much energy behind it, but all you can do is keep pushing.
“What we did learn in Ireland is that it really does take the whole community to do it," he says. "You can’t sort of sit back and think ‘oh well, those guys who usually do these kind of things, the activist types, they’ll do it on their own'.
"It took every single member of of the community getting behind it and getting involved and knocking on doors and handing out leaflets and all of that stuff and I think that’s the only way it’s going to happen in Australia."
“You know the tide of history is in favour of gay marriage, and it seems impossible to me to believe that Australia will be this sort of hold out. Marriage equality is coming to Australia. The question is just when. It’s unfortunate, especially for some people who really need it now, that they have to continue waiting, but I have faith in Australia.”
Panti: High Heels in Low Place is in Melbourne from Feb 2-4 for Midsumma, at Brisbane's Melt Festival on Feb 5, at Adelaide's Fringe Festival from Feb 17-19, at Perth's Astor Theatre on Feb 23, and finally, at Sydney’s Mardi Gras Comedy Festival on 1 March (Panti will also appear on the inaugural Mardi Gras Comedy Gala on 28 February).
SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.