Emma Dwan O’Reilly interviewed Rory O’Neill, the man behind queer folk hero, Dublin institution, global phenomenon and Irish national treasure, Panti Bliss ahead of the screening of the film ‘Queen of Ireland’ by the UN at the British Museum to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
So firstly, how did ‘The Queen of Ireland’ film come about?
Over the years a lot of people have asked me about documenting stuff, I think a drag Queen is a sort of an obvious subject maybe, a few students and various people have. I was always very reticent because the idea of people following you around with cameras, there’s something weird about that and also one of the great joys about being a drag queen is you have this very public face and you have this other private face. But then the director Conor Horgan, he had just finished making his first feature film which was a post apocalyptic drama and he and his producer were talking about what they might want to do next and the idea of them doing a documentary came up and his producer said “well, you know Panti don’t you and that might be an interesting character”, and he does and he had, he was a fashion photographer first before he went into film and for eighteen years he took all of the publicity photographs for an annual HIV charity event that we ran called the Alternative Miss Ireland. So he had photographed me like eighteen, twenty times or something and I felt like I owed him because he always did that for free. So I was very comfortable with him. So, I was reticent but I felt like I owed him and I thought, so eventually I agreed because it was him and I knew him and all that but also in retrospect I didn’t know what I was getting in to because at the time, that was about seven or eight years ago, Conor said he was just going to make a small character documentary I think, so did I. So, obviously, he’s been filming for a few years when the whole Pantigate nonsense happened and he was fucking thrilled. The further I got into trouble the more thrilled he was. And then of course when all that happened and everything suddenly his small film that he was making, suddenly people were giving him money to make, to do something else, Universal and all sorts and suddenly it became a much bigger project. So, yeah, that’s how it came about.
What's the reaction to the film been like?
It’s really amazing really, because the film actually came out, so in Ireland it had a full theatrical release and in a few other countries it got art house releases and that, and in Australia it got a fairly big release - at that time it was very well received, broke box office records for a documentary in Ireland and people tended to like it and that’s all great but I thought that would be the end of it then but this is now what three or four years since the movie came out and it still keeps going. People could bloody well just watch it online anytime they want but we still end up going to things. The UN are using it this year to celebrate 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Irish Government shows it in lot of places, Irish aid and their rights based work in different places around the world. I get to show it and talk to young gay groups in places where it’s really horrible and difficult to be queer like Sarajevo or South Africa or something. I think if you are a seventeen year old lesbian in Sarajevo, that’s grim, that’s really horrible and maybe you think it will never change because it doesn’t seem like it ever could change and then the big shiny drag queen from Ireland comes along and shows you the movie and shows you that actually when I was your age Ireland was pretty similar really and now look at us. So I think our story is kind of inspiring. The movie ostensibly is about Panti but it’s not really it’s about Ireland and it tells the story of Ireland’s journey, accepting its gay citizens and I think that story can be really inspiring and a great thing if you are a seventeen year old lesbian in Sarajevo who thinks it will never change. It’s a ray of light. So, yeah it’s been a really great experience and it’s amazing to me that it still keeps going.
How does it feel to be an icon, a role model, a voice, to have a seat at the table and a place in contemporary Irish history?
Oooo.. well, there’s two things there, the first one is to have a voice. It feels weird because I’m a drag queen and I got into drag because it was underground and transgressive and discombobulating and punk and two fingers to everything and so suddenly now be mainstream or establishment, because you know in Ireland now Panti is very establishment, she’s opening science fairs, getting honorary Doctorates and people call up to ask her opinion about political events or whatever, it is all so bizarre and so I do struggle with that because I’m just not quite sure sometimes can I still be a discombobulating, transgressive performer and also be on the cover of TV Now, you know what I mean, it’s just a weird thing. And also I think it’s a responsibility, half the reason I get into trouble because I have always been aware that drag queens have a special place in the gay community and we have microphones in our hands often and that’s a responsibility for sure. But then the other good thing about it is, I kind of mentioned it earlier, there’s a public persona and a private one and Panti is designed to be a public persona literally and part of the reason why Irish people classed her as a sort of symbol, is she basically is just a symbol. She already is an avatar in a way. And so that gives you good distance from it too. So I think all these things happen to Panti and that’s healthy, to have a healthy distance from it is good and I just accidentally have it that way.
You have spoken about Panti being the transformative alter ego that allows you to push the parametres of identity – can you talk a little bit about who Panti is and how Panti and drag have helped you to make ‘Irishness’ a little bit more elastic?
Sometimes people often describe me as a ‘gay rights activist’ and I always say that’s not quite right, in a weird way what my project has always been was about making the definition of Irishness more elastic. When I was a kid I always felt excluded from Irishness, I used to feel like a Protestant, you know the way there as that thing, West Brits we would call them, we were suspicious of them because they had a funny accent and all that stuff and there was this feeling well they are not properly Irish and I used to feel that same way because I was queer. To be an Irish boy you had to like U2 and you had to like GAA and all that stuff and I didn’t like U2 and I didn’t like GAA and I felt like a tourist all the time and so that used to really annoy me. Things like the Alternative Miss Ireland, for example, obviously was a fundraiser for HIV and AIDS charities and all that stuff but there was also a very conscious point about it that was we were trying to say that you can be queer and rub glitter on your arse and run around with a cockatoo coming out your backside, whatever it was, these kinds of things would happen at that thing, and you could still be 100% totally Irish, that there was a million ways to be Irish. You could be anything you wanted and just were Irish and I don’t think that that was recognised much before. So, the whole way along that was my thing and I think in lots of ways, things like the last two referendums for example, the definition of Irish did become more elastic and now it’s a definition that is elastic enough to stretch around people like me or women who have had abortions. Irishness is a much broader church now than it used to be and that was what was my interest all along.
Panti and yourself have been a powerful and inspiring force for change in Ireland. Can you talk about being an ‘accidental activist’ and changemaker?
The ‘accidental activist’ thing is just because I didn’t join Amnesty, I’m not Colm O’Gorman, I didn’t set out to do all that stuff so I feel a bit guilty when people call me an activist because I feel that that word is not, it’s for other people who gave their lives, whereas I’m just doing my thing and every now and then my thing gets me into trouble and then to get out of the trouble I have to activate, if I can say that. Then it ends up that I’m activating on behalf of anybody who is like me and that of course is the queers. I feel like my motivations are selfish generally, I’m just trying to live my life the way I want to and when things get in the way of that it annoys me, so that’s why I say ‘accidental activist’ because I don’t feel that I deserve to be called the same thing as these people who dedicate their lives, Peter Tatchell or something, you know what I mean? I didn’t do that, I’m just doing these stupid shows and having fun, obviously I’m aware that I have an opportunity to say things and be heard and all that and I use that. It bothers me when people say activist before entertainer, because I’m like, no, that’s not how it was. The whole changemaker thing, it’s not that I did it, it’s that whole avatar thing. People credit me with much more than I deserve, just cause I’m the pretty one I think!