All Dolled Up

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By Christopher Talbot (@CDTalbot)

All hail the Queen of Ireland.  Panti Bliss click-clacks across the stage in a pair of sky-high red diamante stilettos; they catch the light, bouncing it around the room. The eyes are then drawn to her bubble-like posterior, impossibly cinched waist and Dolly Parton-esque chest; all encased in a figure hugging, fire-engine-red dress. A few blonde curls frame her over the top but impeccably painted face. It’s not until she opens her mouth to speak that you realise she has something extra tucked away.

 

She begins by peering into the crowd at the Melbourne Festival’s makeshift venue, the Foxtel Festival Hub. She takes a few wobbly steps down from the stage and wanders the aisles, chatting to the crowd in her slightly posh Irish twang. She is statuesque, confident and beaming with Irish charm.

 

She begins her show, All Dolled Up, by asking a question.

 

“What are you looking at? Or at least why are you looking at me?”

 

This is not a drag show in the traditional sense; it looks behind the makeup and reveals what has made Panti the “self-made, man-made woman she is today”. She leads you through her sparkling life, deconstructing the joys and perils of gender illusion.

 

She calls the show a conversation, “albeit a rather one-sided conversation,” she admits with a smirk.

 

In St Kilda two weeks earlier, with the roar of Luna Park’s Scenic Railway in the background, Rory O’Neill lights a cigarette and strokes his stubble. He raises his hand to his brow like a salute, shielding the sun.  He’s weathered but handsome with short brown hair, sparkling blue eyes and an infectious grin. It’s hard to believe that this calm, somewhat subdued man is Panti Bliss.

 

After a few puffs his nervousness eases and he launches, somewhat reluctantly, into conversation.

 

“Gosh, who is Panti Bliss? Where do I start,” he says in his theatrical Irish drawl.

 

Once O’Neill opens his mouth it’s clear that he and Panti are one in the same, a tangle of two characters, each borrowing from the other.

 

“The difference is when I’m in drag I have to be constantly on, but in reality I’m perfectly happy to sit in the corner and chat quietly.

 

“I know it’s hard to believe but I don’t always need to be the centre of attention,” he laughs.

 

Panti has been O’Neill’s “other-half” for almost twenty years and together they have been instrumental in forging a thriving Dublin drag scene. They’ve done theatre shows with sell out runs, worked in nearly every gay bar and club in Ireland, hosted Dublin Pride and now own their own bar on the north side of Dublin, Pantibar.

 

O’Neill grew up in the tiny Irish village of Ballinrobe in County Mayo; or as he calls it “the back end of nowhere”. It was a typical sheltered Irish Catholic upbringing and about as far as you can get from sparkle of a drag dressing room.

 

He spent most of his days knocking about in the paddocks with his two pet sheep Letitcia and Dusty Springfield and filling endless notebooks with sketches of glamourous Hollywood women.

 

“I had no idea was what drag was or even what gayness was. But it was obvious I was a very gay kid.

 

“ I was growing up in the seventies in this tiny town and if you wanted to find another gay person you would have to get Angela Lansbury onto it,” he laughs.

 

O’Neill’s first introduction to his sexuality was from an anthropology book called The Naked Ape. He would read the dry, academic subsection on homosexuality under the covers with a flashlight.

 

“ I was like, oh my god, that’s what I am. It was totally thrilling to me.

 

“A little different to a 14 year old these days whose introduction to homosexuality may very well be an internet video about fisting or god knows what,” he laughs.

 

His obsession with illustration saw him enroll in Art College in Dún Laoghaire with aspirations to become a graphic designer. But the summer before his final year everything changed.

 

He spent the summer working in London and through his older brother became friends with Leigh Bowery; an Australian performance artist known for his insane costumes and artsy club performances. Bowery took O’Neill under this wing and on a wild ride across London.

 

“I was 19 and running around London and every door was opened to me and I had the absolute time of my life.

 

“Leigh sparked my interest in all that club craziness and art performance. I know I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t met Leigh Bowery,” O’Neill said.

 

Then in his final year at college, his drag character Letitia (named after his pet sheep), was born. For his major project, when most people were designing “cereal boxes”, O’Neill decided to create a drag show. He made the tickets, sets, posters and costumes and performed it at the final year exhibition.

 

“In the audience there was a guy who managed a gay nightclub who asked me to come a do my silly show there for a bit of money.

 

“And the rest, as they say, is history”, he laughs.

 

He stayed in grey recession-ridden Dublin for a year after college before deciding it was time to see the world. He had read a book about train journeys and decided to embark on an epic trip across Russia, Hungary and China.

 

“I got as far as Japan and had no more money left so I thought I would work and save up some cash to continue the journey,” he said.

 

In his first few days in Tokyo he met Lurleen, an American drag queen that sucked him into the vibrant Japanese club scene and back into the world of drag. The Japanese “saw [them] like celebrities”, and they performed in quirky clubs across the city, even accompanying Cyndi Lauper on her Japanese tour as back-up dancers.

 

“But the Japanese had terrible trouble pronouncing L’s and R’s so we had to ditch Lurleen and Letitia. We came up with the cutesy name CandiPanti for our double act, and the Japanese just named her Candi and me Panti.

 

“I don’t particularly like being Panti but it stuck, so I just embraced it,” he said.

 

CandiPanti took the Tokyo club scene by storm for the next five years, washing around Tokyo in a drug-fuelled haze.

 

“I was a mess, but a good mess. It was the most fun I have ever had but it was total and utter chaos all the time.

 

“It was like Disneyland every day of the week,” he said.

Then in 1995 Lurleen returned to the States and O’Neill decided it was time for a quick trip back to Ireland.

 

“I only planned a temporary trip back. But the Dublin I left behind had been transformed and there was a real club culture taking off.

 

“So instead of going to Paris, like I intended, I stayed and did some of the craziness for the Dubliners and they loved it,” he laughs.

 

In All Dolled Up, he tells of the kinky fetish clubs in the 90s where he would lip-synch while his assistant pulled the lyrics from his derriere. It was crazy and arty and he was willing to try almost anything.

 

His current persona is polished, and perhaps a little more mature than some of his previous incarnations.

 

“I’m too old for anything that outrageous anymore. But at least I’ve still got the stories to shock the young gays that come into my bar.

 

“They think they know what crazy clubbing is? They have no idea,” he laughs.

 

O’Neill is a true performer, carrying forward a tradition of Irish storytelling. He has constructed a show devoid of fakery and prissy drama. He holds the audience in the palm of his hand with honesty, wit and irresistible charm. It’s simply a beautifully written story studded with the human insights of a true 90s club kid.

 

“Telling stories in pubs is a very Irish thing and I think that’s what sets the Irish queens apart from the rest of the world. We do a lot more talking and a lot less dancing.”

 

All Dolled Up is set in front of a photo screen that takes you on a visual trip through a life of adventure; it’s like watching the holiday slides of a crazy aunty.

 

She even weaves in the serious topic of her HIV status. At first the audience aren’t sure whether to laugh, but when you see her confidence and strength you can’t help but laugh along with her stories.

 

“When I was first diagnosed I’d be walking down the street and I would get so angry. I’d see a person selling flowers and I’d think, how can you be selling flowers when I’m dying?”

 

“How can you be enjoying yourself when I am dying?”

 

But O’Neill hasn’t let the HIV define him and approaches it with humour and incredible insight; quashing the ignorant people that have chosen to reject him.

 

At the end of All Dolled Up, the spotlight zooms in on Panti’s face and she delivers a lip synch of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” that has mouths gaping in awe. Should the situation ever arise, this lip-synch could truly save her life. Long live the Queen of Ireland. Five Stars.

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