Fresh off the heels of sold out performances in Dublin and Cork, Rory O’Neill (or Panti Bliss rather) chats to Tadhg Dolan about gay rights, offensive jokes and plans for the future.
Chatting with Rory O’Neill, or Irish drag legend Panti Bliss as he is more widely known, it’s hard to know what to expect. From his performances on stage and at his own club, Panti Bar, it would be fair to envision a brass, Xena-esque warrior, with a razor sharp wit and no nonsense approach to those who impeach gay rights in Ireland. O’Neill constantly delivers on all of these qualities, but the man behind the dress and six inch heels is even more impressive.
It has been a busy year for the Mayo native who has seen his star rise dramatically following the now famous speech he delivered at the Abbey theatre in February of this year. Clocking up an impressive 600,000 views, the speech, which has been watched by everyone from Stephen Fry to Madonna, became a viral hit and was lauded the world over.
“The effects of it have definitely lingered,” says O’Neill. “It opened up a lot of doors for me and allowed me to do things that I’ve always wanted to do.” The speech was made following an interview O’Neill gave on the RTÉ talk show The Saturday Night Show with host Brendan O’Connor. After defamation claims were made by those mentioned in the interview, RTÉ elected to pay €85,000 in compensation, to be distributed between John Waters and Breda O’Brien of the Irish Times, and David Quinn and other members of the Iona Institute.
O’Neill became the subject of international debate garnering headlines on powerhouse news outlets like the BBC and Channel 4 News, and sparked a new conversation in Ireland on homophobia. “What the speech did was it made everyone take me seriously,” says O’Neill, who speaks of the implications of becoming the poster boy for gay rights in Ireland. “In some ways too seriously sometimes because now people want me to be fucking inspiring!”
Speaking of his newly found public image O’Neill is conscious that he is now under greater scrutiny when it comes to performing. “I have to make a very conscious decision to still be the same performer,” he says. “I have to find the middle ground. People hear what I say differently now.” Talking about his recent appearances in Dublin and Cork, with his show High Heels in Low Places O’Neill remembers a few stand out moments that let him know things had definitely changed. “I really upset the bisexual network of Ireland,” he says, speaking of a recent appearance in Cork where a joke about bisexual men and women failed to impress. “The reason they were upset was because Panti said it,” says the performer. “Because Panti said it, they were hurt.”
It is a line that O’Neill must learn to tread as he has now become a leading figure for LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland. It has been a year that has seen dramatic social advances for the gay community, most notably the decision by the Irish government to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015, a move welcomed by O’Neill. “I feel positive about it. I am hopeful it will pass. If I had to go in to a betting shop right now and bet, I would bet that it will pass.”
Despite this O’Neill is aware that there is still a long way to go. “I’m not naïve about it. I know that the history of all referendums in this country, but especially on social issues, shows that once the campaigns get going it doesn’t matter what the polls say, they’ll become closer and closer as you get close to the date. In the past referendums have been lost that seem sure.”
Asking whether he has plans to get involved in pushing the yes vote O’Neill seems confidently determined. “Once we get a date for the actual referendum and the campaign really starts, yes, I will be getting involved.” He stresses the importance of getting the younger voters out to the polling stations. “One of the major parts of the campaign will be to get people registered and to make sure they actually do vote and that’s going to have to be focused especially on the young, because the young are the ones who are more likely to vote in favour.”
As well as taking on the fight for marriage equality, O’Neill is set to have another hectic year with the release of his upcoming documentary ‘The Queen of Ireland’, directed by Conor Horgan, which is out later this year, and the publication of his first memoir Rory O’Neill: Woman in the Making. Speaking of the memoir O’Neill says, “It’s about me but it’s also about how Ireland has changed around me as I have gotten older, and there’s lots of ranting in it!”
When asked about the documentary, O’Neill seems to be as much in the dark as the rest of us. “In a sense I know almost as little as anyone else,” he says. “It was actually Conor who filmed the speech because he thought it would be good for his documentary!” The project, which has been the accumulation of five years of filming, had a ten minute preview at this year’s GAZE International Film Festival to rave reviews.
It seems there is no end to the diversity of talents that O’Neill has garnered over four decades as a performer. Writer, artist, comic, gay rights activist, actor, and all around bona fide star, he will certainly be grabbing headlines for the foreseeable future. Yet, when asked about what is to come, it seems that despite his elevated fame, he will always be a performer at heart. “No matter what I’m doing or where I’m traveling with Panti, I always try to arrange that I’m back in Dublin on a Saturday night!”
‘Rory O’Neill: Woman in the Making’ is due for release this October.