In the past twenty years, Dublin’s gay scene has gone from strength to strength – and now there’s a new queen on the block. Michelle McCormick talks blogs, bars and boys with everyone’s favourite landlady, Panti
“When I was your age, there were no gay people in public life. There were rumours that Boy George might be gay. The only gays you ever saw were on TV, getting beaten up by police.”
There’s no denying that Panti – sweetheart of the gay scene and hostess with the mostess – has a wicked sense of humour. But there’s more to this drag queen than caustic wit and devastating good looks.
Owner of Dublin’s hottest new gay bar and author of one of the most read pop culture blogs in the country, Panti’s got her perfectly manicured fingers in many pies, and it’s working. Success didn’t come overnight. As the queen herself decreed at a talk in UCD last week, 80s Ireland wasn’t a place one could make a living doing drag. After studying graphic design for something to do (“I only went to Art college because I wanted to meet gays”), the young Panti started to carve out her niche as a club promoter and all-round good time gal.
After a brief stint in Japan where she starred in TV shows and danced on stage with Cyndi Lauper, the return to Dublin was a depressing one.
“I thought to be fabulous you had to be from New York or somewhere,” she says. “I always thought I’d have to have a regular job.”
“So I started going to straight clubs in drag and making myself the centre of attention, the most fun person there. Then I told the owners that I’d come back every night if they paid me. And they did. That’s how I started earning a living as a drag queen.”
From then until now, Panti has undoubtedly earned her crown as the queen of the gay scene in Dublin. Her Perfectly Preposterous All Day Sunday Half Price Sale (and accompanying hilarious YouTube promo) has catapulted the bar into popularity, eclipsing both the George and the Dragon as the place to be, whether you’re gay, straight or just a bit slutty. While earning a living doing what she loves is a dream come true for Panti, she also yearns for the early days of the scene.
“Young gays just want to go to Dragon and drink Bacardi Breezers – that kills me. The gay scene used to have a real make and do feel about it, but money watered it down. Because the venues are all quite big and tended to be run by corporations, they were very careful or nervous about doing stuff. Everything became bigger and the stakes became higher so people weren’t willing to take chances, and everything became very bland.”
“But that’s already beginning to change because of the recession. Even just stupid stuff, like the Dragon has go-go dancers on the bar – I don’t think that would have happened four years ago because they didn’t need to make efforts and they were afraid to take chances. They wanted it to be all the fluffy pink pound, they didn’t want it to be… too gay!”
Whether the bland nature of the scene is due to lack of ambition or simple fear is impossible to tell, but it’s definitely an improvement on the bad old days when such clubs were underground by necessity. At the height of the 80s, gay activism was rife, as was Aids, something that this gay generation has little or no experience with. The establishment of the Alternative Miss Ireland contest in 1987 was an attempt to raise funds for HIV and Aids charities, and has had massive benefits other than helping those affected by the disease.
As hostess, Panti’s role in the contest marks her continuing involvement in the fight against Aids, a cause that she’s adopted from personal experience, too. “In the 80s, people were always dying,” says Panti. “Most of my friends I met because I kept seeing them at Aids funerals. Now hardly anybody dies, so I don’t get to make new friends anymore.”
“Alternative Miss Ireland was the best thing ever to happen to the gay scene. It showed people that the scene doesn’t have to be in a basement, and it changed a lot of things. There wouldn’t be gay bars in Dublin without Alternative Miss Ireland. Of all the things I’ve done, it’s by far the thing I’m most proud of.”
Pantibar – languishing in the uncharted territory of the Northside – has gone some way to re-establishing the camaraderie and personality of the scene, says Panti. “People are generally wanting more smaller, connected spaces. I think the day of the super-pub is sort of over.” When questioned about the bar’s sudden jump to hotspot status, Panti is reluctant to crow about her own success too much. With the bar in operation for over two years now, it’s been a grower for the gays of Dublin, she says. “Like any new business, it takes a while to settle in, especially if it’s a gay venue because gays are very slow to break out of their routine. They always want to go where the most people will be.”
Having one of the most Zeitgesity blogs out there hasn’t hurt either when it comes to garnering business. For those of you caught up in the Crystal Swing hysteria currently sweeping the nation (and wondering, like most of us, where the hell it came from), you have Panti to thank. After discovering the tremendous trio on YouTube and posting to the blog, the band were shoved quite rudely into the limelight, even making an appearance on last week’s Late Late.
Having Panti as the spokesqueen for the bar has done wonders for business, because it means the company is better able to connect with people in the media they’re now most familiar with – ridiculous videos, snarky commentary and 140-character witticisms. “Having Panti as the face of the bar helps with name recognition, first of all. With things like the blog and on Facebook, it’s difficult for a company to use those technologies well, because people aren’t interested in hearing from a business – they feel like they’re only being sold to,” she says.
“People are fine with being a Facebook friend with Panti or reading the blog, because Panti is a person – a person who happens to have a bar!”
With the blog, the bar, Alternative Miss Ireland, Pride, writing and performing, Panti’s diary is very much full to bursting with… being Panti. However, the idea that making a living from drag is an impossibility is something that hasn’t dissipated with time, despite her numerous successes.
“I’ve been using the drag to make money in other ways, whether it was plays or club promotions or the bar. I think I used to until even five or ten years ago, I thought ‘surely I won’t still be in a dress when I’m 50’, but I bet you I will!”
“The reality has changed; it just became a slow recognition that actually, I don’t know how to do anything else. Like any job, sometimes it feels like a job. Sometimes the last thing I really wanna do is stick on a face full of makeup, or I’m not in the mood to be performing – but when I think about it, god, it’s such a fun way to make a living.”
Of course, with Panti being an alter-ego, having to be ‘on’ 24/7 is something that not many employees would be jealous of. But there’s more to it than just playing a character. “Drag is an art form. It can be whatever you want it to be. Drag queens incorporate the masculine and feminine into one – and in many cultures, that’s divine. The local shaman will come to you with feathers in his hair and a limp wrist. The idea that drag is gay or modern isn’t true.”
There is an element of escapism in donning a dress and putting on the slap, however. Not only does it give you licence to let your inner hilarious bitch out, but you also get an insight into the dirty laundry of others, says Panti.
“You can say anything in drag and people don’t take offence – but people will also say anything to you because you’re already the lowest rung on the ladder; you’re a cross-dressing fag in public. People never imagine that a drag queen will judge them.” Anything, according to herself, involves stories of incest and intrigue… not to mention lost innocence.
It seems like a fine life – being who you want to be, running your own bar, saying what you like to whoever you like and getting paid for the privilege. While Panti, at the end of the day, is just another entrepreneur with an admittedly very Unique Selling Point, the element of performance can’t be ignored. Doesn’t pretending to be someone else ever get old?
“I would never want to be a Rory performer,” she says. “I have no interest in that at all. I don’t feel trapped in Panti. Anyway, Panti’s much better looking than I am. With the right lighting and Photoshop…”