Pandora Panti Bliss is the undoubted Dame of Irish drag. A household name, a reluctant revolutionary, and a self-styled “gender discombobulist.” In 2014 her Noble Call was described as “the most eloquent Irish speech” in 200 years. An impassioned defence of her comments which sparked a controversy that became known as Pantigate, it became a viral sensation overnight. It was broadcast around the world, it was debated in the Oireachtas, and even received a remix from The Pet Shop Boys.
The drag persona of County Mayo man Rory O’Neill, Panti was the face of this year’s marriage referendum campaign. Even in the face of vile accusations from the “No” campaign, Panti was hailed for her eloquence throughout. When the referendum passed with a resounding win, Panti was there to lead the celebrations at Dublin Castle.
GNI MAG catches up with Ireland’s foremost drag queen mid-tour on her latest show ‘High Heels in Low Places’. A riotous stand-up about life after Pantigate, the show has already played to rave reviews around the world.
In true Julie Andrews style, let’s start at the very beginning. Who is Panti, and where did she come from?
Panti originated in Tokyo. I had been doing drag before I went to Tokyo in my late teens. When I went to Tokyo I took the opportunity to do a different character from what I’d been doing before, which was this very arty, very art-school drag stuff. I did a double act called Candy-Panti with an American queen for five years, that’s where I started doing what we now think of as Panti.
You must have known you were gay from a young age?
I guess I realised I was gay when I was in college. I knew a little bit before that, but I wouldn’t have been able to name it when I was that age. There was no internet. There was no Graham Norton, George Michael. None of that.
So coming to the full realisation that you’re a big old gay was a longer, more difficult process then, I think. So I didn’t start telling people until I was absolutely sure, when I was about eighteen.
If I was growing up now I would have been surer earlier, but you’re in a culture now where everyone is watching Graham Norton with their granny on a Friday night. And where within two clicks you can be a thirteen-year-old boy in Ballinrobe watching Brazilian boys fucking each other, you know? It’s just a whole other world.
Young people are so much more aware these days. For me it was definitely more of a struggle to find out these things. For a long time I wasn’t even sure that gays were real. I thought they might be made up for a schoolyard joke. Nowadays, the whole world is there in front of you on your computer screen.
Did coming out as gay prepare you in any way for coming out as HIV?
It helped a little. They’re very similar, in different ways. You’re having to reveal this very personal thing to people. In the same way that there’s some sort of shaming of gay people, there’s this shaming of HIV positive people. But in some ways I found it much harder. One reason I think is that when I was telling people I was gay, especially if it was going to cause that person some upset, like my parents for instance, in some ways I felt absolved from that responsibility because being gay had nothing to do with me. I was gay but I I didn’t ask to be gay, so I had no guilt about it. There’s no culpability around being gay. Whereas with HIV there’s this level of shaming, this idea that it’s all your fault, which made it harder. Even today, it’s 2015 and living with HIV shouldn’t be a really big deal.
But what is still a big deal, and that’s very disappointing especially when we see it in the gay community, is other people’s attitudes towards it, especially that shaming element of things.
In 1995, when I was diagnosed, HIV was a death sentence. There are a lot of HIV infections now because young people feel invincible. They always have. Young people never think that HIV might affect them. But actually, my feeling is that people don’t see HIV as a chronic but manageable condition. They still view it as this huge big deal.
People are so terrified of HIV, and terrified of you if you are HIV. I can’t count the number of people I’ve started to date in some way, and then as soon as you tell them that’s it. That’s the end of it. They’re still terrified, but they don’t understand how it’s all changed. There is stuff around it, like PrEP, and there’s an awful lot of gays who are very judgmental in shaming of that.
Why do you think that is?
I see posts on Facebook all the time with these judgmental gays talking about PrEP. A lot of them are like, “Oh, we can’t be giving everybody PrEP just to let them run around acting like whores, they should be taking personal responsibility.” There is all of this shaming, and judging, around PrEP. We could get rid of all of that, and get rid of that fear of HIV, by explaining to people how hard it is to live with HIV now.
Taking all those anti-retrovirals is a pain in the ass, and you don’t want to do it, but the fear of HIV is what prevents people from looking after their health properly. It prevents people from going and getting tested because they’re terrified of the outcome. So they bury their heads in the sand. If people really understood where we are now with HIV treatment they would be less afraid of it, and they would be more willing to go get tested.
And people that do get tested are the safest people to have sex with whether they are HIV positive or not. At least they know what their status is. The problem is people who do not know what their status is, and then behave as if they’re negative when they don’t really know…
If you are the kind of person who is high risk the responsible thing to be doing is be on PrEP. My experience is that people that have been informed about the reality of HIV treatment these days are not running around acting slutty.
But the ones who don’t know about it then start behaving irresponsibly because they don’t want to think about it because they’re young or because they think HIV is an old guy’s disease that they don’t need to worry about. I think honest, full information is the best policy. And of course, as someone who has to live with the stigma of HIV, I just wish people would catch up with where we are because you still run into that stigma and prejudice.
Young people make mistakes. They do stupid things. Sex is an incredibly powerful biological drive. People make stupid choices because they’re madly in love, or because they’re drunk, but they make mistakes. To shame them for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake once is just so stupid.
Let’s talk about your new documentary, The Queen of Ireland. It hits cinemas on October 21 and will be on RTE in the Spring. It has been in the works for a while. What can you tell us about it?
They’ve been making it for five years, but when they started making it was quite a small thing. I’ve known the director for a long time and we’ve worked together for many years, so when he asked me about doing a documentary I was reluctant.
I’ve said no to lots of people who have suggested the idea over the years, but because I’ve known him, I trust him, and I owe him a lot of favors! So I said okay. But I thought I was agreeing to a small, little documentary. So for the first two and a half years he scrapped together a little money and would turn up with his camera crew. It was a slow process. I don’t know if he knew then what his project would be. But then when Pantigate happened he was thrilled. It’s what every director wants. That obviously changed the focus of things in many ways.
I haven’t seen the finished product yet. I saw a rough cut quite late in the editing process. They wanted to show me incase there was something I was absolutely appalled about. There wasn’t. But it was impossible for me to know if it was good or not because I’m too close to the subject matter.
When you’re in practically every frame, and your mother’s in it, you can’t tell if it’s any good. But they’re all convinced it’s very good, and all the other people who have seen it are excited about it. So I’ll trust them that it’s good!
There’s a lot of great and funny stuff that didn’t make the cut, but that’s the way documentaries are. Hopefully they’ll make it into the DVD extras.
We can’t wait to see your exploits. Do you think drag queens have a duty to be transgressive and break the usual drag mold in the way you have?
It’s a very individual thing to be a performer. I don’t know if drag acts have a duty to be transgressive. The wider community has a very limited view of drag. They think all drag queens are like that one they saw in Lanzarote once. Whereas we know that drag can come in many varied forms.
You can’t compare someone like David Hoyle to me, or to Trudy Scrumptious… Drag is so broad.
What I was always attracted to about drag—and it’s why I was interested in it in the first place—was its trangressive nature. Drag goes against the mainstream. It plays with ideas of gender. That’s the unifying factor of drag; it’s playing with gender, or exploring the boundaries of gender. It is inherently discombobulating.
That’s why I was drawn to it, that underground, discombobulating, transgressive nature. That’s the fun of drag. That’s also the power of it.
My drag favorites were the ones who explored that part of drag, and I love all drag—good, bad, or indifferent—I’ve never seen a drag show I didn’t enjoy.
Could you have become an accidental activist as Rory instead of Panti?
God no, absolutely not. I never set out to be an activist per se. My motivation has always been quite selfish. I just want to live my own life freely as I chose to, and occasionally I run up against these barriers that stop me doing that, so I’m forced to become some sort of activist to… activate on my own behalf. Other gays just get caught in the cross-fire!
I’m not good at meetings, and the kind of hard work that activism often requires. But I have other talents that I have used to be an activist, and all of them came from being a performer. There have been times when people have dismissed me as “a bloke in a dress” or as “just some drag queen.” There have been times when activists have been uncomfortable with me because they worry about what people will think about a man in a dress. “How can you make a serious point when you’re dressed as a clown?”
Obviously you’ve very successfully turned that to your advantage.
I have. I’ve also learned over the years that drag amplifies my voice. Drag queens get more attention than a guy standing there in a shirt. There is absolutely no way my Noble Call speech would have had such an impact if I had been dressed in a shirt and a pair of jeans. It simply wouldn’t. Not as many people would want to click on a video of a bloke just standing there. The visuals are very important.
I’m aware that people who aren’t very familiar with drag queens can take time to adjust to the idea. In that speech I took a couple of minutes at the beginning, just speaking but not really saying anything, and that’s because I was aware that the audience in the auditorium that night weren’t going to be a bunch of gays.
I knew that a lot of them would not be used to seeing a drag queen to give them a minute or two to sit there and ask their internal questions about my wig, and my boobs and whatever. Once I knew they had gotten over it and I wasn’t coming out to do a Dolly Parton number, then I told them what I really wanted to say.
So my experience is: give people a moment to get past the drag aspect, and then once they are, drag in a sense amplifies what you have to say. I’ve gotten into trouble for various speeches I’ve given over the years, and it’s always because more attention was given to what I had to say because I was in drag.
Which is obviously why being such a recognisable face of the Yes campaign really paid off. What tactics do you think same-sex marriage advocates here in the north could borrow to make marriage equality a reality here in the North?ality?
I’m not from Northern Ireland, but I don’t think we tactics we used for the marriage referendum here would work in Northern Ireland. We didn’t chose to have a referendum, and we wouldn’t have done it by referendum had we had the choice. But our government went with its legal advice, which due to the vagaries of our constitution meant we would have to have a referendum. Not every legal eagle agreed with that opinion, some felt ......
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