JOE meets Panti to talk about live shows and THAT speech from the Abbey
JOE's Eric Lalor met up with drag queen performer Panti ahead of her Vicar Street show on June 13th.
Rory O'Neill, also known by his stage name of Panti, is a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, County Mayo. On the 11th of January 2014, O'Neill appeared on RTÉ's The Saturday Night Show with Brendan O'Connor where they discussed homophobia and O'Neill alleged that some figures in Irish journalism were homophobic.
Those mentioned threatened RTÉ and O'Neill with legal action. RTÉ subsequently removed that section of the interview from their online archive. On the 25th of January episode of the Saturday Night Show, O'Connor issued a public apology on behalf of RTÉ to those mentioned by O'Neill in the interview. RTÉ paid out to those accused.
This lit the touchpaper and Panti delivered a speech from the Abbey Theatre stage to a packed house about the RTE controversy. The speech was filmed and posted online where it rapidly went viral and support came in from all over the world.
JOE - Great to meet you Panti. You've come to the attention of the nation and indeed the world following the famous 'incident' with RTE and the subsequent controversy. You gave that amazing speech from the stage of the Abbey Theatre (see below) which was recorded and then retweeted by some of the biggest names in the world of celebrity. How do you think your life has changed, if at all, over the past couple of months?
Panti - Well it's changed in a few ways I guess. There are the obvious things. Last week I was in Canada for ten days on a lecture tour and a few weeks before that I was in New York for the St Patrick's Day parade and hanging out with the mayor.
JOE - And this is all on the back of what happened?
Panti - Totally, because amazingly the whole story has resonance around the world which was a bit unexpected. On a professional level, for example, these Vicar Street and Cork Opera House shows were planned already, but I suppose there is a lot more interest in them now. I've been going to Australia each year for the last few years to tour for a month or so, but now the venues in Australia have gotten bigger and now we are doing an American tour as well. The American tour was not planned so it's unexpected bonus.
JOE - So maybe a residency in Las Vegas like Celine Dion is on the cards?
Panti - Hahahaha, yeah! So, yeah, there has been a change in my professional life. What I've noticed, though, is that for the last 25 years as a performer, the thing I've always had to fight against was other people's limited ideas of what a drag queen is. A lot of people would maybe have seen a drag show on holidays in Lanzarote or whatever and for ever after, they think that's what a drag show is.
All of my working life, I've had to fight against that. Even when I am doing the theatre shows, it's almost like persuading people, it's always a hard sell. That started to change a bit as soon as the show went to the Abbey, but there was still a hint of it. The speech, the YouTube speech, changed the way people see me and now I don't really have to explain. People are taking me a bit more seriously now.
JOE - Okay Panti, you said that you're always fighting people's perceptions of what a drag queen is. How would you define a drag queen?
Panti - You see the problem is that it's very hard to define, apart from the obvious that it's someone playing with gender performance. You're a comedian so you would understand that there are as many different types of comedian as there are people. You have Maeve Higgins, Richard Pryor (pic below) and Brendan O'Carroll; all very different, but everyone understands that. They don't understand that about drag queens because they can't quite see past the drag. They're not very comfortable with it. Most people think ALL drag queens are the same as the drag queens they saw on holiday in Lanzarote.
They see the drag as everything which a lot of the younger drag queens think too. They think it's all about getting a good frock and your make-up sorted, but of course, that's the least important part. What drag queens have in common is that they are playing with performance gender, but beyond that they are all so different. There are stand-up comedy queens, musical queens, rock queens, story-telling queens, stupid queens and physical comedy queens.
As I said it's the same as all the different styles of comedians, it just has this other element to it. Once you are familiar with it, like the gay community are, it gets better. The gay community don't see the drag any more, they see beyond it. They interact very easily with drag queens. Look at the speech from the Abbey. I knew when making that speech that most of the audience there that night would not be the kind of audience that are regularly at drag shows. So I knew walking out there that night that they would be blinded by the drag and it would take a while for them to get past that stage, which is why I had a preamble, a kind of casual chat at the beginning.
JOE - So when you won their attention, you launched into the speech?
Panti - Yes and when I first mentioned being at a pedestrian crossing and receiving the abuse from a passing car and I'm wondering why I am being attacked that way, there is a weird laugh from the audience. It was fairly inappropriate, because in their head they are seeing a giant drag queen standing at the pedestrian crossing so they thought it was funny when I said 'What was it about me that they noticed to give me the abuse?'
Whereas a gay audience would never have made that mistake because they would immediately recognise that this was a daytime story from a drag performer. Gay audiences have no problem blending the performer with the performance in a sense but the 'straight' audiences just see the big drag queen. So it took them a while to get past that stage and just hear what I was saying. That's always been a problem for me, but it is getting easier now.
JOE - Sure Fintan O'Toole described it as the most eloquent Irish speech of the last 200 years, which is lofty praise indeed considering...
Panti -Yes, lofty and probably a little hyperbolic, but whatever, it was nice of him to say that.
JOE - You must have been amazed with the reaction to the speech, people like Madonna, RuPaul (pic below) and all these huge celebrities getting in touch and tweeting about it? I mean, you couldn't have anticipated a reaction like that.
Panti - Of course not. I thought that I would deliver the speech to the 500 or so people in the theatre that night and maybe a couple of hundred more who were interested in this story would see the video. So the idea of that many people around the world would watch it because it's a 10-minute video questioning homophobia, it's not a 20 second clip of...
JOE - Cute cats?
Panti - Exactly! I could never have envisaged that so it really amazed me.
JOE - Have you had any personal contact with these big celebrities such as Stephen Fry, RuPaul, Madonna etc..?
Panti - Some of them have contacted me yeah.
JOE - So what was that like? Was it a case of 'who's this ringing me? Oh feck it's Madonna, oh my God!'? Were you overawed at all, although we find it difficult imagining you being overawed by anything?
Panti - I wouldn't say overawed, but weirdly enough I had lunch with Madonna about six months ago. It's a long and funny story which we won't go into. I guess I was in the eye of this storm and at the time I was still worried about legal things etc. so in a way all this stuff was nice, a nice distraction. It was all fun, but it wasn't really my main focus. I did get excited a couple of times.
People are impressed with the likes of Madonna and RuPaul, but to me, the one that really excited me was Martina Navratilova (pic above). When I was younger, she was this huge global superstar and she stood for something. She was the first big, proper 'out' dyke! She had things about her which people would make fun of, her masculinity etc., but none of that mattered because she was the most amazing tennis player the world had ever seen.
So when I saw her tweeting the speech, that's the one that really got to me. And of course when Neil Tennent (from the Pet Shop Boys) calls you up to say 'I've made a song and a video and I've used your speech which I'm going to send on to you to see if you like it', that's fun.
JOE - So, your show, High Heels in Low Places comes to Vicar Street (pic below) in Dublin on Friday the 13th of June. Friday the 13th? Are you worried in any way about the significance of that date?
Panti - Hahaha, well thankfully, I'm not at all superstitious so it's not a problem. I'm also doing the Cork Opera House the following day on the 14th.
JOE - What can the curious amongst us expect from these shows? People who would never have gone to your shows before? What can they expect?
Panti - Well I'm taking the anarchic energy of my club shows and putting it into a different venue. It'll be lively and rowdy in that sense. All of my shows, from the serious theatre ones to the crazy club shows, take some little stories from my life which I riff on and hope it relates to everyone in the audience. It'll be stupid and fun. I'm not going to be talking gay politics to them, but obviously I can't ignore the elephant in the room and will have a talk about the video and speech.
JOE - So basically, anyone who is thinking of going will be treated to a pure entertainment show from start to finish?
Panti - Absolutely, the craic!
JOE - Good news, it's something we thrive on here in Ireland.
Panti - Sometimes I feel there is this pressure on me to be very perfect and good all the time, but that's not who Panti is or has ever been about.
JOE - Panti has flaws?
Panti - Well yeah, her stock in trade is discombobulation, being irreverent and sticking a pin in regular society or whatever you want to call it. So if you are going, don't be easily offended and there's a good chance that Panti will tell you that your blouse is terrible or whatever! But that's part of the craic, that's what happens at my shows.
JOE - Well, we cannot wait to see the show and look forward to June 13th. Thanks for talking to us today.
Panti - You are most welcome, thank you.
Panti is performing High Heels in Low Places in Vicar Street on June 13th and Cork Opera House on June 14th. Tickets available here