It’s impossible to overstate how big a deal Panti Bliss is in Ireland.
The 49-year-old drag queen was an instrumental voice in the country’s 2015 referendum legalizing marriage equality, which made the Emerald Isle the first nation to pass same-sex unions through popular vote. Panti runs one of Dublin’s most popular gay clubs, the sleek and aptly-named Pantibar. Madonna and Stephen Fry are fans. The Pet Shop Boys paid tribute to her with a dance track.
But during a one-woman show delivered to a rowdy, packed crowd of Irish expatriates at the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club, Panti Bliss says that her proudest moment was when Martina Navratilova sent her a message of thanks. “She bestrode my teenage summers like a dykey colossus,” Panti says of the tennis champ’s impact on her childhood.
Being hailed as a “national fucking treasure” (emphasis on the expletive) is a slightly strange development, she tells INTO over the phone.
Panti Bliss has been taking her comedy act on the road in recent yearseverywhere from London to Sarajevoas her fame spreads to other shores. Audience members at her Los Angeles show had traveled from across the U.S. to see her perform. But when she’s back in Dublin, her fame has presented a challenge: When you’re an icon, no one wants to have sex with you. On Grindr, people just want to tell Panti how inspiring she is.
“I’ve spent 25 years in the game, trying to persuade people to take what I do more seriously,” she says. “Now I worry people take me too seriously. At home, I have to now remind them: I’m also a fun, stupid drag queen. Look, I’ve got sequins on!”
How Pantigate got homophobes in a bunch
Often described as “the Queen of Ireland,” Panti Bliss rose to national prominence in January 2014 when she referred to the right-wing Iona Institute as “really horrible and mean about gays” on a late-night talk show. The Catholic think tank, which describes its mission as promoting “the place of marriage and religion,” subsequently sued the Irish public broadcaster, RTE, for defamation.
The reaction from RTE was swift.
The offending episode of Saturday Night Show, a talk show which has since gone off the air, was pulled from the broadcaster’s website. An edited version, in which her comments were removed, would be published in its place. Brendan O’Connor, the program’s host, was forced to issue an apology two weeks after the initial segment was aired.
Panti claims that she had no idea her comments would spark such a media firestorm. It was the kind of thing she says all the timeand it was true.
“These are people whose raison d’etre is to campaign against gay people,” she says, echoing a rousing February 2014 speech delivered at the Abbey Theater, in which she called out the harms of homophobia. “So the idea they would be upset that somebody was suggesting that they were homophobes, it’s ridiculous.”
The lawsuit at first had a “chilling effect” on Irish society, Panti Bliss recalls. Newspapers and magazines were afraid to call out the absurdity of their claims, afraid that they would be sued. In Ireland, defamation suits can be extremely difficult to defend. Rather than forcing the plaintiff to prove that the remarks did damage to their reputation (and are categorically false), the laws put the onus on the accused.
The national broadcaster paid the Iona Institute 85,000 Euros to avoid a messy trial and make the suit go away. That’s nearly $100,000 in U.S dollars.
This was when the conversation turned, Panti remembers. Because public media is a government entity, the Irish citizenry was furious that their tax dollars were being used to placate “these 1950s homophobes.” Rather than vindicated, she says that the payout made Catholic conservatives look like “pathetic losers.”
“It was an absolute disaster for them,” she claims.
That was a huge benefit to Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, which was announced in November 2013.
The fallout from “Pantigate,” as it would subsequently be dubbed by the media, completely took the wind of out the “No” campaign’s sails. Groups like the Iona Institute were taken seriously prior to the controversy, but Panti Bliss says the lawsuit exposed their agenda in a “really naked way.” Anytime groups opposed to marriage equality would come out against legalizing same-sex unions, she claims the Irish people would roll their eyes and say, “Oh, those idiots.”
Marriage equality passed on May 2015 with 62 percent of the vote.
A community emerges from the backroom
That decisive margin would have seemed impossible just two decades earlier: Ireland only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.
Like many young Irish people in the 1980s, Panti left the country. This was a time when the LGBTQ community was “literally forced underground,” she says. Although Panti Bliss claims that police weren’t rounding up shopkeepers and hairdressers and arresting them, gay men would be forced to meet behind closed doors: in back rooms, bathrooms, and basements.
She began to experiment with drag in art school, making dresses out of surgical gloves. But there was no room in Ireland to explore that at the time.
Panti moved to Japan in 1990, and the first friend she made was a drag queen from Atlanta. Although Panti Bliss had put her aspirations of performing aside until then, the two decided to stage a double act together. Instead of doing the more avant-garde, self-consciously naughty drag she explored in college, this was when Panti began to explore the prototype of what defines her persona today.
“Panti Bliss is your fun, drunk aunt,” she says. “She is warm and fun and a bit naughty. But at the same time, she has a sort of maternal quality about herand she can also give you a good telling off.”
Her major influences as a performer were two-fold: Panti was partially inspired by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which Maggie Smith plays a free-spirited lecturer at an all girls’ school. Panti Bliss says that the film’s setting is a lot like the Ireland of her childhood: conservative, buttoned-up, and gloomy. Miss Brodie, in her technicolor wardrobes and checkered cloaks, represents “the colorful patch in a gray world.”
But her drag character was also based off her own aunta glamorous American who wore beige pants, smoked menthol cigarettes, and would regale the O’Neill family with stories of life in Washington, D.C.
“I was living in the very west of Ireland in a great little village where we’d never seen anything glamorous in our lives,” Panti says. “And my aunt would turn up every couple of years with this deep, husky voice with an American accent and she’d bring home presents. I remember her bringing a hoodie and we had never seen a hoodie in our lives.”
“It was the most amazing thing ever,” she adds.
But when Panti came home to Ireland for a visit in 1995, it wasn’t the country she remembered. Following the decriminalization of sodomy two years earlier, the nation experienced its first-ever economic boom. It’s often referred to as the “Celtic Tiger.” Dublin was no longer gray, it was vibrant, a place where people came to look for work rather than abandoning the city to live their dreams.
It was also a formative time for Ireland’s LGBTQ community.
“We came out of the woodwork,” Panti says. “It was when the gay community was really beginning to spread its wings in Ireland.”
A not-so-accidental activist finds her voice
The drag queen, much to her surprise, decided to stay. Her impact on LGBTQ life in Dublin since is immeasurable. Panti Bliss hosted the “Alternative Miss Ireland” pageant for 20 years, an event which helped raise money for HIV/AIDS during an era in which many believed contracting the virus to be a death sentence. Diagnosed the same year she returned to Ireland, she remembers her own diagnosis as a “slap in the face.”
But instead of running away from her status, Panti Bliss allowed the experience of being HIV-positive to inform her work.
“I always say that I’m really glad I’m gaybecause I think it made me see the world from a slightly different perspective,” she says. “I think most of the things that I like about me come out of the fact that I felt a little weird and awkward or different when I was younger. In a weird way, I feel the same way about being HIV positive.”
Although Panti has been described as an “accidental activist,” she claims her work has always been political.
Her stand-up routine deals head-on with subjects ranging from internalized homophobia to family acceptance. In a powerful moment from her one-woman show, Panti Bliss recalls how the women of Ballinrobe used to pity her mother for having two gay sons. Today, both of her children have grown up to be happy, healthy, and successful. After all, Panti is popular enough that sheonce joked about running for president.
Panti Bliss, who has lived to see Ireland become one of the world’s most progressive countries, says its example shows “incredible change is possible.” The country tapped its first openly gay Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, earlier this year. His sexuality was barely mentioned prior to his appointment as the head of Parliament.
It’s an ironic sign of progress that Varadkar’s biggest opposition since taking office hasn’t been from the religious right. It’s been from other LGBTQ people. Because he’s the first gay man to sit in the position, Panti says the community has held him to a very high bar of success.
The reality is, however, that the 39-year-old is a fiscal conservative. Varadkar was widely criticized for comments he made in May remarking that he wanted to lead a party for “people who get up early in the morning.” Progressives viewed that statement as a dog-whistle, a subtle dig at low-income people who rely on welfare. In addition, Dublin has experienced a major crisis of affordable housing as rates of homelessness have spiked in the Irish capital.
“He’s considered very right-wing,” Panti says. “That annoys all of us commie faggots.”
“I think he’s gotten more criticism than he really deserves,” she adds. “In Ireland, people go on as if he’s a bloody Nazi or something. The feeling is: ‘Isn’t it great that we have a gay Taoiseach? I just wish it was a different one.’”
The other side of being a drag queen
Looking back on her legacy as an advocate, Panti Bliss believes her career illustrates the importance of speaking truth to powereven when you’re dressed in six-inch heels.
Drag has reached a tipping point of popularity following the massive success of RuPaul’s Drag Race. More young people are performing than ever before, but Panti says that many of the queens coming up in today’s scene misunderstand what drag is and what it can be. People who have been raised on YouTube tutorials helping them master the perfect contour, she claims, often view drag performers as “glorified makeup artists.”
“They all look amazing,” Panti says. “Us older queens looked awful for 15 years. People gave you a little tip here and a little tip there, and you got a little bit better. We all looked terrible for so long.“
But Panti says that having a flawless look is “only one side of it.”
Drag is most effective, she argues, when it occupies a space outside of the mainstream. Panti says that the act of gender performance is “inherently punk, transgressive, and anti-the-system,” comparing it to the court jester in Medieval England. Hired to be the monarch’s personal buffoon, he’s a minstrel who lives to serve his master’s mockery. But the jester also gets to “tell the king that he’s a fucking fat pig.”
Panti Bliss calls drag’s recent surge in popularity “great.” She reiterates this point twice, lacking the faintest hint of insincerity.
But she nonetheless fears drag has been “defanged” for the masses.
Having been working in the scene for close to 30 years, Panti Bliss says that she’s been through this cycle once before. Following the success of RuPaul’s “Supermodel” in the early 90s, she says that suddenly she “couldn’t attend a corporate function without there being a few drag queens handing out the canapes.”
Panti Bliss credits RuPaul with giving drag performers an unprecedented platformone that she has herself benefitted from. She was the subject of a 2015 documentary, and a television series has been optioned based on her memoir. Panti says that the drag queens of today are in a somewhat privileged position: Holding a microphone onstage, people listen when they speak. Her L.A. audience, which hungrily devoured her every bon mot, can attest to that.
“Once you’re dressed up, you have to have something to say,” she claims.