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Published on 11th January 2018

Meet the drag queen starting a revolution in cabaret spectacular 'Riot'

Panti Bliss became the figurehead of the Irish marriage equality campaign when an impassioned speech went viral. Maxim Boon hears how that same rebel spirit can work Down Under.

When it comes to Australia’s same-sex marriage postal survey, Irish drag star Panti Bliss doesn’t mince her words: “It’s fucking ridiculous.” And she’s something of an expert on the topic. Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, became one of the most powerful figureheads for Ireland’s queer community during that country’s referendum on marriage equality, in 2015.

By a landslide, the Irish voted to pass the proposed changes to their constitution. But, just as it has been here in recent months, many of those opposed to marriage equality in Ireland also used a derisive, scare-mongering, anti-gay rhetoric that was the familiar mantra of parts of Australia’s No campaign.

O’Neill’s voice was able to rise above the din. In a fearless speech, delivered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, O’Neill, in the guise of his drag alter ego, shared examples of normalised homophobic prejudice. Footage of the speech was then posted to YouTube. Within days, it had become a viral phenomenon.

The same ferociously defiant spirit powers Riot, the latest cabaret show helmed by Panti Bliss. “It’s about revolution, and changing the world,” O’Neill says with a chuckle. “That might sound a bit ambitious, but every revolution has to start somewhere.”

In part, Riot is O’Neill’s response to the explosive popularity of TV megahit RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has seen drag become part of the global zeitgeist – but at a price, he says.

“I love Drag Race, I really do. But I don’t think it’s very much about drag. Yes, there are guys in frocks, and yes, it’s wonderful to look nice. But whether or not your eyebrows are 'on point' is quite meaningless.

“In order for any subculture to become part of the mainstream, it has to be defanged, ya know? I got into drag because it was underground and punk and discombobulating. Drag was really a two-fingered ‘fuck you’ to everything. It was the antithesis of everything society wanted me to be.

“It was super good fun too, of course. When you’re in your twenties it’s the best way to earn a living – you’re basically getting paid to get drunk! But it was also a way for me to express a kind of revolt against conforming to an identity that I’d never felt a part of.”

Drag may now be more fashionable than ever, but O’Neill is at least reassured that in its DNA, drag will always challenge the status quo: “Someone who’s followed an online makeup tutorial and then jumps around to Britney Spears may not have had a political thought in their entire life, but that doesn’t matter. What they are doing is a political action, because drag is always political, no matter how mainstream it becomes.”

The same counter-culture politics is infused into every performance in Riot, which sold out its debut season at the 2016 Dublin Fringe Festival, picking up the Fringe’s Best Production award and breaking the festival’s box office records in the process. Using circus, cabaret, live music and old-school drag as a vehicle for a strong political message, O’Neill hopes this spectacle will “inspire” as well as entertain its audience: “It’s a really funny, noisy, silly show. But every now and then, the dynamic will suddenly shift and sink its teeth into something super serious.”

First published 11 January 2018, for Time Out Sydney