Metro Weekly

Panti Bliss: The Beloved, Outspoken Queen of Irish Drag

Rory O'Neill jets into town as Panti Bliss, the fabulous drag doyenne of Ireland, with his one-person show, "If These Wigs Could Talk."

Panti Bliss - Photo: Patricio Cassinoni
Panti Bliss – Photo: Patricio Cassinoni

“People, especially younger people, will think this sounds insane, but this is true: I wasn’t even really sure that gay people existed for a long time,” says Rory O’Neill, better known as his drag alter ego, Panti Bliss.

“I couldn’t be sure that [gay people] hadn’t just been made up by schoolyard kids as a joke, because there was nothing in my life as a child to indicate it was real,” he says. “I’m old enough to remember when ‘YMCA’ by The Village People was a smash number-one hit all over the world, including in rural Ireland. And nobody in my town ever suggested that they might be gay. They just thought they were a bunch of five friends who liked to dress up.

“I remember, very clearly, the first time that Boy Geroge was on ‘Top of the Pops,’ and the next day in school, the conversation was about whether he was a boy or a girl. The idea that he was just a flaming queen didn’t even enter our minds.”

Raised in County Mayo, in rural western Ireland, O’Neill, grew up in a family of six children. His father was the local veterinarian, and O’Neill and his siblings made the outdoors their playground, making long journeys on foot, fording rivers, chasing sheep, and staying out until it was dark. The overall environment was insulated from the rest of the country, particularly from any queer influences.

As O’Neill grew older, he began to feel stifled by the conservative, devoutly Catholic small town, and began looking to move elsewhere. He moved to Dublin to attend the National College of Art and Design, where he was introduced to members of the LGBTQ community and the gay bar scene.

“I think it’s hard to explain to people how backward Ireland was, socially anyway, in the ’70s and ’80s, and how the country is so different now,” says the 55-year-old. “I was 25 years old before it stopped being a crime to fuck another guy — and all through my college years, every Friday and Saturday night, I was doing my best to break the law. And on good weekends, I did — loads of times.”

After spending a summer in London visiting his brother — during which he met club promoter, fashion designer, and performance artist Leigh Bowery — O’Neill returned to Dublin and began planning a drag show, complete with sets and costumes, as his final-year exhibition. He was coaxed into performing as the main star, enlisting two straight classmates — shirtless, of course — as his backup dancers.

A promoter who attended the performance offered to pay O’Neill to appear at his club, where the then twentysomething waiter by day spent his nights doing “arty” and avant-garde drag shows. O’Neill eventually moved to Japan, performing there as “Letitia,” alongside another American queen from Atlanta, Lurleen Wallace. The two eventually changed their names to Candy and Panti, and thus, Panti Bliss was born.

To this day, O’Neill somewhat regrets that he didn’t put more thought into his drag name, although he’s not about to change it now.

“Like so many drag queens, you’re picking that name off the top of your head in a silly moment, usually when you’re very young,” he says. “And then you’re sort of stuck with that name.”

Years later, “when I started to become more well-known in Ireland outside of the queer scene — especially when people started taking me seriously and I’d hear my name be mentioned on the news or something — there used to always be this slight hesitation before they said Panti Bliss because it sounds dirty,” he laments. “It sounds like a stripper or something. So I always thought, ‘Ugh, why didn’t I pick a nice normal name?'”

Since returning to his home country, O’Neill has taken on the role of businessman, opening the popular watering hole Pantibar in 2007, and taking over a second bar in 2020. As a performer, Panti has become a longtime fixture at Dublin gay bars, has hosted Dublin Pride celebrations, and has even competed on Dancing With the Stars.

But Panti’s public persona has moved beyond the role of drag performer to that of a political activist and LGBTQ rights advocate. Panti was deeply involved in the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage through a ballot referendum in 2015, regularly appearing at rallies throughout the country and booking television and radio appearances on major news programs to argue in favor of the referendum. Irish voters eventually approved the measure by a nearly 2-1 margin.

The success of the marriage equality referendum is emblematic of the dwindling influence of the Catholic Church — at least in people’s day-to-day lives, although many Irish people still attend weekly Mass — in a country historically known for its social conservatism, as well as an ongoing leftward shift in many Irish citizens’ attitudes toward LGBTQ issues, including acceptance of homosexuality, drag, and gender-nonconformity.

“The country has become incredibly socially progressive, and that has a lot to do with the Catholic Church having its power and authority destroyed through a series of scandals,” says O’Neill. “But Irish people have always emigrated, and young Irish people still do. They go away for 10, 15 years after their education to other countries, to see the world from a different perspective, and then end up coming back to Ireland, bringing back everything they’ve seen or heard. So Ireland is now a very outward-looking sort of place. It used to be very insular. It’s certainly not that anymore.

O’Neill marvels at how rapidly the cultural change has taken place.

“When I left Ireland, homosexuality was still a crime,” he says. “Sodomy was illegal. I technically could have gone to prison. When I was a college student, it was hard to find other queer people because you didn’t have the Internet and Grindr or whatever. And because sodomy was illegal, gay bars didn’t openly advertise themselves as such, so I struggled to find where the gays were hanging out. Nowadays, everybody’s grandmother can tell them where Panti Bar or The George, the big famous gay bar in Dublin, is, because there are plate-glass windows and rainbow flags. It’s all very different.”

O’Neill points to Panti’s personal popularity as evidence of the shift.

“In Ireland, I’m a very mainstream figure,” he says. “You’ll find Panti on the cover of a fucking women’s knitting magazine! And I’ve been an out, flamingly gay, HIV-positive queer man for years, but nobody really gives a shit. So the transformation of Ireland has been really remarkable and incredibly fast.”

O’Neill developed If These Wigs Could Talk, a one-person show, performed as Panti, that travels the globe. Following a successful New York run, the show arrives in Washington, D.C. this weekend for a two-week run, hosted by Solas Nua, the vibrant, multidisciplinary arts organization that presents the best of contemporary Irish arts.

For O’Neill, whose willingness to speak his mind makes Elon Musk’s purported love of free speech look performative, few topics are off-limits during a 90-minute Zoom call.

“I’m going to be a real bitch here. But do you know what I hate about current modern drag?” he says at one point. “That people think that these outfits that look like sexy circus performers are cute. They’re always like little strappy-colored vinyl leather outfits or whatever with giant cutouts. Where did that fucking fashion come from? No. I’ll not be wearing a thing with all these cutouts and snap pieces and whatnot. Give me a fucking sequin gown, bitch.”

Panti Bliss - Photo: Patricio Cassinoni
Panti Bliss – Photo: Patricio Cassinoni

METRO WEEKLY: How would you best describe a Panti Bliss show? And, dovetailing with your current tour, what can audiences expect from If These Wigs Could Talk?

RORY O’NEILL: Let me preface this by saying I spent 25 years throwing myself around nightclubs doing absolutely fucking stupid, insane stuff: pulling things out my ass, lip-syncing to all the big songs, everything you typically think of when you think of drag. I didn’t know how I would be able to keep that up when I was in my fifties. I didn’t want to be throwing myself around a nightclub at 4 a.m., nor did I think anybody would really want me to. So my shows became more and more about talking, but also about what I was interested in.

I experimented with lots of different kinds of performance over time. And eventually, I decided I would just try and write an actual theater show. I met this young director, who’d had just one play at the time. And 20 years later, he still directs all of my shows, and we do a lot of work together. He’s here on the tour now, and he’s become a very successful director and playwright in his own right. But he still works with me.

So what I do now is very, very different. It’s a theater show, it’s a monologue. It’s me talking to you for an hour and twenty minutes. And it is stupid and silly and comedy, but it becomes progressively more serious as it goes on. I am drawing you in with all the stupid, silly, nonsense jokes, but I’m dropping bread crumbs along the way that you’re not meant to notice, to set you up to actually talk about something that’s deathly serious.

And so I would hope, if the show goes right, the audience should be crying-laughing at times, but then also actually crying at other times. Because I do want to talk about serious stuff, but I think I’m more effective at doing that if I hide that for a while with the fun and the nonsense. But I’m actually secretly preparing you, preparing the ground to then skewer you with something very serious.

MW: The stories you share are from your life?

O’NEILL: Yes. I don’t make any of it up. Everything I tell you in the show is real. Because sometimes — especially the stupider stories — they can sound like I’ve made them up. But I haven’t. They’re all real. Because I can be a very stupid person who does stupid things, so I have plenty of stupid stories. It’s all lessons drawn from the life of an aging drag queen.

MW: Obviously the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise has elevated the visibility of drag beyond what most people could have conceived of 15 years ago. And now you see a lot of people wanting to become professional drag queens. What’s that like for you, as somebody who sort of “accidentally” fell into drag?

O’NEILL: Well, my current show is about trying to refine my purpose in the world. Because during the pandemic especially, I had this sort of existential crisis about what the fuck I was really actually for anymore? Why was I still in drag at all? What was the point? And a number of things led me to that existential crisis — the pandemic, my age, even the fact that Ireland had become so fucking progressive, where everybody can get married and have kids if they want. Suddenly, I was like, “Okay, well, now what?”

But part of it also had to do with the current drag explosion. I got into drag originally entirely by accident, and I think that is how every drag queen got into it in the past. We got drunk one night, went along to a gay bar, ended up in a really horrible wig lip-syncing to your favorite Bananarama song. It was stupid and fun. It was also incredibly underground. It was chaotic, it was transgressive, it was essentially punk. And nobody — nobody — before 10 or 15 years ago got into drag thinking “This is going to be my full-time job.” Or that they were going to make money. And that includes the people who did go on Drag Race.

I have this other theory that the world only ever wants one hugely famous drag queen at a time. And RuPaul was it twice. Before that, many of the most famous ones were all Irish, by the way. Danny La Rue was the world’s most famous drag queen through the ’70s and ’80s, was the BBC Entertainer of the Year three years in a row, and still to this day holds the record for the most tickets sold to a single performer’s West End show, which ran for years and years and years and years and years. He was hugely famous and rich. And Lily Savage — she’s technically from Liverpool, but a fully Irish family. And Liverpool essentially is Irish.

But yeah, we got into drag because it was kind of a “fuck you” to everybody. It was about freeing yourself. I think drag queens have always been very punk. And certainly, back when I was first seeing drag queens, they were refusing to be invisible at a time when most queer people tried to be invisible.

I would say even most gay men recognize some femininity within themselves and they despise it at one point in their lives, and they’re terrified of it, and they try to suppress it and hide it. Drag queens do the absolute opposite. They are not afraid that their limp wrists will betray them. They are celebrating their limp wrists. They’re throwing sequins on everything. They are not trying to blend into the background. They’re covered in sequins and they have a fucking spotlight. They’re absolutely anti-invisible.

And to me, that was incredibly powerful at the time. So that is why people got into drag in the past. Whereas now — I haven’t watched RuPaul’s Drag Race in years, but I remember the last time I was watching, some of the contestants would be telling their first memories of drag were watching Drag Race. They’re on Season 16, and they’re like, “Oh, I remember seeing RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 4, when I was seven years old,” or whatever it was. And now there are thousands and thousands of drag queens everywhere you fucking go — you are just stumbling over them. And they all are hoping that they’re going to be rich and famous because they’ve seen lots of people who become rich and famous on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

MW: Well, in fact, with Drag Race, you don’t even have to win to be one of the most popular queens in the franchise.

O’NEILL: When it first came out, I thought, “This is wonderful.” And I can still see loads of positives from it. It’s given some very talented queens real opportunities and exposure, and they’ve gone on to do great, amazing things. I’m here in New York, and Jinx Monsoon is fucking ruling, and I love her. But like anything in the world, there are ups and downs to it. And I do think the longer it has gone on, unfortunately, I have started to see more of the bad, in a way.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m trashing it. People love it, lots of talented queens have been on it. But in a broader sense, I have worries. One is that when anything is this popular and this trendy, and this cool and this fashionable, it usually means that, in a few years, people won’t even spit on it. And I worry that when that happens, it will become harder for the people who are always going to be drag queens — the ones who will never be on the show — to make a living.

The other issue is, for people who grew up on it, their exposure to drag is the TV show. It’s not a drag experiment — it’s a TV show. And so it is limited by a lot of the realities of making a TV show. It actually shows you a very narrow spectrum of drag. And now I see young queens or trashy-looking queens or whatever, and people are, “Pfft,” because they’re not wearing $400 wigs and $4,000 gowns that were made for them by other people.

MW: The expectation is if you’re a “pretty queen” or a “polished queen,” you’re supposed to go out like Trixie Mattel and have your own YouTube channel.

O’NEILL: Now, there are people who make their living styling wigs for drag queens, making costumes for drag queens, and all of that. That’s all brand new, too. Every drag queen used to look absolutely fucking awful for 15 years, as there were no YouTube videos to teach you to do your makeup, nobody would make you a wig, all of that. You had to learn to do it all yourself. And without instructional videos, that took years to learn, and hopefully, some older queen would give you a little tip along the way, and help you out with something.

To me, the least important part of drag has always been the visual. Everyone likes to look good. I like to look good. I spend a lot of time getting ready, and I put effort into the hair and makeup. But to me, how the queen looks is the least important part of drag. Drag is a live performance art. And if you’re not a performer and you don’t know what you want to say or what you’re doing, then to me, it’s clearly uninteresting drag. I think being a stylist and a makeup artist are wonderful jobs, but they’re not the same as being a drag queen. Nowadays, so much of drag is just about being a makeup artist and a stylist, and that is just not interesting to me.

I went to see Busted, the drag queen in Fire Island, last week. She’s a New York queen whose whole shtick is she looks busted on purpose, and I love everything about it. So entertaining, so stupid and so fun. I was loving it. But what what the fuck would RuPaul’s Drag Race do with a queen like Busted? They wouldn’t even know where to begin.

And also, I’m sorry, I can’t take it. Ru is sitting there giving it out to these girls because they don’t look like a billion dollars, when Ru, for 15 years, looked incredible as a trashy mess, running around the streets of New York in a shitty wig and a two-piece that she picked up in 1980, 1990 version of H&M, which he then trashes on the show. Like, no! So I get it, they’re making a TV show, and the gorgeous gowns and incredible hair look better on the TV show. But I’m not interested in it, so I haven’t watched it in years. Can’t tell them apart. Too many. They all look the same.

Panti Bliss - Photo: Ruth Medjber
Panti Bliss – Photo: Ruth Medjber

MW: It’s interesting. Bianca Del Rio, who is in her late 40s, and was older when she joined the franchise and won the title, has made comments about drag in general. And her shtick is, “I’m a stand-up comic, I’m an insult comic. I’m Rodney Dangerfield in drag, coming for your life.” And she has said that a lot of these younger queens don’t have much to say because they’re all Instagram queens. They’re a look, and that’s it. And she’s asked, “But what’s your talent? What are you doing?”

O’NEILL: They’re very young, a lot of them. And it takes years to work out what actually is your act, and what are you good at, and interested in, and able to do. But the last season of Drag Race I watched was the U.K.’s first season, maybe. And they had this kid on — and I’m not trashing this kid — who had never performed in public. She was a bedroom queen who just put pictures up on Instagram. And they gave her one of the super coveted slots on this show that can make your drag career. And I just felt that was such an insult to drag. MasterChef isn’t going to have somebody on the show who’s never cooked anything. Because the show is meant to be about people who can really cook.

I know now these quotes are going to come out, and it’s going to look like I’m just trashing it and being mean. I’m not. Great for the show. It’s a great, super entertaining TV show. But there are a lot of downsides to it because it’s become so fucking big.

MW: What is the creative process of putting one of your shows together like?

O’NEILL: It is long. I spend months pondering, doodling, scratching things down. And then I go to Phillip [McMahon], who’s directing the shows, and I do all this stuff for him. And Phillip’s like my sounding board. And Phillip will say, “I find these bits really interesting. I would expand on that,” or “I don’t find these parts interesting.” Or he’ll ask some questions. And then I’ll go off and think more and spend more weeks developing it. And then, after a long time, we go into a rehearsal room and we spend weeks, from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening, telling stories, and I rewrite them and change them in different ways. And as we do that, I start to see connections between things. And the point that I’m trying to make starts to become clearer and emerges over time. And then we start doing the fucking show.

But the show on night one, wherever I’m doing it, and the show I’ll do tonight, are quite different, because when it’s a one-person show, it’s a constantly evolving thing. And I’ll make some off-the-cuff remark one night, and suddenly, it’s “Oh, my God, yes.” And I change the show, and that goes in it. For other performances, I might take bits out, and add bits in. Especially when we’re doing our little tours. This show started in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for like a month, and by the end of that month, I had a much clearer idea of what the show is and how it’s working, and what parts the audience was really responding to. And before we go off on the next part of the tour, I make a lot of changes. So it’s a constantly evolving process. And this show has essentially been on the go for, on and off, 18 months or something.

MW: Do you change the show based on interactions with the audience? Do you go off on tangents?

O’NEILL: I always, in shows, have some parts where I really interact with the audience, where I go into them and talk to them. And really fun, stupid, interesting, profound things sometimes happen in those bits. They’re in some ways my favorite parts of the show. It’s proper live-performing. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And I have a point that I’m trying to make when I do this, but I’ve left it very loose of how I get to the point.

So the show is constantly evolving and being refined, and as things happen in life, things change. In the last 18 months, things have happened in the world that can sometimes affect the stuff that I’m talking about. This show has a lot about my father. The show is about getting older and trying to refine your purpose in life, and that is reflected in a lot of talk about my dad, who’s going to be 90 and has dementia, and he’s very weak. And even that will be changing. And as morbid as it is to say it, my dad’s not going to be with us for an awful lot longer. And so this show might have a huge change coming up in it.

That is just the nature of this stuff that I’m doing. But it also keeps it interesting and exciting for me. I just feel like the way the drag is now, there’s less and less opportunities for people to do that sort of long development of things. Because there are thousands and thousands of queens who are ready to turn up and work for peanuts and do some nutty thing in the back of the nightclub. And that, I think, leaves fewer opportunities for others who want to try less common drag stuff.

That is one of the issues for me, especially when I go abroad, to places that don’t know me so well. I’m lucky that the Irish community, wherever I go, always comes out for the first few nights in big numbers because they like to see anything from home.

But I was in Cherry Grove, we had two days off and we went to Fire Island. And we went to a bingo party, and Ana Matronic from Scissor Sisters was there, and we know each other. And Ana grabs the microphone and announces to everybody, “Oh, there’s a famous drag queen from Ireland here.” And then of course people are saying, “Oh, do a number,” because sometimes it’s hard to explain what you do in drag as a drag queen if what you do isn’t the thing that everyone immediately pictures drag queens doing.

Now, I did all that for many years and love it and it’s brilliant — I love a lip sync. But sometimes it’s hard for me to explain, or even to persuade people why they would want to buy a ticket to my show in a real theater when they think, “Oh, well, I can see that at Sunday Bingo in my local gay bar.”

Sometimes people’s view what drag queens do is very limited. It’s limited by what they saw when they were on holiday or what they saw on Drag Race. And it’s funny, because that’s a very shallow understanding of drag. It’s because they think the drag is the act. They think the act is putting on a girl’s clothes and “Isn’t that funny?” But they would never think that about a stand-up comedian. If somebody says, “Oh, he’s a stand-up comedian,” you don’t all assume that he’s an insulter. You understand, “Well, maybe he’s a Bo Burnham type,” or “Maybe he’s a Jerry Seinfeld type.” There’s a million different kinds of stand-up comedy and everybody understands that, but most people do not understand that about drag queens. And maybe that has become even more of a problem, since people see drag only as a visual art form. Because, in reality, Taylor Mac is a drag queen, Lady Bunny is a drag queen, and they are so different, but it’s all drag.

Panti Bliss - Photo: Patricio Cassinoni
Panti Bliss – Photo: Patricio Cassinoni

MW: You mention that the Irish community always seems to show up for your show. In terms of the reception, has there been a city or perhaps a community that has really embraced you that you didn’t think might receive you well?

O’NEILL: Not really. I expect to get embraced. I’m in a funny place. People treat me very seriously in Ireland. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs is always sending me off to foreign countries to give talks and sometimes do a drag show. Sometimes they send me to places where it’s still very difficult to be queer and they’re kind of making a point. And sometimes they’re just sending me abroad, because they see it as a shorthand way of letting people know Ireland is not the country you think it is because you saw The Quiet Man in 1960 and, “Look, we’ve got super faggoty drag queens,” and whatever.

Much of the world still thinks of Ireland as this sort of 1950s version with the bishop walking around, banging everybody on the head with a crozier and whatever. Where, in fact, Ireland is actually very modern. The center of the world’s drug-making companies, electronics, many of the tech companies, their European headquarters or world headquarters, are based in Dublin. It’s a very modern, young place.

MW: People think it’s still the Magdalene laundries.

O’NEILL: Yeah, the Magdalene laundries, women locked up for having babies, and a horse in the lift, like in The Commitments movie.

So I’m in a very odd position. Then when I go abroad, the Irish community all know me, and their mammies all know me. So they like to come because they like things from home. And certainly, the Irish queer community likes to come because they’re kind of proud of this super queer thing that they can bring their local friends too and say, “Look, we’ve got cool queer stuff in Ireland,” so that’s all good and lovely, but of course I need the locals to come, too. Thankfully, they do.

MW: I imagine when you started, you couldn’t have possibly envisioned Panti being this sort of political figure, this ambassador or human rights advocate who was asked to debate the marriage equality referendum.

O’NEILL: It’s something I’ve actually had to struggle with a bit for a couple of reasons. One is, once you become sort of mainstream, and certainly once you get to some sort of point where people take what you say very seriously, despite yourself, the truth is you do have to suddenly care more about what you say, or you have to be more careful about how you say things.

Twenty-five years ago, Panti could make any sort of stupid joke on a stage in a nightclub or a bar and nobody gave a shit. Or everybody who was in the audience was very familiar with bawdy drag humor and all that. But then things changed for me, especially at home, where now people who have actually no connections to the queer community, or have no understanding of the background of drag, are suddenly exposed to my voice and my shows and on the telly and everything I say, and everything I put on Twitter. And suddenly, those people can sometimes be hurt or offended by stuff I say, because they don’t understand the context or the nonsense that we drag queens get up with.

So I’ve learned over time that I do have to be a bit more careful. Now, in my live shows, I’m taking a bit of a punt that the people who have chosen to come to my live show, and are paying money to come to my live show, have some knowledge or expectation, and that I’m more kind of in a safe space. And even if I’m suddenly cursing at some granny in the front row — because Panti curses — they all go with it. And also, I have an hour and twenty minutes to get them on board and help them understand exactly who it is I am and why I say some things the way I say them.

So that’s all fine, but occasionally someone will film something that I’m doing somewhere and put that up on the Internet, and it’s exposed to all sorts of people, and these people have no understanding of who I am or what the context is or whatever. And so it is different. You just have to be more conscious when you’re thrust out of the queer scene into another environment, where people may not necessarily understand all the context of where you are and where you come from.

MW: Is there anything you wouldn’t do as Panti in a show?

O’NEILL: Well, there’s stuff that I used to do as Panti that I wouldn’t do anymore because I literally first became infamous in Ireland for doing these naughty shows where I would literally pull things out of my ass on the stage. I used to work with this guy, Niall, who’s been my best teammate since our college days. We’d do these stupid performances where he would push mincemeat into my mouth and then turn a handle on Panti’s back and then pull a string of sausages out of her ass. Or Panti would be dressed like a secretary typing and he’d come on in a suit and he would pull the lyrics of “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton out of my ass like a sort of ticker tape while I would sing the song.

I would never do that now. I was skinny and gorgeous and smooth ass cheeked and everything at the time, and now it would be absolutely horrifying and people would be traumatized and arrests would be made. So, yes, drag queens age, just like real people. There’s loads of stuff, when I look at old pictures of me running around Tokyo nightclubs in a cute outfit that I would never wear today because I would look ridiculous as a 55-year-old in the tiny little thing I was wearing.

MW: You mentioned earlier that your show sort of came about from this idea of trying to find yourself as you age and figure out your new niche. Do you feel you’ve found the answer to that question, or is it an ever-evolving understanding of where you fit in?

O’NEILL: I think partly it’s ever-evolving. I think life goes on. Your priorities change. I used to be worried about the question, “What do aging drag queens do?” And that was really the impetus of why I opened Pantibar. It was certainly part of the impetus of why I moved out of the club space and into the theater space. If you’re performing in a nightclub, apart from the obvious stuff — it’s late at night, it’s tiring, it’s not well-paid — everything in a nightclub has to be large and loud.

Part of the reason why lip-syncing became such a fixture for drag shows is that people can hear the music through the noise and see it, and there’s no room for subtlety or smallness in a nightclub. And that can, after a long time, start to feel restrictive. In theater, you can do tiny things that everybody can see and feel and whatever. So those are all the reasons that I started doing the theater shows, but I think that both of those things, the bars and the theater, worked out the way I wanted it to.

Aging drag queens can definitely still do a theater show where you’re just talking to people. I blame Americans for the fact that a lot of drag now has just become wild go-go dancing. If you can’t fucking do the splits and a high kick and a death drop, people don’t want to know. But I’m like, “Okay, but I’ve seen splits and death drops before.”

It’s also true that drag develops differently in different parts of the world because of the local influences and culture. And drag in Ireland is definitely much more full-show based, if you know what I mean. People want to go at a certain time and see a show that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not so much the kind of go-go dancing that you see in American clubs, although the tipping culture here also encourages that.

When you don’t have to worry about collecting tips, and you’re paid by the bar, you can just design a show that has a beginning, middle, and end, and you don’t have to break it to go collect money. Drag in Ireland definitely has a different flavor to it, and there’s more opportunity for doing things outside of a big, noisy lip sync. I’m grateful for that because I think that culture helped me develop the kind of stuff that I do now.

Is it harder now to get into a corset, pull on tights and stand in heels for an hour and twenty minutes than it used to be? Yes, it is. But could I still do that when I’m 70? I probably could. Whereas when I’m 70, I definitely couldn’t be doing the kind of shows that I was doing when I was 25. So I feel pretty content at the moment of where I am and what I’m doing. And as long as I can keep doing this for a good while longer, I’ll be happy.

Panti Bliss: If These Wigs Could Talk, presented by Solas Nua, is playing through July 7, 2024, at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

Follow Panti Bliss on Instagram at @pantibliss and on X at @PantiBliss.

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These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!