A Common Queen
The subject of Conor Horgan’s documentary The Queen of Ireland (2015) steers far from traditional royalty. Wearing stilt-like stilettos, infinitely long eyelashes, and a blonde wig laden with hairspray, the larger-than-life celebrity trades classic elegance for flamboyance and crude humor. She inspires the masses not through quiet rule, but through rallying remarks and the occasional booty shake. She’s both a leader and a listener; an icon and a friend. The biggest catch: she’s a man.
Rory O’Neil sauntered into the drag scene with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that characterizes his stage performances. Abandoning his plans of becoming a graphic designer, the recent college graduate rode his newfound fascination with Ireland’s underground gay bar scene into the more openly performative culture of Tokyo, Japan. It’s there that he assumed his soon-to-be famous pseudonym — “Panti” — and the glamorous, cartoon-like character that came with it.
But Panti, who assumes center stage of the film, is so much more than a comedian, a performer, a gay rights activist, and a deeply lovable subject. In many ways, Horgan’s portrait of one icon becomes a portrait of the gay community at large — one that, especially in small-town Ireland, experienced rapid cultural change over the past couple decades. Rory’s personal account of “feeling different” as a child — with his seemingly scripted narrations giving a fairytale-esque quality to grainy home videos — paves the way for more serious cultural commentary. “Being an out-gay man in the ‘80s felt like being a sexual outlaw,” states LGBT rights activist Tonie Walsh, recalling the murder of fifteen-year old Declan Flynn in 1982 and the protests that followed his killers’ grossly lenient prison sentences. Real footage of 1980s gay nightclubs, then, contextualizes Rory’s fascination with a burgeoning “parallel universe” of “illegal homosexuals,” as well as the “explosive energy” that followed decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1990s. “Half my life has been trying to recapture that excitement,” he states.
But O’Neil’s energetic celebration of femininity comes to a halt when a solicitor’s letter denounces his presence on an Irish talk show. In response, the drag queen presents a heartfelt speech about the lived realities of homosexuals — a soon-viral oration that becomes a rallying point for the gay rights campaign in Ireland. The film ends, then, with a return to its opening scene: a glamorous Panti takes center stage during a celebration of the long-awaited legalization of same-sex marriage. With her rallying comments and bold appearance, the icon is — in the eyes of many adoring fans — the real queen of Ireland.
Even queens have flaws, though — a truth that makes Panti’s extraordinary presence refreshingly relatable. Rory himself contrasts the “perfect” Panti caricature with the “flesh-and-blood sweating one that they might see on a show,” reminding us that, underneath copious amounts of makeup and hairspray, the icon is simply human. Nowhere is this more evident than during Panti’s speech at Abbey Theatre, when the drag queen explains the immense self-scrutiny that follows even the smallest of hate crimes. “What is it about me that gives the gay away?” she cries — a slightly ironic statement given Rory’s currently effeminate attire. But for strong and iconic Panti to give the speech (rather than the innocuous Rory underneath) adds a powerful layer to her words: even the most flamboyant and seemingly confident figures are deeply affected by homophobia.
It’s this admission to vulnerability, this dual dimension of performativity and commonness, that gives so much life to Panti and Riley both. In fact, what starts out as a stark separation between the two personas becomes a holistic portrait of their intersection. The same icon who organizes theatrical performances to sponsor HIV charities is, secretly, HIV-positive; the same performer who refuses to get emotional onstage becomes deeply nostalgic when applying make-up at his mother’s old dresser; the same man who wears expensive dresses by night folds laundry (in his sparsely-decorated room, no less) by day.
This dual inhabitance of alternate universes is, perhaps, what makes the final scene so striking. When Rory decides to perform a gig in his largely conservative hometown, the drag queen somehow comes full circle from his childhood days: what was once a target of ridicule becomes a subject of celebration. Ultimately, underneath the glamour of Panti is a small-town boy — one whose charm, exuberance, and activism seems to change, for the better, the lives of everyone he touches.