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Irish Drag Queen Panti Bliss Makes History on Dancing With the Stars

Irish Drag Queen Panti Bliss Makes History on Dancing With the Stars

<p>Irish Drag Queen Panti Bliss Makes History on <em>Dancing With the Stars</em></p>

How the legendary drag performer and activist continues to break boundaries on mainstream TV.

While it’s true Ireland no longer has a monarchical system after declaring itself a republic and withdrawing from the British Commonwealth in 1949, today’s reigning “Queen of Ireland” is none other than Panti Bliss, the country’s most well-known drag performer.

Unlike Ireland’s neighboring British monarchy with their creation of heirs and spares to ensure succession, Panti wasn’t born into this role — she didn’t inherit it from anyone. Instead, the self-described “accidental activist” forged a new path to become a part of queer history.

“I didn’t set out to be an activist,” she admits in between her rigorous Dancing with the Stars Ireland rehearsals. “I’m a queer person living in a homophobic world, and sometimes that bothered me, and when things bother me, I want to change them, but I didn’t set out wanting to change the world, you know, like Gandhi or something! So that’s why I call myself an ‘accidental activist.’”

Born in Ireland six months before the Stonewall Riots took place, Rory O’Neill grew up in a small rural town in county Mayo, far from the world of drag and the birth of the queer rights movement in the United States. After a brief performance stint during college in Ireland in the late ’80s, O’Neill moved to Japan and became a hallmark on the Tokyo club scene, where his alter ego and drag name Panti Bliss came to life. Returning to Dublin in 1995, O’Neill, performing as Panti, pioneered and orchestrated some of the city’s most influential club nights, hosted Alternative Miss Ireland for 18 years, and performed worldwide. Since his return to Ireland, he has been open about being HIV-positive, continuously campaigns for its prevention, urges people to get tested, and worked hard to raise awareness of how it can be lived with.

The man behind the Panti Bliss persona, activist Rory O'NeillThe man behind the Panti Bliss persona, activist Rory O'Neill (photo by Conor Horgan)

In 2014, O’Neill sparked a nationwide uproar in Ireland after a television appearance where he called specific individuals and organizations homophobic. The ensuing scandal, an Irish stew, if you may, became known as “Pantigate” and ignited a divided Ireland — those standing behind Panti, and the homophobes who weren’t. Following the television appearance, Panti rose to true acclaim during a famous “noble call’ speech in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre — a must-watch oration about queer oppression available on Panti’s YouTube. The address for equality was recognized worldwide by notable figures such as RuPaul, Ellen DeGeneres, Graham Norton, Stephen Fry, Madonna, and many more posting on social media in support. Shortly thereafter, Panti became the fearless trailblazer in Ireland’s “Yes” campaign for marriage equality, and O’Neill’s life and work in the lead-up to the 2015 Irish referendum became the subject of the triumphant documentary The Queen of Ireland. In 2019, Rory married partner Anderson Cabrera at a ceremony in Dublin surrounded by family and friends.

Today, O’Neill is among the hopefuls competing in this year’s season of Ireland’s Dancing with the Stars and making history by doing so as Ireland’s first same-sex pairing. Partnered with the Ukrainian professional dancer Denys Samson, O’Neill performed in drag as Panti and closed out the show’s first week, performing a captivating cha-cha-cha to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” that earned an impressive 23/30 points.

The self-titled “gender discombobulist” is cognizant that being on a family entertainment show and invited weekly into the viewer’s home is an opportunity to change perceptions. It might not be apparent to every viewer, but Panti’s ensembles, routines, and song selections are unambiguous; these decisions are meticulously selected and as carefully contoured as the makeup on her cheeks. The notion that little boys and girls in similar rural towns and villages that O’Neill grew up in, where he felt alone and desired to escape from, can now see someone like Panti perform each week on the TV is a driving factor for the star.

“I know sometimes we can over-blow these things, saying ‘It’s just an entertainment show on TV,’ but it is massively popular. When I was 15 years old, a queer boy struggling to deal with all of that…if I had seen a same-sex couple dancing together on the same level playing field — completely ordinarily, like all the other contestants, at 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday evening on a family entertainment show — it would have meant the world to me.”

Panti Bliss and her dancing partner Denys Samson on Ireland's Dancing With the StarsPanti Bliss and her dancing partner Denys Samson on Ireland's 'Dancing With the Stars (photo by Barry McCall/RTÉ)

While Ireland has changed so much in Panti’s lifetime, her mere existence and participation on the hit show have ruffled some feathers, revealing “if I go deep enough into my Twitter mentions, you’ll always find some crazies.” But without missing a beat, Panti joyfully proclaims that the reaction received from the general Irish public has been “overwhelmingly positive and lovely!”

Still, activism isn’t for the faint of heart, and while Ireland has transformed significantly over the years, like everywhere, “homophobia still exists here.” With her strenuous training schedule of about 6-8 hours each day, Panti should be applauded for the work being done. Not only is she getting her “pre-pandemic body back” and competing each week, she’s showing viewers at home how one can not only live with HIV, but that one can flourish with it, too — an issue that most people outside the queer community might not be as well-versed on. “Dancing on the telly every Sunday evening is part of that process of letting people know that it’s not this huge thing to be feared anymore.”

From initial meetings O’Neill had with the show’s producers, he revealed it was crucial that he’d get to dance out of drag and “at least one week as Rory because I think it’s important to have two fellas dancing in your parent’s living room.” This impactful statement was seen just last year on the U.S. version of the show. After 29 seasons and 336 contestants, season 30 finally featured a permanent same-sex couple each week, with Jojo Siwa and her professional dancing partner Jenna Johnson placing second.

While Panti was a favorite to win this season of Dancing with the Stars Ireland, sadly, she was recently voted off the series — yet the impact of her appearence on the the mainstream show will surely continue for years to come. But Panti says she has no regrets. “I’ve never been one for behaving, and if they wanted someone to behave on the show, they wouldn’t have asked me.”

Panti also has some exciting projects in the pipeline. Between making sporadic pop-ins at her two Dublin establishments, Pennylane Bar and Pantibar, she’s also set to start an international tour now that her time on DWTS has concluded (the opening date is in Dublin on May 14). Panti will be appearing in the upcoming Disney+ docu-special, Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with Dave Letterman, premiering this Friday on St. Patrick’s Day.

Panti Bliss and David LettermanPanti Bliss poses with American comedian and host David Letterman while filming their Disney+ docu-special (photo courtesy of Rory O'Neill)

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