Life’s a Drag in Dublin – with Bláthnaid McGee

Damien Ryan

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image of Blathnaid McGee
Blathnaid McGee

As songs by Lady Gaga and Britney blare out of nearby speakers, Bláthnaid is getting ready for a Saturday night in Dublin. She applies a daringly bright shade of red lipstick, curls her eyelashes in to a carefree flick and perfects her blonde waves with another shot of hairspray. She slips in to a skintight leopard print dress between sips of vodka-white, and is almost ready to hit the town. But Blathnaid isn’t quite like the rest of the girls on the town tonight.

For most of the week Blathnaid is actually Ciaran. Every weekend he transforms in to Blathnaid McGee, a DJ and nightclub hostess. “I thought it’d be cool and fun to do drag and I was right! Its one of the most fun jobs out there, but it is a job really and it has its drawbacks too like any other job would.”

Blathnaid got her start in drag in a competition hosted by the legendary Panti Bliss. “Pantibar wasn’t open long at the time and Panti had a competition called ‘Panti’s P.A.’ looking for someone to do a show with; kinda like RuPaul’s Drag Race! Bunny won that but she brought me back to play games with the audience and it just kind of went from there, I didn’t really think when I started I’d still be doing it five or six years later!”

image of Blathnaid McGee“I’ve never seen a woman who looks or dresses like me,” laughs Blathnaid, “but I’m not overly theatrical either. Lots of sequins and glitter though… you could call it ‘real, fake girl!’”

“People always ask me have I gotten a boob job, but no, I’m just fat! The transformation is another thing that gets people, its almost like you’re anonymous. Lots of people don’t recognise you when you’re finished work and de-dragged, which is great in my opinion, you can just kind of slip out quietly after work.”

The Dublin drag scene is unique to itself. Despite Ireland’s small size, Dublin boasts a host of popular drag queens as DJs, performers and club promotors. Culturally distinct from both the British and American drag scenes, Dublin’s features classic Irish humour and story-telling as part of the act.

Panti Bliss, who has risen to international attention thanks to her Noble Call video online, believes Dublin is spoilt by the calibre of drag we have here. When not being a jet-setting gay rights campaigner and self-professed ‘gender discombobulist’, she owns Pantibar in Dublin and is somewhat of a ‘drag mother’ for Dublin’s scene.

“Some of the Dublin scene is my fault, if that doesn’t sound too boastful!” Panti confesses, in Ask A Dublin Drag, a series of hilarious YouTube videos hosted by Blathnaid.

“A lot of American drag has to do with pageantry and dancers. Our performing DNA comes from being wordy and chatty. The Irish way of entertaining is telling stories. The audiences here like a story for the show, with a beginning middle and end. Young queens now see the likes of me, Veda and Shirley and realise that it’s a real performance and a real career now.”

Blathnaid is extremely proud of Dublin’s own thriving unique drag scene: “The characters, the humour, the dancers, the style, the queens in Dublin are a class act, so much variety and it all works so well together! A Saturday night in Pantibar and a Sunday at Shirley’s Bingo in The George are must-see shows!”

Balthnaid has been lucky and rode the crest of the wave of Dublin’s drag renaissance. “People have seen you can make a living from it and want a shot in the bright lights, but the truth is there’s only so much room on the scene. It doesn’t look like any of the regular performers are going to go anywhere anytime soon!”

“It’s a fun job and I can see why people want to do it, but it’s not always what people expect, it really is a job,” she warns. There’s management to deal with in the bars, running orders to do, invoices to sign, cds to burn, makeup and costumes to buy…”

Drag today has never been more commercial and more queens than ever before have been making a successful, full-time job out of performing. The world of drag has exploded on to TV screens in recent years with the breakout hit, RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Hosted by RuPaul, arguably the most popular drag queen of all time, Drag Race has revolutionized how many people view drag. The show is a mixture of America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway and X Factor. Contestants design outfits, model for glamorous photoshoots, record songs and perform comedy routines in the various challenges to become The Next Drag Superstar. At the end of each episode two contestants must ‘lipsync for their lives’ in a classic drag performance showdown.

Both the entertainment factor and the camp factor are high. Drag Race offers up a level of drama unrivalled by any other television show and is littered with punchy catchphrases that have become de rigeur on Dublin’s gay scene: ‘throwing shade’ (the art of insults), ‘sickening’ (being excessively hot) and ‘shanté you stay!’ (you won).

High profile drag queens like RuPaul, and our own Panti Bliss, have helped drag go from the back stage of a gay bar to mainstream sensations. Drag queens were once just an easy source of jokes, even for those in the gay community. Now they are cultural signifiers highlighting just how far the LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community has come. Most importantly, drag queens are bringing character back to a community that has felt the need to neuter itself to gain mainstream acceptance. The gay community is no longer about fitting in to the mainstream, but is now tailoring the ‘mainstream’ to fit itself.

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Damien Ryan