Remembering the glorious drag spectacular Alternative Miss Ireland (Part 2)

What started (and continued) as a fundraiser for the LGBTQ+ community soon rivalled Pride as the biggest Irish queer event of the year.

A split screen image of a drag queen and then a group of face painted performers

In a new series of articles, Hannah Tiernan remembers the iconic, euphoric, Alternative Miss Ireland. You can read Part One here

1999

Alternative Miss Ireland rang out the end of the millennium for the last time in the Red Box. Having effectively been crowned Queen of Drama, the renamed and reinvigorated Miss Veda Beaux Rêves was more determined than ever to win the Medusa Crown of Shamrocks. She saw off competition from names such as Miss Ivana Visa, Miss Liza Millenium, Miss Steak, Miss T Period and yet another guise of Dizzy’s, the aptly named, Miss Me_Tamorphosis.

And so it was that AMI’s third drag superstar was born. 

Like her predecessors, Veda went on to host a regular weekly show. Originally titled Space in Veda, as she saw her coven of budding understudies grow, her staple Wednesday night slot in The George Bar was later rebranded to Witchy Wednesday. Veda also went on to have a successful music career, first with her band Daddy’s Little Princess and later as electropop duo LadyFace with another AMI debutant Miss Davina Devine. Since 2009, Veda has had a solo career collaborating with other artists such as The Late David Turpin and Lady K.  

The Olympia Theatre

The new Millenium brought with it a new home as AMI took up permanent residence in the iconic Olympia Theatre. Finally, the pageant could spread its wings and fly with more dressing rooms, a bigger stage, plentiful seating and the all-important Box, to keep the precious judges safe from harm.

The first crown bestowed in the Olympia fittingly went to Miss Siobhan Broadway. It was her eveningwear performance that won her top spot, with the props truly living up to the ostentation of her surroundings. Her act began rather ordinarily as she stood on stage singing. A few minutes into her number, she disappeared behind a curtain to the back of the stage. All of a sudden, the curtain spun a full 180º to reveal a replica of the stage with Miss Broadway standing front and centre. This time she was accompanied by six life-size puppets who danced in synchronicity to the movement of her cane. What better way to signal AMI’s arrival in the theatre than to recreate the theatre itself.

Dizzy and Dolly

The Olympia also saw the arrival of two new stage fixtures. While The Muppet Show had Waldorf and Stadtler, AMI had Dizzy and Dolly. Like your favourite critical aunties, they held out a helping hand to the contestants while hiding a wooden spoon behind their back in case anyone slipped out of line. They mopped up all the thrills and spills – mainly as a result of the vodka they guzzled with Panti from the comfort of their on-stage couch propped just in front of the wings.

The jibing duo flung critique and compliment with a meer glance and more often than not, their antics and expressions were more entertaining than the acts themselves. In reality, the audience was seeing the painted faces of two of the show’s backbones. Stagehands of sorts in front of the curtain but behind the scenes, Dizzy was the clipboard-wielding stage manager for 11 years following Trish’s departure. 

Drag Kings

Whilst AMI had had plenty of female contestants, it had never seen a drag king until 2001 and that king went by the name of Johnny Silvino. With chiselled features and a perfectly groomed goatee, the debonair gent was a huge hit with the ladies, but alas his wiles were lost on the judges and he missed out on taking the crown home.

But Johnny hailed the reign of another king and, in turn, the beginnings of Ireland’s first drag king troupe. The following year saw the glorious ordination of the very first Alternative ‘Mister’ Ireland as Sid Viscous took on the Medusa Crown of Shamrocks. Sid perfectly encapsulated the ‘alternative’ persona, chef by daywear, boxer by swimwear and tiara and a tuxedo-wearing gentleman by eveningwear, all capped off by a pink mohawk. Sid was the muppets meets Sid Viscious; punk with a marshmallow inside.

Shortly after Sid’s win, organiser of @LAF’s (a Lesbian Arts Festival), Tracy Martin received a call from a Chicago based drag king troupe, The Windy City Blenders, wondering if Dublin had a troupe that they could twin with by way of an exchange and so it was that the Shamcocks were born.

Tracy became Gringo O’Hara, a mankini-wearing Dublin cabbie with a mouth as filthy as the abundant pubes he struggled to contain inside his spandex. He went on to become the 2004 AMI runner-up. Among others, they were joined by Stanley Knife, Slick O’ and Phil T Gorgeous. The troupe would perform regularly throughout Dublin’s gay bars, as well as hosting several drag nights in the Sugar Club on Leeson St, to raise funds for their trip to Chicago.

When the troupe eventually split, members went on to form the burlesque group, Pony Club and the cabaret group Doppelgang. Over the years, some of the kings have continued to favour the more alternative burlesque circuit, whilst Phil T  Gorgeous has gone on to host The George Bar’s Win Lose or Draw with Bunny O’Hare

Finale

As it grew from a back-alley nightclub through the redeveloping Temple Bar, to a converted train station and on to one of the city’s main theatres, it seemed to effortlessly reflect the growth and advances within the nations queer landscap – born in a time when it was illegal to be gay and coming of age as Ireland introduced civil partnership.

Never ones to miss a beat, the team driving Alternative Miss Ireland had decided a number of years beforehand that its 18th birthday should be its last. Societal change wasn’t the only motive for calling it a day. 18 years is longer than a lot of marriages and the commitment and effort it took to launch each Alternative Miss Ireland was like hosting 30 weddings all at once. The brides needed hand-holding, the seating arrangements had to be made and the stage needed to be set to the audacious standards that the revellers had come to expect.

Time had taken its toll and energy and availability were exhausted.

Alternative Legacy

Alternative Miss Ireland held a mirror up to Ireland and then fractured it to get a better picture. Underpinning all of its performances was the question of what it means to be Irish and queer. Be that overtly, from its staging alongside St Patrick’s Day, its Queen Cailíns or its prizes – the Silver Shillelagh, the Golden Briquette and of course, the Medusa Crown of Shamrocks – not to mention many of its performances (when in doubt stick with the tried and tested green).

Or by casting a spotlight on the hot topics of the day such as; nuns and priests blasphemying their way across the stage; (safe or not) sex scenes played out to the verge of pornographic; human AIDS ribbons and walking HIV viruses; wedding dresses screaming “let us marry”; women bleeding, and the list goes on.

Alternative Miss Ireland has always had ‘alternative’ at its heart. From the gender distorting lens of drag to the personal as political, it has fostered a sense of difference and wonderment. Just as AMI raised a family of innovators and free-thinkers, Ru Paul’s Drag Race gave birth to a global phenomenon of death-dropping, make-up blending, vloggers.

The rise of the death drop appeared to sound the death-knell of original drag – and if you want to get those hits on your YouTube channel, you sure a shit better know your shade! But we have learnt some lessons from AMI. Maybe it’s not on stage in the George every night of the week, but if you look between the cracks there are still some alternative gems taking a leaf out of AMI’s songbook. 

The words of the AMI team sum it up best, “Sometimes it seems that we made the whole thing up as we went along. Who knows, really, why we embarked on this odyssey? We were all dressed up and had nowhere to exorcise, so we made a stage of our world and then acted ourselves out upon it. And along the way we’ve been joined by all these others: Miss-Placed and Miss-Judged and Miss-Guided and Miss-Fortune. Clowns and Fools, Kings and Queens, Friends and Lovers.”

A version of this article appears in GCN Issue 367.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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