In a new series of articles, Hannah Tiernan remembers the iconic, euphoric, Alternative Miss Ireland.
Long before Ru Paul’s Drag Race was even a bun in the oven, Ireland had its very own annual drag pageant – Alternative Miss Ireland.
Each year, on the Sunday nearest St Patrick’s Day, queens, kings, discombobulated humans of all sorts and on one occasion, even a dog, would don their gay regalia and take to the stage of Dublin’s Olympia Theatre to amuse, confuse, challenge and entertain judges and audiences alike. From its origins as a one-off fundraiser in Sides Dance Club to its 18 year run as ‘Gay Christmas’, Alternative Miss Ireland would reshape Ireland’s drag scene and go on to raise thousands for AIDS charities.
But to call Alternative Miss Ireland merely a drag pageant is an injustice. In the immortal words of Panti, it was “the annual Irish beauty pageant just beyond the finish line of culture… Grabbing the traditions of Daywear, Swimwear and Eveningwear by the heels and dangling them over the Ha’penny Bridge until something falls out, this pageant embraces men, women and anything else that you can imagine; thrashing out on stage for the crown.”
And it did just that; you never knew what to expect from year to year, let alone from act to act. It was part drag, part burlesque, part comedy, part performance art but at its heart, wholly beautiful mayhem.
On April Fools Day 1987, nine men and women crammed themselves and their costumes into a tiny make-shift dressing room beneath the stairs of Sides Dance Club on Dame Lane. As the evening’s compere, Linda Martin beckoned, contestants would make their way gingerly up the spiral staircase to flaunt their wares. A delicate manoeuvre in heels, wig and body paint but an even taller order when sporting a rather imaginative three-foot-high replica of Rathmines Town Hall on your head, or worse- three phallic-shaped missiles filled with four gallons of fluorescent paint and flour set to explode.
Once above ground, they strutted their stuff down the 40-foot long catwalk as Twink, John Rocha and the other esteemed judges hovered on shaky scaffolding above to decide the worthy recipient of the coveted first place prize – a pair of tickets to New York. Needless to say, the worthy recipient was the explosive, Miss Isle.
The first iteration in Sides was organised by celebrity hairdresser, Ross Elliott Tallon, Sides co-owner, Frank Stanley and graphic designer, Niall Sweeney – who would go on to define the image of AMI and Panti and would remain a linchpin for the next 25 years.
It was intended to be a one-off event with a third of the proceeds going to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It was this very philanthropy that would bring about its return nine years later, and ultimately set a precedent for the subsequent events.
By the end of 1995, Panti and Niall had begun to make a name for themselves on Dublin’s emerging club scene with their club night GAG. The faux-fetish nights were capped off by Panti and Niall’s (aka Mr Sphincter) outrageous performances, which often involved Mr Sphincter retrieving various objects from Panti’s derriere.
Madcap antics aside, Dublin Aids Alliance, in their better wisdom, approached Niall, Panti and Trish Brennan (aka Trish Dalish) to ask if they would be interested in running another Alternative Miss Ireland as a fundraiser. When they said yes, little did they know what an enormous lipstick-smacked, wig-wearing, sequin-clad beast they had awoken.
Throughout the rest of Alternative Miss Ireland’s years, philanthropy would be at the heart of every event but more specifically, HIV and AIDS charities would form the backbone of this selfless endeavour. Over the following 17 years, AMI would go on to raise more than €300,000 in funds for HIV and AIDS charities both at home and abroad.
The new imagining took place under the roof of the newly built Temple Bar Music Centre, which had yet to be baptised by the club kids of Dublin. AMI graciously obliged with all the regalia of a carnival, so much so, that gold spray paint stained the brand new floor for years to come.
With Panti at the helm as the Mistress of Ceremonies – a role she would command for the rest of AMI’s life – the audience gullibly believed they were in safe hands. But this was to be a ride like nothing they’d been on before.
The performances were another heady mix of inspired and bizarre concoctions. There was Tonie Walsh’s Miss Ravin’ Meadbh, who only became a fully-fledged raven after being loved up by a giant bull cock wearing a condom that had been hiding inside the Salmon of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Miss Fisch pulled not one but three snakes from her fanny, as Miss Interpreted drove a motorbike through the loading doors and straight into the unsuspecting audience.
But the chaos didn’t end on stage. Up in the balcony, beyond the prying eyes of the audience sat a star-studded lineup of judges. Not to blame any make-up mishaps, but the show’s start was delayed by a full hour, during which the judges proceeded to imbibe the endless complimentary champagne. Needless to say, by the end of the night, things got more than a little messy as heckles raised and profanities flew.
In a fit of indignation, two of the more inebriated guests stormed off down the extremely steep and long staircase. As they clumsily negotiated their descent, one tripped and fell backwards. Thankfully, a kindly gentleman who’d been co-opted to ‘mind’ the esteemed guests managed to break her fall, and with the help of her friend, slowly craned her back into an upright position.
In true Alternative Miss Ireland style, the kindly gentleman, Tom Gleeson – who had arrived that night as a spectator – had now been inducted into the AMI family and the following year went on to become stage manager. Alternative Miss Ireland was built on the shoulders of all of its volunteers, each played their parts and gave selflessly. Whilst some came for the camaraderie, most came silently for the love and memory of the friends that they had lost to AIDS. Upon recalling taking quiet moments of reflection backstage, Tonie Walsh suggests, “it was about waving goodbye to all our beloveds, which is a huge part of what AMI was about”.
AMI’s third outing in 1997 didn’t disappoint. By then, Niall and Panti had begun running Powder Bubble, a monthly club night in the Red Box in the old Harcourt Street Railway Station. It was a cavernous space, well suited to dance clubs and gigs but not ideal for the raucous stage show that was AMI. But AMI and Powder Bubble fitted together like a well-worn glove and no venue mismatch was going to put a stop to that.
A marquee was erected in the car park to accommodate the contestants’ ever-expanding wardrobes and egos. The lack of any raised platform at which to observe proceedings meant that the judges were given prime real estate in front of the stage, leaving them in the firing line of whatever mishaps may ensue. And ensue they did, namely by way of an ice coffin which was used to transport an entombed Miss As Yet Untitled to the stage.
The coffin was carried precariously through the crowd. Inevitably, the journey took longer than intended and in an attempt to avoid hypothermia, the contestant threw off the lid, sending smashed shards of ice flying onto the judges’ table. The coffin caused further chaos as it began to melt under the hot stage lights, sending the meltwater pouring straight to, you guessed it, the judges’ table again.
However, the night belonged to the winner and the judges weren’t slow about awarding it to the crowd’s preferred contestant, Miss Shirley Temple Bar. As the photographer and Queen of Ireland director, Conor Horgan recalls, “…at that point, the judges weren’t safe in a separate dedicated box like they were in the Olympia Theatre. We were at a table in front of the stage with the entire audience bellowing at the back of our heads ‘SHIRLEY, SHIRLEY, SHIRLEY!’ I’d never seen a star being born like that. Like literally, I saw a star being born, we all did.”
“Interests, Aspirations and Talent: Age 12. Budding Olympian. Intends to win a place on the Irish Olympic squad as a gymnast. (Speciality sport: The Ribbon).
Shirley is vehemently anti-drugs, due in part to growing up in Dublin’s Inner City ‘I got some for my confirmation and I didn’t like dem’ she says, quickly adding “Stop Killing Our Kids!”.
Her favourite colour is gold and her greatest ambition is to meet Twink.”
After being spotted clowning around at a party, Shirley’s alter ego, Declan Buckley, was persuaded by Panti to enter AMI. Declan insists that AMI was to be Shirley’s one and only performance but her appearance garnered such adulation that she was offered repeat performances between various clubs, leading to a regular weekly slot in The George Bar on a Sunday.
Bingo with Shirley Temple Bar fast became a mainstay on the city’s weekly gay circuit. With the show’s success came interest from media leading to articles, regular magazine columns, interviews and documentaries on an international scale. By 2001, Shirley was offered the opportunity to host The National Lottery’s, Telly Bingo on RTÉ – a role she would perform for three years, after which time Shirley’s ‘brother’ Declan took over.
1998 saw AMI standing proudly at the front of the maternity ward door, ready to pop out the next aspiring Queen Cailín. With a few adjustments such as stage curtains and a new and ambitious set, the Red Box remained the venue for AMI’s fourth outing. The evening saw the return of some familiar faces such as Miss As Yet Untitled (of ice coffin fame) and, the contestant that would go on to become the competition’s most frequent flyer, Miss Big Chief Random Chaos.
Chaos by name and chaos by nature. His trademark mohawk and white painted face, immediately made him hard to miss. Costumes ranged from a welded iron-framed tutu to matching Friesian cow-print bikini, bodice and waistcoat, to a three-foot-long prosthetic cock. However, he really made a name for himself when he performed an on-stage endoscopy.
Among the other contestants that night were two brand new faces that would go on to become stalwarts of the Irish drag scene. One in the guise of Miss Xena Warrior Princess, really Dizzy in disguise, and the other as Miss Vada Bon Rev.
The Queen Cailín of the night was Miss Tampy Lilette, a Country and Western loving cowgirl with women’s problems. Her eveningwear costume spoke volumes, a crimson puffy ballgown, white tuille shawl stained red in parts, all topped off by a red stetson festooned with dangling tampons. Miss Lilette was to become AMI’s next super-starlet.
Following her win, comedienne Katherine Lynch went on to host her regular Thursday night show G Spot in GUBU, the predecessor to Pantibar, later collaborating with the 2003 queen Miss Alter Ego. As a versatile funny-woman, she adopted a variety of characters from the nun who sang about her plastic Jesus to fitness fanatic Busty Lycra, all of which kept audiences in raptures. In 2008, Katherine took to the TV with her RTÉ sketch shows, Working Girls and Wonder Women and later An Audience with Katherine Lynch.
Despite her win, Miss Lilette was upstaged at the end of the night by the disgruntled runner-up, Miss Vada Bon Rev. After being awarded a flower bouquet and the second place trophy, The Golden Briquette. Miss Bon Rev lined up at the back of the stage alongside her fellow contestants to watch Miss Lilette be crowned. Just as Miss Lilette finished her speech, Miss Bon Rev flung her bouquet through the air directly towards the judges’ table. As Ailbhe Smyth dived to avoid the projectile, it landed inches away from hitting Louis Walsh.
Check back in with GCN next week for the second part of the series.
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