Alternative Miss Ireland 2011

January 11, 2012


Julian Mandrews is hauling a desk up Capel Street. On George’s Street a Lesbian is using power tools to screw tiny dolls to a deconstructed wardrobe. While Widow Twanky and her group, Felch, are having a leisurely breakfast of Tiramisu and coffee. It’s the morning of the Alternative Miss Ireland (or “Gay Christmas) and acts are descending on the Olympia Theatre from all over the country to take part in the annual pageant, which does to traditional beauty “what Linda Martin would like to do to Twink”.

There’s Rusty Hinges, a country and western style ‘Cailin’ who arrived up to Belfast on her Rusty Bus. There’s Candy Warhol, fresh off the train from Limerick, as is her city mate Hauty Beor, who brings her own brand of “Jersey” to the Olympia Stage. Closer to home is Trannie Ward, who may have had one too many the night before (the bawdy banter in her dressing room leaves you to guess if she means men or drink); Mangina Jones, who promises “fabulous glamour with an edge of heartache” and Miss Patrice, whose financial blues have sent her down.

Celebrating its 17th year of youth (if you don’t count it’s initial jaunt in Sides nightclub from 1987) it was revived in 1996 as a conscientious effort to raise funds for Irish HIV/AIDS organisations. It has stuck with that brief for the past 17  years raising over €300,000 for practical and preventative programmes including a project to help fill in the face’s of people suffering from skeletal wasting.

I arrive at the Stage Door of the Olympia for the contestants meeting with Producer Noel Sutton, the first time many of them will meet each other. Assembled in the stalls of the Olympia Theatre, there is acres of bare flesh, half costumed characters and reality has just set in for one contestant who is already in tears at the magnitude of the evening ahead. An amateur event, this is the first time many of them will have been on a stage, certainly one of the Olympia’s size and they need to up the ante to prevent being swallowed.

“In the beginning we had to go out and find people to enter” says Panti who has hosted every AMI since 1996. “We roped in our arty, fashion mates who made crazy outfits over the weekend, performed by themselves and sometimes were so drunk they would fall off the stage.”

As it has grown over the years, and people like Shirley Temple Bar and Katherine Lynch emerged, people started to take their entries more seriously.” Where once it was one person, now they have an entourage with dancers,” says Panti. “They put so much time, effort and money into it, holding fundraisers to pay for the things they want to do, they can’t help but take it seriously.”

Anna McCarthy aka Julian Mandrews has the biggest team in this year’s event, 13 strong. A 28-year-old solicitor she is this year’s token King, a female dressed as a male. She hopes by entering the contest she can raise the profile of the King within the gay community. “I’ve been performing drag for two years now” she says. “And before September, when the Hutch (a night in Panti Bar) opened, there wasn’t really a venue for me to perform in.  To win, representing a side of the community that is ignored, would highlight that kind of performance and act as a reminder that in the drag tradition there is both the kings and the queens.”

She doesn’t particularly like looking at acts that are totally frivolous. “But if something has a message and is hugely entertaining then that’s my type of act.” To that end, she has recreated the Stonewall riots, using big band era music with The Prodigy’s Smack my Bitch Up to recreate the historic revolt for an audience who are all too familiar with homophobic abuse.

“I remember seeing the AMI’s on television when I was 14″ says Evin Dennehey (21) aka Candy Warhol. ” I didn’t even know what a drag queen was. But I remember thinking ‘whatever they are, I want to be on that stage with them’. While some artists have simply borrowed their costumes from school (Miss Patrice) or work (Mangina Jones), Warhol has designed and made the costumes for his entire team. He was still stitching them on the train up to Dublin. ” I’ve spent between a grand to a grand and a half on my whole show” he says. “I haven’t eaten properly in months. But this is a once in a life time opportunity.”

Every contestant is judged on three criteria. Originality, poise, personality.   The entry of mindful vandal Will St Ledger (39) aka Widow Twanky, had all three.”We (Felch) want to bring to the AMI what Nordi brought to the Eurovision Song Contest.” Dressed in a large Gothic dress, with painted on black tears, he performed a death metal version of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” as a duet, performed with a red devil he spawned live on stage.

It’s nearing show time, not that you could tell it backstage. There is an almost lethargic atmosphere as the tannoys fall silent. Guys wander the hall in there undies, others with hairy legs protruding from floral dresses, timing how long it takes to walk from their dressing rooms to the side of the stage. The vodka is cracked into (and the beer and the cider) while the bitter taste of defeat that seven of the queens will digest later is preceded by foul mouthfuls of hairspray. Tranny is playing hardball with our photographer (“I don’t do halfway shots”), choosing instead to settle what ever nerves with a “nice little settler” while Dublin’s drag elite (Bunny, Shirley Temple Bar, Veda) strut about in magnificent outfits, giving the contestants an extra 10cc’s of encouragement before taking to the stage themselves for the evenings magnificent openener, a lip synced extrtavaganza to the Circle of Life.

You can really see what was on the mind of the gay community over the years by what the acts chose to satirise. Last year it was the Catholic Church and child abuse. Other years it was gay marriage, civil partnership, immigration & the Euro. 2011 was a more mixed bag with no over riding theme dominating. Equality and economics featured but so too did more personal issues like heartache and personal development.

A Bishop blessed the crowd with a toilet brush, before dueling with Freddy Mercury to the strains of We Will Rock You; Andy Warhol created a pop Icon doll that took over his factory before having a complete mental breakdown and being thrown into the pit with all the photographers. Dolly and Missy Elliot lay side by side as Miss Rusty Hinges flung bananas and potatoes into the audience while Tranny Ward’s own brand of crude humor may have brought jeers from the audience but she at least acknowledged it within the act herself.

But there can only be one winner. And this year the Medusa Crown of Shamrocks was only ever going to rest on one head. Hitting the sage with uncontrollable force Mangina Jones aka Cian O Brien (29) producer with Rough Magic Theatre Company, electrified the Olympia audience lip-synching to Celine Dion’s cover of River Deep, Mountain High. Not exactly the most original concept of the night, yet he committed so fully to his performance-and did it without the scores of backing dancers, make up artists or eye candy used by every other act- that he brought the entire building to an automatic standing ovation not felt since the Eurovision Song Concert that Riverdance ran away with, an experienced described by Panti as ‘spiritual’.

Runner up-and recipient of the Silver Shillelagh Julian Mandrew’s  perhaps sums up the competitions appeal best when she says; “I just don’t think people play dress up enough in life. How often can an amateur performer take to the stage in the Olympia Theatre? It’s quite rare and its quite special.”


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