Show is over for the real Miss Ireland

After 25 years of fun and games, the alternative pageant finishes on Sunday. Caomhán Keane reflects on a truly fabulous event

CHRISTMAS is cancelled. At least for those within the gay community, with the news that this weekend’s Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI) pageant will be the last. After 25 years, the event has finally come of age and is hanging up her famed Medusa Crown of Shamrocks.

The question on everyone’s lips is, why end it now? “Eighteen years is a long time to be doing anything,” says former host Rory O’Neill AKA Miss Panti. “The group of people who put it together have moved away and have had children. They have careers and responsibilities of their own.”

Other people have joined the family, but it has proven harder to keep getting everybody together and, as the founders of the contest embrace middle age, the gap between their pop culture references and those of the “baby gays” has begun to widen. “Were all in our 40s now. Maybe it’s time someone in their 20s came along and had a fun idea. After all, AMI started as a tiny little event in a club basement.”

That club was Sides in Dublin, the first commercially run mixed gay dance club in a city riddled with homophobia. AMI designer Niall Sweeney and his partner Frank Stanley very quickly made a reputation for themselves for dressing the club with extraordinary installations. Events included an obit party for Andy Warhol and A Midsummer Night’s Eve gig where a working fountain was placed on the edge of the dance floor beside a two-storey high cherry tree with a disco ball hanging from it. By the time AMI came about, the seeds had been sewn in the minds of a collective that would dominate alternative nightlife in the city for the next two decades.

“It had a very strong DIY, punk aesthetic,” recalls Tonie Walsh, a two-time contestant and lighting designer of the first event. “The back of the stage was a huge carpet bought in Des Kelly Carpets with a Queen Elizabeth medallion punctuated through gold rib curtains. We all got changed and drunk together in this tiny little space, before going out in costumes we’d thrown together over the weekend.”

The event was a fundraiser for the Rape Crisis centre: Mr Pussy judged, Linda Martin MC’d and the contestants were a mix of art students and show-offs following the template laid out by Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World, with day wear, swimwear and evening wear sections.

It would be nine years before the next contest could be held. This was Dublin in the late 1980s and, with large numbers emigrating, creativity went to ground and it wasn’t long before the ingenuity of Sides was stifled in favour of a more populist approach to entertainment. Worse, Aids wiped out a generation of young gay men.

“The extent of those years of early destruction left a lot of us angry and disbelieving, and also a lot of us feeling guilty,” says Walsh. “Survivor guilt.”

The AMI was reconstituted in 1996 as a big public event that raised money for HIV/Aids charities (€335,000 to date). “We were beautifully positioned to take advantage of the hyper creativity, that crescendo of talent and energy that emerged after the decriminalisation of homosexuality,” says Walsh.

Clubs like Powder Bubble and Ham cross-pollinated with the AMI and it became a big date in the gay calendar. It also became a showcase for performance artists, comediennes, drag kings and queens. And outright loons.

“You can never tell what is going to make a connection with people,” says O Neill. “Sometimes it’s the all singing, all dancing extravaganza, other times it’s really pared back and simple. But it has to be well thought out. It’s never going to be the pretty boy who goes out and lip syncs to Britney that gets the crowd going.”

Among O’Neill’s highlights were Big Chief Random Chaos, who stuffed a camera up his backside and communed with his inner self (a foetus with his face on it, projected on a big screen) and David McDermott, an elderly artist who stood on his head speaking about the universe through a megaphone.

The early shows were marked by chaos. Things got smoother and easier as the years went by. The emergence of three particularly talented contestants — Shirley Temple Bar, Katherine Lynch and Veda Beaux Reves — raised the profile of the pageant. “There’s no doubt that the three of them winning put a whole new gloss on the show. Mainstream success has probably cultivated a not insignificant interest from alternative hetro-Irish society.”

Although this is the last show, the AMI collective haven’t thrown in the towel. There is a retrospective planned for next year, as well as a documentary, which they hope will raise more funds for HIV/Aids charities.

But, more pressing for Faux Mná na h-Eireann is: what is to fill the slot vacated by the AMI? “I would like to see some young, creative kids come along and do something else that takes the same position that the AMI has in the gay community, that is not necessarily AMI Part II,” says O Neill.

* The Alternative Miss Ireland pageant takes place on Sunday at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin.

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