So I've heard about this "Alternative Miss Ireland" event for a few years now. Kind of like a Rose of Tralee, kind of like a Craggy Island Lovely Girls competition and kind of like the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the year gig that Gaybo used to do, except for men pretending to be women and sexual jokes aplenty and sure it's really only a gay community thing, right?
A selective run around Google offers a few things - previous contestants include Joanna Ryde, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Heidi Konnt, Funtime Gustavo, Lucy Furr, Tampy Lylette and Shirley Temple Bar, some of whom have won - Shirley Temple Bar and Tampy (Katherine Lynch) best known to us through RTÉ. The pictures from Showbiz Ireland or Flickr tell a story of flamboyance, of creativity and of a design flair you won't see on any Late Late Show this side of Gaybo.
Photo from here.
2002 photo from Showbiz Ireland
Visiting the website presents a more complete story. We are told
Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI) is an annual beauty pageant that is open to all creatures - men, women and animals - and that raises money for Irish HIV/AIDS organisations.A lot of money in fact. Over €250,000 since 1996 with over €50,000 being made on last year's pageant alone - €20,000 more than 2007.
"Money raised by AMI has been instrumental in enabling the development of ground-breaking programmes tackling issues with HIV and children, and more recently with the burgeoning immingrant populations in Ireland" says the website.
Five different charities are the benefactors - each one with different concerns: from children to parents; prevention to post-infection healthcare; education, well-being and self-esteem. Open Heart House, Gay Mens Health Project, Dublin AIDS Alliance, Grandmas Ireland and The NewFill Project at St James’ Hospital have all benefited.
Photo from Panti's fabulous pictorial.
If one name was to be associated with the event it is Panti. I met with the organiser, grand-dame doyenne, presenter and tour-de-force icon herself to find out more about the show:
"No, it's not just about drag queens and kings. Maybe for the last few years it's been sidetracked into that but crazed, fabulous performance has always been at its roots and that's what we're looking to get back to this year. At its heart - and it's a big heart - it's a silly, fun, and totally fabulous charity event.
Shirley Temple Bar is probably the most high profile drag winner and that was 1997 so it may have put that it's about traditional drag acts into some people's heads. But 2009 is about bringing it back to its arts student vibe; there are very few straight up drag entries."
Artwork by Niall Sweeney
Happening on March 15, 2009, the competition returns for its ninth year to the Olympia Theatre. The theatre is an important part of the show, having come from venues like the Red Box on Harcourt Street and Temple Bar Music Centre.
"Before the Olympia, the carpark usually doubled up as both freezing dressing rooms and toilets. The dancefloor would be squeezed with tables and though one year we did manage a kind of curtain system, it broke down early in the proceedings and was duly ditched.
So the Olympia was a revelation to us - a real stage with a full-time and experience stage crew! Dressing rooms with toilets and washing facilities! It was huge change. It allowed us to produce the event on the scale which it seemed to want to become, and gave us a whole system of people and spaces that were just unachievable to us before."
The very first Alternative Miss Ireland happened in 1986 - it was a very small club event at a time when homosexuality was still a crime.
"In 1996, because of the club nights and events we were involved in organising, a group of us were were approached by one of the many groups that had transformed from gay activism to AIDS activism, to dig up the Alternative Miss and put her to work as a charitable concern.ORGANISATION
It's important to note that in 1990, six of those directly involved with the original AMI, two of them contestants, were already dead from AIDS. So here we are, all volunteers, all donating our time having raised 250,000 Euro for Irish HIV/AIDS organisations."
"There have been some changes this year. Previously we tended to just bury our heads and get into a big flap around January time. This time though we all went down the country - some 18 of us - and ate food and talked AMI for two days solid.This year contestants were asked to submit videos of them to the judging panel. Panti has them on her blog - some are bizarre, some downright strange and some just wonderful. This one is my personal favourite so far:
We've refocussed on making the show nuttier and artier, bringing a new experience to both performers and the audience."
"It wouldn't happen without the contestants and all the hard work they put in. It's incredibly impressive and always astounding to see how the aspiring Queens, with nothing to win except the title, and nothing to lose except their dignity... put so much work into the creation of our Misses.The entry stats are impressive. As the website says
One spontaneous and sometimes hilarious thing about the AMI is that there are no dress rehearsals for the contestants, they arrive at the theatre in the afternoon on the day of the event. The only stage most of them have ever been on before is the imaginary one in front of their bedroom mirror.
We get in on the morning of the show, run around setting everything up and then getting it ready for the audience. We have no idea what the contestants will do on stage, we're seeing it for the first time.
It's a fucking amazing event on so many levels; it's highly entertaining, the atmosphere is fantastic and it's in no way up its own arse - it's a mixture of raw talent and butt clenchingly awful performances and that's what makes it special.
It's quite amazing how moving some of the performances can be. People still talk about '97, the year that Shirley won. When Heidi Konnt handed over her crown in 2006, people were in tears. We've had all singing acts, all dancing acts. We even had a dog entered as a contestant one year."
We've had 150 entrants Which means 450 individual performances and they, in turn, have brought over 1,000 additional assistants and performers on stage with them. Of the 150 entrants, about a quarter have been biologically female. And then at least 5 have started off on one side of the gender spectrum and now live happily on the other side.
So what happens at the show?
"Well, it's a traditional beauty pageant - the contestants - there are usually about 10 - are put through rounds of daywear, swimwear and evening wear and are judged on their originality, personality and poise. That's where the madness starts.The entrants, known as "aspiring Queen Cailíns", compete for only the title as there is no prize-money. The awards are refashioned each year from the cheapest possible assembly of materials.
We've had some great judges through the years - Senator David Norris, Louis Walshe, Linda Martin, Ivana Bacik, Twink, Mr Pussy, Brenda Fricker, NCAD lecturers, New York arts magazine editors and multi award winning international video artist (and San francisco drag legend) Paul Rowley.
Each of the contestants should have created an alter-ego - their alternative "Miss" to be realised through elaborate and skilful constume and performance on the night. There'll be dancing, singing, mimes, props a plenty, a tonne of make-up, some debatable genitals, plenty of nervous passion and, usually, at least one contestant who manages to push some kind of boundary. The audience love it."
The Crown is known as the Medusa Crown of Shamrocks, and last year it took the form of a large silver spike with an impaled seagull as the photo of last year's winner Sheila Fitzpatrick shows below.
"The idea of an Alternative Miss, which in Irish translation becomes "Alternative Daughter", as an alternative ambassabdor for the country, tugs at the concept of the Women of Ireland, the Mná na hÉireann, who have been invoked into action throughout Irish history, most recently in the campaigns for reforms in equality and human rights status."So says the AMI website. But the reaction of people on forums - "YAY! Really looking forward to this..."; "This night is the one fun crazy night"; "The fun..the money..the madness! That's what makes AMI... I can't wait" is an indication that this is an event both loved by and important to those who go and enjoy it.
Tickets go on sale today from the Olympia Theatre Box Office. It's bound to be a different night to the shamroguery and paddywhackery taking place in Dublin around the time, all monies raised go to a great cause and you can always say you were there to see the last Alternative Miss Ireland of the first decade of 2009 crowned. And that, in itself, will be quite a story to tell.