Celebrate ‘freaks,’ Panti Bliss tells SMU audience

Rory O’Neill, the man behind drag queen Panti Bliss, wants people to celebrate their differences.

By Aya Al-Hakim

Rory O’Neill as Panti Bliss at SMU. (Aya Al-Hakim / Peninsula News)

Rory O’Neill, the man behind Panti Bliss, wants everyone to celebrate their differences.

O’Neill spoke Saturday at Saint Mary’s University at an event sponsored by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Study of Culture.

O’Neill is an Irish LGBTQ activist whose alter ego, Panti Bliss, a drag queen, serves as a visual for his activism. He is touring across Europe and North America to raise awareness about homophobia.

It all started with his speech at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, which went viral on YouTube. He told his personal story as a gay person and the struggles he faces.

“We now think that homophobia is normal, just background noise that we always expect to deal with, when we shouldn’t. I actually do have stuff to complain about because I can’t stand at a pedestrian crossing without wondering, am I being too gay right now? And those things matter,” said O’Neill, standing in high heels as Panti.

He is happy that the speech forced people to look past him as just a gay drag queen and see the brain inside. It gives him hope that the LGBTQ community can also be seen differently.

What is homophobia? 

O’Neill says the world is very homophobic sometimes.

“If you choose to take your private discomfort and campaign it in public arguing that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should be treated differently than everybody else under the law, then that is a whole different matter than your private discomfort, and in that case I’d say you are a homophobe.”

O’Neill tells people to celebrate the freak, to be comfortable around such people and find power in differences. For him, there is power in the freakishness of Panti Bliss that he values.

“Freaks are the people who move the world on,” said O’Neill.

He stresses the point that people don’t easily fit into prearranged boxes. The world may suggest that to be different or weird is something scary, but O’Neill says it’s one of the great joys in life.

“I always thought that the freedom of being gay is not to conform and have the freedom to do whatever I want.”

O’Neill hopes that the LGBTQ community won’t lose its excitement as an underground community with its own rules and massive space for creativity that challenges the structure of mainstream society.

Eyre Sale-Schenk finds Panti Bliss to be an inspiring figure. After hearing O’Neill speak at SMU, Sale-Schenk says she’s motivated to be more active in the LGBTQ community.

“Halifax is a major city which I feel represents the rest of the province. By spreading this message of celebrating the freak is like an investment in the minds of the next generation,” said Sale-Schenk.


Burlesque dancer: Kay Licious

Kay Licious is a premier burlesque dancer and instructor at Serpentine Studios in Halifax who has been dancing for eight years.

By Aya Al-Hakim

Kay Licious at the World Tea House drinking tea after teaching class.
Kay Licious at the World Tea House drinking tea after teaching a class.

Life’s seriousness disappears once the curtains rise, the knickers fall and the glamour of burlesque lights up the stage with its world of feathers, tease and grinds.

Kay Licious is a premier burlesque dancer and instructor at Serpentine Studios in Halifax. She has been dancing for eight years and teaching burlesque since 2012.

She keeps her real name separate from her life of burlesque.

Herald Kay Licious

A burlesque show back in 2003 produced by the Halifax Burlesque Society paved the way towards the birth of Kay Licious onto the stage of glamour and tease.

“I loved the show, I thought it was fantastic and I wanted to get involved, but I wasn’t living in the city at the time,” says Kay Licious.

The Halifax Burlesque Society, founded in 2003, was the first burlesque community in Halifax. It was disbanded in 2005, but the performers were still committed to spreading the art form.

“I found out through a friend of mine that one of the members of the Halifax Burlesque Society, Cadence MacMichael (Miss Cadence) was starting her own burlesque group called Pink Velvet Burlesque so I offered to help them out on their first show.”

She didn’t perform that night, but had already prepared a stage name for herself. It wasn’t very long after that she started performing.

A brief history of burlesque and body

The art form became very popular in the 1840’s in Europe, but also in the United States and Canada. By the 1880’s Burlesque had taken its solid form that expresses the concepts of seduction, humour, glamour and sex.

“Burlesque has become my passion and obsession. I love people’s reactions to my show and the fact that I’m not a skinny, perfect looking person which bestows confidence onto the audience.”

The word burlesque means mockery or ridicule and it is meant to cause laughter and force people to get out of their comfort zone.

“Burlesque is very accepting of body types” Kay Licious says, “I think one of the main things is that burlesque doesn’t take itself too seriously so I don’t take myself seriously when I perform or teach. I emphasize ridiculousness.”

Kay Licious has performed wearing fisherman clothing and on one occasion, as a sheep.

Kissing the Cod at Menz & Mollyz Bar's 9 Year Anniversary show. Photo by Samson Photography.
Kissing the Cod at Menz & Mollyz Bar’s Nine Year Anniversary show. Photo by Samson Photography.

She teaches her students that a body may be different from another, but it is still a good body that is able to do fun and sexy moves.

“The thing I love the most is when I see a shy student come to me saying that they have taken my burlesque classes to get out of their box and I see that over the ten weeks and that makes me feel so excited.”

One of the things she teaches in class is tassel twirling where tassel pasties are put on the nipples in order to twirl them. Something that can definitely make people get out of their box.

“People would complain about having a big chest or how they can’t do it, but even flat chested men are able to. I encourage my students to push themselves a little bit.”

Explosive creativity

There are no rules when it comes to burlesque. Many dancers are bringing different art forms into it like tap dancing, playing an instrument or singing.

“Its very open to creativity, you bring new things to burlesque and it simply gets built.”

She sometimes even balances a sword on top of her head while belly dancing in burlesque acts.

“It gets trickier coming up with new ideas nowadays because burlesque has become popular so it’s hard to find something that hasn’t been done.

“There are a lot of great minds out there in burlesque and great minds tend to think alike so it’s hard to come up with concepts that are unique,” says Kay Licious. “I try to stay original and get inspired by music that will spark something in my brain.”

Kay Licious sees burlesque as a big tree that branches into different types of performances.

“There is the strip classic burlesque of the gown and glove, the performance art side of it which is the weird and wonderful, people doing strongly political things or the mainstream burlesque like the pussy cat dolls and the movie Burlesque which is the sexy dancing side of it.

“There are so many branches in burlesque that I don’t really know where it is going to end up in the future or if it will keep sprinting out.”

One thing that’s certain Kay Licious is going to keep on performing and teaching. She hopes to travel more out west and to the U.S.

A year in the life of Kay Licious

This year has been very busy for Kay Licious.

In January she did a fundraising show for Habitat for Humanity. She was also the opening act for Roxi D’Lite at the Everything To Do With Sex Show.

Performing at the Everything to do with Sex Show in Halifax. Photo by Brent McCombs, AlterEgo Photography
Performing at the Everything To Do With Sex Show in Halifax.
Photo by Brent McCombs, AlterEgo Photography.

Roxi D’Lite is a headlining performer and the first Canadian to be crowned the Queen of Burlesque by the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

Right now Kay Licious is putting up the Great Canadian Burlesque Brunch that has already performed in November and February. “Those been my first producing events,” she says.

In April, she’s going to perform at the Capital Burlesque Expo in Ottawa. It is Ottawa’s annual event that unites performers all over Canada to celebrate the art of the strip tease.

Kay Licious really enjoys doing burlesque and finds the reactions of the audience satisfying, but there is a downside.

“It is not a widely accepted performance type because it involves striptease so it has a lot of stigma to it that you have to deal with at times.”

“It took me years until I told my parents. They never came to my shows, but they haven’t disowned me.”

The burlesque community in Halifax is fairly small, but despite the art’s stigma, new dancers are coming to the scene because of Kay Licious’s classes and expertise.

“I find that over the years Kay Licious’ confidence and outgoingness seeped into my real self,” she says. “She’s not a very strong character like some of the burlesque dancers out there. Mine is just the more confident version of me.”

Excerpts of Kay Licious’s performances


Winter clothes for Syrian refugees delayed midway to destination

A container filled with winter clothes for Syrian refugees in Turkey is on delay again, after being put under intensive inspection in Norfolk, Virginia on Tuesday.

By Aya Al-Hakim

Mohamed Masalmeh and a few of the group's Justice and Freedom for Syria volunteers.
Mohamed Masalmeh and a few of the group’s Justice and Freedom for Syria volunteers. (Photo courtesy Justice and Freedom for Syria)

A container filled with winter clothes for Syrian refugees in Turkey is on delay again, after being put under intensive inspection in Norfolk, Virginia on Tuesday.

The group Justice and Freedom for Syria in Halifax run by Saint Mary’s students have brought people across Nova Scotia to donate clothes to send to some of the nearly six million Syrians who fled to Turkey from civil war.

“We hoped the container would reach the refugees before the winter ends, but it hasn’t even reached Turkey yet,” said Mohamed Masalmeh, co-founder of the group Justice and Freedom for Syria.

The reason the container was taken under inspection is unknown.

The group planned to send the container in Jan. 2014 to a registered NGO organization in Turkey that accepted to pick up the cargo, but the shipping company ZIM refused to ship it.

Masalmeh got an email from ZIM saying that some of the donations that reached Turkey have disappeared or left abandoned and so will not take the risk to accept it.

He claims that a letter from the group’s consignee was sent to the company to ensure that the cargo will be picked, but ZIM did not change its mind.

“I feel like I am trying to ship drugs and not clothes, kids toys and jackets,” writes Mohamed on the Facebook event’s status on Jan.16.

“The company’s refusal to ship the container was very frustrating so it made me go to the media,” Masalmeh said.

The media coverage brought the attention of politicians and even people from the military to discuss the issue.

Peter Clark of Cyberfreight Systems Maritimes decided to help the group after hearing their struggle on CBC. He found a shipping company called Hapag-Llyod willing to ship the container.

“He approached us and told us he will do it for no charge. We brought the container back and unloaded it ourselves to the container Clark provided,” said Masalmeh.

He got news from the shipping company on Tuesday that the container has reached the U.S, but it was taken for inspection by homeland security in Virginia.

“I don’t know why the container is being intensively inspected. All the goods are listed in detail and we didn’t miss one thing. There are no dangerous goods, only clothing, accessories and kids toys,” said Masalmeh.

Trish from Cyberfreight Systems Maritimes Inc. has been contacting homeland security and the head office of the shipping company twice a day. She’s doing her best to ensure no further delay and to get the container across to its destination.

“It seems that everything about Syria’s situation is more complicated than it looks. Sometimes I think asking for our dignity, basic human rights and freedoms while not selling out is a lost cause,” Masalmeh said.

Check the group’s event page on Facebook.