“I remember I said, ‘oh, I don’t want to be described as a queer artist’ and I think that was small minded of me. I was kind of like ‘I don’t want to be anybody’s anything’. But I do see myself as a queer artist now. And I’m proud of it. My views aren’t necessarily boxed off by gayness or queerness – it’s just who I am. And queerness doesn’t necessarily relate to gayness. I think there’s an accountant somewhere in Ireland that’s a queer but is married and has four kids, and that’s really exciting to me”. Xnthony is an artist and performer from Roscommon who spends his time between Dublin and London. We met for a chat at the RHA.
Xnthony and I have been acquaintances for some time. Although we have never been particularly close, we are about the same age and share many of the same friends. Despite this minimal degree of separation, I do not know much about him, or about one of the most fundamental aspects of his persona – his name. So, I ask. “It’s a really personal story that I’ve never told people publicly, but I probably will at some time in the future. I was going through a bit of a thing – ugh, it sounds so wanky and self absorbed – but there was a genuinely difficult period in my life a couple of years ago. I realised I didn’t want to be wasting time not performing, because it’s something I really wanted to do, and I had this sense that time was limited – take what you will from that. I changed my name to Xnthony because I was trying to hide from someone on Facebook and I thought that would delete them from my realm and it just sort of stayed. And X also has lots of connotations like Xtube, Xtina, and Christ. And nobody can really say the name either. Even in my head I wonder if I'm saying it wrong" [pronunciation note: think X for Xanax].
Even though this reconceptualisation of his self – or some of his self – from Anthony to Xnthony came from a very personal place, it had relevance to the direction in which his artistic practice was moving, and to the particular audience to which his work appeals most. Xnthony says, "it was in the middle of that self image making time. Myspace had happened, Bebo had happened, and we were all beginning to present ourselves online in ways we hadn’t really before and I was escaping into that a bit and channeling the trauma I was going through". How would he describe Xnthony today? “He’s hopeful, desperate, needy, insecure. But defiant and fabulous and aggressively convinced of his own ability to get where he wants to go”. And Anthony? “Anthony is less needy. The rest is the same”.
Xnthony, as a character, goes some way in representing Anthony's previous, sincerely held aspirations. “Years ago I really wanted to be a pop star. Like, deludedly so. I really wanted to be Madonna”. Now, Xnthony is an optic through which this goal can be reappraised and playfully critiqued. He continues, “it’s more exciting now to turn that into a joke in itself, or a project in itself, and you can put so many things around it. At the moment, Xnthony is looking for the Eurovision nomination and that will go on for the next year or two, continuously – it’s sort of an ongoing project that changes in real time. But then the next piece that I’m working on with [with co-collaborator Tiffany Murphy] is The Power of Wow. It’s about Xnthony marrying his biggest fan, a woman, to try and broaden his mainstream appeal. It’s about his sexuality and his queerness and hiding that and boxing himself off, and masculinity, and wellness, and veganism”.
Reference to Eurovision and food trends, made almost in the same breath, invoke an unexpected parallel between Xnthony and Donal Skehan, of all people. I’m glad Xnthony reminds me of this, and we share in a mesmerisation of what was a fairly seamless transformation. “Donal Skehan did once try to do the Eurovision. The turnaround was magical. He tried [it], failed, and then became a celebrity chef. I had the idea of Xnthony doing that and someone reminded me that Donal Skehan had done it. The whole thing is about those people who do the Kerry Katona, who have an awful time at it, and rebrand”. Xnthony wants to be a brand as much as he wants to be art, as seen superficially in the X emblazoned merchandise that features in the pictures accompanying this interview.
Before this, however, Xnthony is gearing up for another project that aims to give a platform to performers who may otherwise be going under appreciated if not totally unrecognised. “There’s definitely some bubbling up of queer performance that isn’t getting enough space in Dublin at the moment which hopefully I can rectify. I’ve spent a lot of time on the drag scene there and I’ve seen the issues in terms of queer work not really getting seen or encouraged – I want to open the doors and present it. I don’t care if you’re a baker or a right wing fascist. I want to bring everyone in, because there’s no open mic place in Dublin, and maybe give them some advice [not that I’ve any advice to give], and showcase them. I’m trying to find people who are voiceless and defiant and fearless”. This celebration of performance – in seemingly any form “they can be good, they can be bad, it doesn’t really matter” – will be held in Dublin and London, “with the possibility of swapping over and connecting those two places; a cross pollination”.
Called XNTO PANTO, Xnthony boldly cites Alternative Miss Ireland [AMI] as a precedent, “it has part of the DNA of Alternative Miss Ireland. I think it’s answering that call set out in 2012 when AMI finished that nobody has really answered”. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that nobody could ever expect to satisfactorily recreate the magic and the glory of AMI. Although Xnthony agrees with this, I suspect that he will try his best. Xnthony entered AMI himself, walking away as first runner up. He describes the immediate aftermath, “AMI was really important for me – it was the first time I really nailed a performance in my eyes. And I could never really repeat that. It was amazing but I got really overwhelmed by it because suddenly you’re being asked to do performances in gay bars and [back then] I just really wasn’t able. I didn’t have the skills. Either I self-sabotaged or I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want people to tell me what I was doing. I just had to learn and go away. And I had Kitschcock as well which was a critical flop, but really important for my development”.
For sure, Xnthony has endured some poor reviews. And all the better for it, it would seem. "I’ve had a lot of knocks. I don’t particularly feel like I’ve been nurtured too much by any one person. After [Kitschcock] in Fringe 2013, I was slated – I just cried for days. I really struggled to make work after that. There was a fear, a huge blockage. And Douze [his latest show] comes out of that fear". Did the critics know what they were talking about when it came to Kitschcock? "I think Kitschcock was bad. I was doing things I didn’t really have the skills to do. I was trying to open up about stuff without telling anybody anything which was challenging. I don’t mind criticism – if it’s shit, it’s shit. But I work really hard to make sure that we really figure it out. I wouldn’t do it now how we did it in 2013".
I ask Xnthony what he has learned from the experience around Kitschcock. "Get people to look at your work before you do anything. Inevitably it changes and you can’t be living in the past – I was trying to repeat what I was I able to do before. And don’t be so full of shit, and don’t hype yourself up. I have a habit of doing that". This self reflection following Kitschcock has paid off. Xnthony is proud of Douze and the "cult-y fan club" it has amassed following its tour around Europe.
I am interested to hear more about Xnthony's experience of the drag and queer performance scenes in Dublin and London, given his familiarity with both. "My issue with London drag is while there is an exuberance and a playfulness, there is something lacking in craft sometimes, and because it is so experimental in ways, including the way it is presented, it means the other side can get lost". By "the other side" Xnthony is referring to the technicalities of performance including delivery, idea development, and pushing form. He goes on, "then in Dublin you have this really serious, amazing, sense of craft in terms of form and how people present themselves but not that same exuberance and experimental wildness that you have in London". XNTO PANTO and its ambition to create a dialogue between both cities seems like an effort to reconcile these two dimensions.
Despite Xnthony's self professed love of drag, it is not beyond criticism. "Drag is so common now, it’s not as aggressively innovative or doing what drag is there for – to shake people up; for clowning. That’s why I love and take great pride in being a man in pants sitting on a man and grinding up on him and sweating like a pig during one of my songs because that doesn’t [ordinarily] happen". Similarly, Xnthony takes issue with drag's urban centralisation, "sadly, drag doesn’t get to bring its anarchism to Kingston or York" beyond a couple of exceptions which he cites including himself and Johnny Woo. Xnthony reckons support, insecurity, and fear, are what keep drag tied to bigger cities, serving to limit the extent to which a particular agenda can be pushed amongst a wider audience. Gay misogyny, as it occurs inside and outside the context of drag and performance, is another issue that we discuss, and one that remains under addressed more generally.
Speaking with Xnthony is demanding. He is frequently interrupted by his own interjections – a throwaway remark, an aside, a footnote, a mutter, an exclamation, an indeterminable sound – many of which seem like ideas, or the bases for ideas, which find brief expression before being stored away for the future. Or maybe they are immediately forgotten and replaced. Sitting face to face with him is to be confronted by somebody frothing and foaming with ideas, schemes, and plans ["as long as I have a filter, everything is good"]. For this, speaking with Xnthony is energising. Undoubtedly, he is provocative – for the sake of it or not, I do not know – and seems to enjoy seeking out reactions. However, like the art he makes, and the art he is, Xnthony is compelling – you can't look away and, even if you could, you probably wouldn't want to. At once he can say something very sure footed about his work, "I do the stuff that performance art does but I also make people want it" whilst immediately following that up with an admission of "getting lost in the wank of performance", in which you realise he is not beyond vulnerability or insecurity or criticism of his self or his discipline. For this, speaking with Xnthony is, ultimately, refreshing. As he says himself as we leave the RHA, "honesty is my brand".