FROM THE ARCHIVE
A Perfect Fits
From The Archive: GCN's interview with AMI winning act from 2008, Sheila Fits Patrick. Issue 231, March 2009
As Sheila Fits Patrick, the victor at last year's Alternative Miss Ireland gets ready to hand over the crown, her alter ego, Mike Shinners talks to Brian Finnegan about the shock of winning, subsequent Internet bitching and his big Eurovision ambitions. Photograph by Mary Furlong.
"I think in the last couple of years, people outside the Pale felt that AMI had become very Dublin orientated."
There's a song in the musical, Gypsy, sung by a gaggle of striptease artists about the fine art of burlesque performance, called You Gotta Get a Gimmick. The same salient advice could be given to hopefuls in Ireland's annual queer talent-pageant, Alternative Miss Ireland (AMI). Just look at the gimmicks used by previous winners, from Shirley Temple Bar's gymnastics moves to Heidi Konnt's fisting obsession, Tampy Lilette's country stylings to Funtime Gustavo's big, Broadway musical numbers. Last year's winner, Miss Sheila Fits Patrick sealed her winning place with a paddling pool.
It one of the most hotly contested contests in a long time, and Sheila made a good impression when she took to the stage for the daywear section with a catchy little ditty called I'm Your Limerick Queen tonight. But she blew everyone else out of the water the moment she appeared in the swimwear section wearing nothing but a paddling pool and a grin the Cheshire Cat would kill for.
When I put it to her alter ego, Mike Shinnors, over mocachinos in the Flounge, that it was not Sheila's musical stylings, but her superb swimming costume that stole the show, he looks mildly surprised for a fleeting moment, but then that Cheshire Cat grin beams at me over the rim of his cup, and he acknowledges the fact.
"I wore four swimming rings as a frock when I won the Alternative Miss Limerick (AML) heat," he says. "Coming to Dublin it had to be a little bit bigger, a little bit brighter, so we went with the whole pool this time. And it worked a treat."
The 'we' in Mike's costume design team is himself and his partner, Evan Kennedy, who also drags it up in the Limerick hood as Madonna Lucia. "The two of us come up with the ideas," Mike explains. "I'd be more, 'This is what I want to happen,' but Evan would be more practical about how we could actually make it happen. We're a real team."
Two drag queens in the same relationship and they're a real team? I tell Mike I find that as hard to believe as Kylie and Danni Minogue borrowing each other's Jimmy Choos, but he's adamant that nails and hair never fly in their shared abode.
"We were actually up against each other at AML last year," he says, "but there's no competition between us. We just have good fun with it."
They've been having fun with Sheila Fits Patrick for five years now, ever since she was born on the stage of AML 2004. "I had gone to the show quite a few times," Mike tells me in his lilting Limerick brogue. "And I'd say to myself, 'that's something I'd love give a lash at. That first year I entered, I knew I wouldn't be the best. There are always two are three who are just brilliant, then you've three of four that are middling, then you've two that are just shite. I said if I could be one of the middling ones, I'd be happy; once I wasn't down the bottom of the barrel. We threw it all together in the space of about two weeks and I got runner-up on the night, which was a big surprise.
"A lot of people go for the 'tranny' look and do it very well, but that's never going to work for me, so we went with a different take altogether. I think that helped."
Two years ago, after winning Alternative Miss Cork (AMC), Mike as Sheila had his first experience of the big final in Dublin's Olympia.
"I fell flat on my face," he says with a rueful laugh. "I was on a total high after winning AMC and I was thinking, 'it's going to be great in Dublin'. But it's a totally different ballgame in Dublin - it's taken much more seriously. Some people could see this as a good thing because it brings out a sense of professionalism, but I think it's very hard to get the balance right, between showing the audience you are having fun with it and being totally professional.
"Last year coming up to AMI, I was saying, 'We're not going to get a smell of winning, so let's enjoy the night for what it is and not take it seriously like we did the last time. For some reason I think that translated on stage, it came across that we really were having a ball. Which we were."
Indeed, Sheila was having such a ball, even when it was announced that she won, she still didn't think she had a chance of winning.
"Like, it was an absolute shock," Mike reflects. "I thought both Gaza Strip and Donegal Catch were fantastic and I was absolutely sure one of them was going to win. So, when my name was called, I didn't realise it for a second. Then I started laughing and I couldn't stop. It was nervous laughter. The feeling of winning is very hard to put into words. It was like a mix of excitement, shock, anticipation of what's going to come next, and honour. I was beside myself."
If Mike was beside himself, a huge contingency of Limerick supporters in the audience was dancing on the rafters. "One of the Limerick crowd was videoing the stage when it was announced that I won," says Mike. "In the footage, Panti says my name and then camera goes completely missing after that! It was amazing to get that support.
"I think in the last couple of years, people outside the Pale felt that AMI had become very localised, very Dublin orientated. With text voting from the audience, that's always going to be the case - it's simple logistics, you're going to have more people from Dublin in the audience. Sheila's win was very well received down the country, we've gotten a great reception anywhere we've gone - Cork, Waterford, Galway, and Limerick, of course - they were all delighted that a regional queen won."
However, not everyone was delighted - as popular as Sheila Fits Patrick was with the audience, there was some booing when she took the crown.
"When you put yourself into the public eye like that, its natural that you're going to get both sides of it," says Mike. "Somebody came up to myself and Evan at the after-party in PantiBar, not knowing who I was out of drag, and she was quite irate that Sheila had won. She was giving out yards. That didn't feel great, but in the past year I've learned not to take the nay-sayers to seriously. I have gotten a huge amount of positive attention, so when people go on the Internet with fake names that you can't trace and start bitching, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. There is someone on the website, gaire at the minute talking about how last year's AMI was fixed. Bejaysus, if it was fixed no-one told me."
Despite the controversy, it's been a big year for Sheila. She starred in the TV3 documentary, Diary of a Drag Queen, which garnered Mike plenty of attention. As he explains, "Before we ever entered AML, Evan was approached by TV3 to do the documentary. Unfortunately Evan works in a primary school and due to the exposure and this Catholic ethos thing, he felt he couldn't do it. So they used me instead."
Along with the TV show, there's been plenty of presenting stints at queer events, a photo spread in Limerick's answer to VIP magazine, Limerick Now, and, most interestingly to a straight acting job in an Impact Theatre Company revival of the 18th century poet, Brian Merriman's play, Midnight Court.
"It was my first time in a serious role, working with professional actors," says Mike. It was a totally different experience. Even though I was still in drag, it wasn't an over-the-top performance like AMI would be. It had to be restrained. The play was received very well, and I really enjoyed doing it."
Despite having a busy year as Ireland's alternative queen, Mike is circumspect about the opportunities a winner can look forward to. "People seem to think that it can be an easy way of getting into a showbiz career," he says, "but it's not as simple as that. It takes an awful lot of work after winning to get anywhere. You see it with the likes of Katherine Lynch - it's ten years since that lady won and only now that the general public are getting to see her. She worked hard all that time for it."
Having said that, Mike has his eye firmly set on a career move he hinted at with his aforementioned theme song, I'm Your Limerick Queen Tonight.
"It was originally Denmark's Eurovision entry in 2007, sung by DQ," he says. "I used the backing track and changed the lyrics around.
"I'm a total Eurovision freak. At any gig I do there's Eurovision thrown in there somewhere. It always goes down very well. I performed in a gay club on Mykonos and they just ate Eurovision stuff - they absolutely adored it."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Mike, or should we say, Sheila, has designs on representing Ireland in Eurovision 2010.
"We were working on an entry for this year, but unfortunately we left it a bit late for RTE. When you enter they want the whole package worked out, with performer, song, stage production, the whole lot. My producer is in New York, so we didn't have time to get it together. We have a great song and I think it would go down very well at Eurovision, so we're entering it next year."
In the meantime, Mike is back in his day job, which is running his own gay travel company, Rainbow ????. "It's going quite well at the moment," he says. "I was just testing the waters with it, but now it's taken off phenomenally. So now we are getting a bit more money put into advertising and things like that. It's the only service of its kind in the country and more and more people are coming back to travel agencies because booking a whole holiday on the Internet by yourself is actually a lot of work."
In the hours he's not booking holidays for recession-weary homosexuals, Mike is working with Evan on his big number for this year's AMI, as Sheila hands over the crown.
"I'm not even going to give you a hint of what I'm going to do," he says, although it's obvious he's gagging to spill the beans. "Let's just say, Sheila's will be pulling out all the stops, and then some more."