Marcus Hunter-Neill spent 17 years trying to be an overnight success. Struggling to read or spell due to severe dyslexia and suffering humiliating bullying, Marcus started out by working with children who have special needs and moved into the performing arts. There his alter-ego Lady Portia Di’Monte was born.
In 2016, Marcus took to the TEDxStormont stage to talk about using the best of both identities to get through life. We had the great privilege to catch up with Marcus during Pride Month to find out more about the man and the journey behind the drag…
How was your TEDxStormont experience?
I was really excited about doing the talk and I was even more excited about doing it in drag. The one thing I know is the power of drag, the spectacle of it. You get people’s attention but it’s also for members of the LGBTQ community who are younger, who will see it and know that anything is possible. There I was dancing down the marble staircase in Stormont, showing that everyone in the world is valid. Yes, I was dressed in drag but the talk was more than that. It was about using drag to disrupt their pattern of thinking and get them to listen intently.
What has happened for you since the TEDxStormont talk?
I had just started to head up an international events company before the pandemic but then, obviously, events-based work didn’t happen in person. An American guy who used to come to my karaoke nights asked me if I would do a pop quiz for their company. Because I can’t read and I thought these are all really super-intelligent corporate people, I was thinking: ‘OK, I can’t.’ And if I had questions sent to me with hard words to read I couldn’t be in my own flow. So I suggested Zoom bingo and it went down a storm. I got a cocktail-maker friend of mine recording herself creating three cocktails and I performed three different bits of cabaret. It was this wonderful bar experience, except for the fact that everybody was at home.
I also set up a company called The U = CAN Network. The whole premise is that you can and we can. I believe you can do anything you want but sometimes you need a wee bit of support. It’s been helping people all over the world get a start in business or building a dream. I never want the fact that people don’t have enough money to stop them fulfilling their dream. It’s a self-funding ecosystem so people donate to The U = CAN Network or people who do well off the back of it can put back in.
What would you say to young people who want to dream big?
There is such potential, especially in young people if they’re given the right tools at an age where they can really do something with them. I had to learn on the hoof from my late-20s to my mid-30s. I can’t read, spell or write but none of that has ever stopped me. I have an Alexa that helps me spell words that I shout across to her. It’s funny because she doesn’t always understand my accent so I have to put on an English one!
Unfortunately we suffer so much from other people’s limiting beliefs of us. I started off on a path because somebody told me: ‘No, you can’t be this, you have to be this.’ That path then slowly but surely took me on to a different avenue.
In my 20s I was working with children with special needs in a school and was loving it. When the principal found out I was gay she revoked my my placement. The most amazing thing that came from that was that had I stayed on that path I would always in the back of my head felt I could never be myself, I could never have come out.
You mentioned in your talk that you’re the first openly gay presenter live on air in Northern Ireland. What was that like for you?
I was so well known on the drag scene so I couldn’t authentically go on air and just be neutral. I had to be myself. That’s also why I got that job.
People just see Portia as a perfectly packaged and palatable production. She’s that toe in the water for people to experience what gay is like and it’s not to be feared. I know that because I’ve had so many people come up to me over the years and say: ‘Only because my mum and dad thought you were great I was able to come out’ or: ‘My mum talked about you so much that I knew I was it was OK to come out.’
Boys who were 15, 16, 17 would come into the makeup counter I was working on – I was the only male working in cosmetics on a shop floor. They would chat away and ask me about makeup and everything like that and they’ve all come back and said thank you as there were no visual aids around the city of what a gay person was.
Do you think Northern Ireland has evolved to become more diverse and embracing of all people?
I have to be totally honest and say no and yes. In the last 20 years I’ve seen great change but nowhere near the sense of change that other more progressive societies have adopted. You have to think of the government we have – they’ve never embraced good change. We need to take church and state and separate them.
In some businesses I’ve gone into in Northern Ireland, people say their company is really progressive. My advice to them is to look around your office and ask: ‘How diverse is it? How many non-white people do you have? How many openly gay people do you have in it? How many people with any form of disability or special needs do you have?’ Then you can tell me that you have an open-door policy.
When people say: ‘They don’t apply for the jobs’, there’s a reason that they’re not applying for the jobs – it’s because you’re not recruiting in the right format. You need to align either your words with your actions or your actions with your words.
What is your vision of progress for Northern Ireland?
In the past I would have been like: ‘Just everybody get on and it would be great.’ Actually, we need a complete clear-out of dead wood in politics. There are some great MLAs who are very progressive – they’re in the minority but eventually they will be the majority.
You also have to remember it’s only been 21 years since the peace process actually happened. So that’s only one generation. Our progression through a modern-day society in Northern Ireland will be something that will eventually breed itself out.
My best example of this would be last week when I was at a gay wedding. There was a wonderful mixture of families, gay friends and straight friends. The gay people were so comfortable that they walked around holding hands. At different tables there were gay people and straight people all mixed. It was a snapshot of what Northern Ireland could look like if we were progressive enough not to see colour, sexuality or disability – if we only saw humanity.
What’s next for you?
My real focus is growing The U = CAN Network because in a year it has spanned the globe. So whether that is going to shanty towns and building solid structures and putting in running water or creating community centres, the goal is to positively impact the lives of over 100,000 people in some way, shape or form.
I think Portia could do a lot more. I’ve started a Positively Portia podcast where I’m interviewing people from all around the world. I think Portia would be an amazing asset to a network as an interviewer because I’m an amazing listener and we haven’t had a drag queen interviewer since Lily Savage on The Big Breakfast. I would love Portia to have a chat show because I think it would change so many hearts and minds.
What’s your call to action for people?
If you witness an injustice, whether it’s related to sexuality, race, sex or disability, call it out. Your bravery gives other people the permission to agree with you. Until people see that they have allies to stand up against injustice, they never will.
Watch Marcus’ talk:
Resources and useful links:
The U = CAN Network
Join the U = Can Facebook group:
Find out more about Marcus’ corporate services:
Connect with Marcus:
For LGBTQ support visit: