After a long and successful career in television, radio, drag, and stand-up comedy, Paul O’Grady died on 28 March 2023 at the age of 67.
He was known more recently for presenting the long-running chat show The Paul O’Grady Show and for his animal-themed documentary series Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs. However, to older fans he was best known for his drag persona Lily Savage which he used to gain notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a relentless campaigner for the queer community in and out of drag, particularly during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
O’Grady died “unexpectedly but peacefully” according to a statement by his husband André Portasio. Camilla, the Queen Consort, said that she was “deeply saddened” by his passing, having worked closely with him in support of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Malcolm Pince, a long-time friend of O’Grady’s and the producer of his long-running BBC Radio 2 show Paul O’Grady’s on the Wireless, said that he had visited O’Grady only a day before his death. He said that O’Grady was “laughing, smiling, and full of life. He was looking forward to so many new projects… we have lost a unique talent – and I’ve lost a dear friend”. Other tributes have come from the likes of Lorraine Kelly, Amanda Holden, and Elton John.
Danny Beard, the winner of the fourth series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, said that O’Grady was “the most important person in British culture for drag”. He first performed as Lily Savage in 1978, eventually building up a big enough reputation in London to host weekly shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. In his 2010 biography O’Grady described Savage as “a creature that was more cartoon than human”. He performed in drag regularly at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in 1991 was nominated for the Perrier Award for the best Edinburgh show alongside Jack Dee, Suzy Eddie Izzard, and Frank Skinner. He began to move into television by making appearances on shows like The Bill, Viva Cabaret and Top of the Pops, becoming one of the first drag performers to make a breakthrough into popular British media. Comedian James Barr wrote that Lily “took drag mainstream” and “made our mums howl with laughter and normalised gay people on TV by being utterly vile. I can’t imagine a world without her”.
The 1990s saw O’Grady achieve widespread notoriety, presenting The Big Breakfast on Channel 4, selling out a residency in Blackpool, and performing on the West End. In 1997 he began presenting the revival of Blankety Blank and in 2004 hosted the first series of The Paul O’Grady Show, his first major television role out of drag. From then on he was a fixture on British television, winning numerous awards for his work. In 2008 he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment and in 2020 became president of the British Music Hall Society, a charity advocating for and preserving the traditions of live performance.
O’Grady used his drag act to speak out on issues affecting the gay community. In 1988 he marched against the introduction of Section 28 under Margaret Thatcher and he regularly participated in charity fundraisers for HIV/AIDS research. O’Grady once recalled that in 1987 he was arrested in full drag at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in a police raid where officers wore rubber gloves to ‘protect’ themselves from catching HIV. When the police arrived O’Grady shouted, “it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up!”. In 2016 he said that “people my age will never get over the horrors” of the AIDS crisis. He also advocated for a variety of causes on his radio and TV shows. In 2010 he showed support for student protestors on The Paul O’Grady Show, saying that “education should be for everybody, not just those who can afford it”. His BAFTA-nominated show Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs raised the profile of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and encouraged viewers to donate or adopt a pet of their own from an animal shelter.
Paul O’Grady was a powerhouse entertainer who put drag and queerness front and centre in British mainstream media for the first time. He touched the lives and hearts of so many and was a tireless advocate for innumerable causes. He will be remembered as one of the most impactful queer people in the history of British entertainment, showing audiences that being gay didn’t make you any different from everyone else. As Lily Savage he also kicked down doors by proving that queer people didn’t have to be on their best behaviour to make it big. I will close this tribute with a line said by Maggie Jones as Blanche Hunt in a 2008 episode of Coronation Street which really sums up O’Grady’s impact on queer culture and entertainment: “I have no problem with the gays. You know I’d walk on hot coals for Paul O’Grady!”.