Paul O’Grady, the Birkenhead born presenter and comedian known for his iconic drag queen character Lily Savage, has died.
The 67-year-old died on Tuesday evening, as confirmed by his husband Andre Portasio in a statement. Although his death was unexpected, it was reported to have been peaceful.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully yesterday evening,” Mr Portasio said.
“He will be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, animals and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion.
“I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”
Throughout his career, O’Grady gained fame for his work as a game show host on Blankety Blank and various other entertainment programs. He later transitioned to hosting chat shows and showcased his passion for dogs on-screen.
A few weeks ago, O’Grady shared on Instagram that he had been on tour, portraying Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. He expressed his delight in reprising the role after a long time and conveyed his admiration for the incredible and amiable cast in Newcastle.
In August 2022, he resigned from his Radio 2 show, citing dissatisfaction with sharing his Sunday afternoon slot. He was scheduled to host a program on Boom Radio for Easter Sunday, less than two weeks away.
O’Grady was born into a working-class Irish migrant family in Tranmere and later moved to London during the late 1970s.
He initially worked as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council before developing his drag act in 1978. O’Grady created the character of Lily Savage, drawing upon traits he observed amongst his female relatives.
He first toured England as part of a drag mime duo, the Playgirls, before branching out as a solo stand-up comedian in the early 1980s.
O’Grady performed as Savage for eight years at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT), a South London gay pub, where he amassed a devoted following within London’s gay community. Using his character to advocate for gay rights, he became a popular and influential figure.
O’Grady gained mainstream recognition after being nominated for a Perrier Award in 1992, and subsequently made numerous television, radio, and theatrical appearances. He presented various TV shows, including The Big Breakfast (1995-1996), Blankety Blank (1997-2002), and Lily Live! (2000-2001) as Savage, winning several awards and establishing himself as a well-known public figure.
Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram said, “Paul O’Grady was one of life’s good guys. From well-publicised charity work and campaigning on animal rights to the flame of social justice that burned strongly inside him. He never forgot his roots in our region – and our region will never forget him. He will be missed. RIP.”
The Floral Pavilion in New Brighton issued a statement; “We are shocked and deeply saddened to wake up to the news about Paul O’Grady. A much-loved British icon and theatre legend who will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.”
The Liverpool Empire also released a statement; “All at the Liverpool Empire Theatre are deeply saddened by the heartbreaking news of the sudden passing of beloved actor, comedian and TV personality Paul O’Grady. Our thoughts are with his husband, family and friends at this difficult time.”
Speaking on her Radio 2 breakfast show this morning, Zoe Ball said, “We’re all heavy of heart here this morning at the news of our dear friend Paul O’Grady. I know he was so loved by the Radio 2 listeners and all of us here.”
A statement released through the official Twitter account of the Royal Family said that Camilla, Queen Consort, is, “Deeply saddened to hear of the death of Paul O’Grady, who worked closely with Her Majesty in support of Battersea [Dogs and Cats Home], providing lots of laughter and many waggy-tailed memories.”
Former BBC Radio 2 colleague Ken Bruce said, “Such shocking sad news about Paul O’Grady. A unique and brilliant broadcaster who brightened the nation.”
Former Big Breakfast host Gaby Roslin, who occasionally sat in for the presenter on his Radio 2 Paul O’Grady show, said, “Goodness me we laughed together so much. Our chats lasted for hours and he’ll be up there now nattering away and keeping everyone laughing… He was brave and clever and naughty and a dear friend. Sleep tight Savage darling I adored you.”
Actor John Barrowman said, “I am totally shocked and sad to hear the awful news that Paul O’Grady has died. An awesome talent stretching decades.”
Sir Elton John said, “Thank you for all the joy you brought into the world, Paul. You went places nobody had gone before and we will miss you very much.”
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, said, “Paul O’Grady’s love for animals and the incredible way he told their stories inspired countless families to re-home rescue pets and give them a second chance of happiness.
“His tireless campaigning saw Paul recognised with an RSPCA Animal Hero Award for his outstanding contribution to animal welfare, while he once adopted a little lamb Winston from us who had been rescued from a wheelie bin.
“The thoughts of all at the RSPCA are with his loved ones and our friends at Battersea at this difficult and sad time.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home Chief Executive, Peter Laurie said, “To many, Paul O’Grady was the immensely popular TV and radio presenter and comedian who lit up their screens with his razor-sharp humour and perpetual generosity and warmth. Battersea will forever remember Paul as a devoted animal lover with the biggest heart, who fell head over heels in love with every dog he met at our centres. Paul will always be associated with Battersea and we are truly saddened to have lost such a true friend and huge part of our charity.”
“Paul had an extremely hands on approach as a Battersea Ambassador and has been fundamental in helping our charity to communicate important campaign messages. He was a champion for the underdog and would do anything to ensure all animals live a healthy and happy life. He will be dearly missed.”
The career of Paul O’Grady
Born in 1955 in Birkenhead, Paul O’Grady’s mother’s maiden name was Savage, which is said to have inspired his famous drag persona, Lily Savage.
In the 1970s, O’Grady began performing as Savage and gained notoriety for speaking out about LGBT issues. His solo show as Lily Savage at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern ran for eight years.
In 1997, O’Grady hosted The Lily Savage Show on the BBC for a brief period, before moving on to host a revived version of the game show Blankety Blank, which aired until 2002.
From 2004 to 2005, he hosted the teatime program The Paul O’Grady Show on ITV, which he later moved to Channel 4 from 2006 until 2009. The show was revived in 2013 on ITV, but after O’Grady suffered a health scare that same year, guest hosts took over.
O’Grady has experienced two heart attacks in the past, in 2002 and 2006, with the latter requiring intensive care. In 2017, he took over as the presenter of Blind Date on Channel 5, following the show’s reboot, taking over from his close friend, Cilla Black.
During his career, O’Grady received several accolades, including a TV Bafta, a British Comedy Award, and a National Television Award for The Paul O’Grady Show. He was also recognized for his contributions to entertainment and was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2008.
In 1974, O’Grady had a daughter with his friend Diane Jansen. He later entered into a marriage of convenience with a Portuguese lesbian in 1977, whom he only legally divorced in 2005. In 2017, O’Grady married his husband in a ceremony held in London.
In November, O’Grady was appointed as one of Kent’s deputy lieutenants, representing the King at events in the area. He resided in Aldington, near Ashford.
Paul O’Grady died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on 28 March 2023, aged 67.
Image: Flickr user Steve Punter, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons