How Paul O'Grady shot to fame as iconic drag act Lily Savage
The trailblazer whose iconic drag act took him from seedy London clubs to Buckingham Palace: How Paul O’Grady shot to fame as Lily Savage then became a household name as a beloved TV host, DJ and animal lover before his death aged 67
- Paul O’Grady first entered the showbiz scene as his drag persona Lily Savage
- He went on to host a string of primetime TV and radio shows and was made MBE
- Paul O’Grady death LATEST: Get all breaking news and updates on our live blog
Paul O’Grady was a trailblazer for the PGBT+ community when he burst onto the national stage as drag queen Lily Savage in the 1980s – before becoming a household name in the early noughties known for his wit and love of animals.
The comedian and TV personality, who passed away unexpectedly overnight, shot to fame as his drag queen persona before going on to host a string of television and radio programmes, both as Lily Savage and himself.
Perhaps best known for his daytime chat show, The Paul O’Grady Show, which began airing in 2004, followed by the New Paul O’Grady Show.
But his career began a world away from the glitzy glamour of the screen as he began performing in the 1970s while also employed by Camden Council in north London.
The comedian made a name for himself speaking out about LGBT issues and picked up a mainstream following after being nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1991.
Paul O’Grady first rose to prominence as his drag queen persona Lily Savage (pictured) in the 1980s and 1990s
His wit and powerful charisma took him from London’s clubs all the way to Buckingham Palace
Paul James Michael O’Grady was born in Birkenhead, on Merseyside, in 1955.
Both his parents died young from heart problems – his father when O’Grady was in his late teens and his mother, whose maiden name was Savage, when he was 33.
The name is believed to have inspired his famous drag alter ego Lily Savage, who helped propel him to mainstream success.
O’Grady began his career by performing as Savage in the 1970s whilst working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council in north London.
He went on to tour northern England as part of drag duo the Playgirls, before settling into a solo show as Savage that ran for eight years at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
O’Grady’s career as Savage took off with TV and radio appearances in character and he was eventually asked to take over from Paula Yates as The Big Breakfast presenter as Savage from 1995 to 1996.
He took on chat show The Lily Savage Show for the BBC for a short run in 1997 and later that year had success as the host of a revived version of gameshow Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002.
On stage, he appeared in various stage productions including versions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Annie, and starred in the BBC bingo hall sitcom Eyes Down from 2003 to 2004.
O’Grady became popular with a whole new audience as the host of The Paul O’Grady Show which aired in a teatime slot on ITV from 2004 to 2005, later moving it to Channel 4 as The New Paul O’Grady Show.
That same year he set up his own production company, Olga TV – reportedly named after his pet dog.
The company gained creative control for stints at Channel 4 running from 2006 to 2009, and 2013 to 2015.
O’Grady began his career by performing as Savage in the 1970s whilst working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council
He went on to be one of the UK’s most popular drag queens, frequently a headline act in pantomimes (Pictured: Paul O’Grady performing as Lily Savage, as the Wicked Queen, in Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs – at the Victoria Palace Theatre)
Paul O’Grady pictured with partner Andre Portasio in 2018, a year after the two married
On stage, he appeared in various stage productions including versions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Annie, as well as pantomimes
O’Grady took over the reins from Blind Date’s long-running presenter and his close friend Cilla Black, who died in 2015, to host the Channel 5 reboot of the show in 2017.
He also fronted Blankety Blank, as well as ITV’s multi-award-winning For The Love Of Dogs.
Following the success of the latter, which was filmed at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, he became an ambassador for the organisation.
Last year he was joined by the Queen Consort in a special one-off episode of For The Love Of Dogs to mark 160 years of the home.
O’Grady’s love of animals was also apparent through his other work and in September 2016, he was recognised for his work with animals when he won the award for Outstanding Contribution to Animal Welfare at the RSPCA’s Animal Hero Awards.
He and his partner Andre Portasio lived in a farmhouse in Kent, alongside a menagerie of animals including four dogs, goats, sheep, chickens and barn owls.
O’Grady’s other on-air appearances included as host of ITV celebrity game show, Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up.
Last year he signed off from his final BBC Radio 2 show, having hosted the Sunday afternoon programme for nearly 14 years.
He was made an MBE in the 2008 Birthday Honours for services to entertainment and last year was appointed as a deputy lieutenant of Kent.
At the ceremony he was joined by Portasio, as well as his sister Sheila Rudd and daughter Sharyn Mousley.
O’Grady took on chat show The Lily Savage Show for the BBC for a short run in 1997
O’Grady became popular with a whole new audience as the host of The Paul O’Grady Show
O’Grady even appeared as a drag queen in popular TV shows such as The Bill (pictured)
O’Grady’s life-long love of animals also saw him branch out into presenting different styles of programming, among them Paul O’Grady’s Animal Orphans, which aired between 2014 and 2016 and saw him visit Africa to meet baby animals.
Following work on the show he became a patron of Orangutan Appeal UK.
O’Grady has also authored several books, including an autobiographical series detailing his childhood, the creation of Savage, and his years in the spotlight.
The series is divided into four titles; At My Mother’s Knee…And Other Low Joints, The Devil Rides Out, Still Standing: The Savage Years, and Open The Cage, Murphy. Speaking following the publication of the third book in 2012, O’Grady recalled the death of his partner of 25 years, Brendan Murphy, in 2005.
‘Grief doesn’t happen immediately, it hits you after a while, because you’ve got all the funeral and the fuss, then when that dies down you find yourself on your own, with time to contemplate what’s happened,’ he said.
‘I thought, ‘I’m on my own, what do I do now?”.
He also spoke about his health at the time, having had two heart attacks, saying: ‘The worst thing you can do is to sit and fret. I take tablets and have check-ups every eight months when they put me on the treadmill.
‘I say to them, ‘Heart attack or not, I’m hopeless on treadmills!”
O’Grady has also penned two other books, including Paul O’Grady’s Country Life, about his love of rural living. During the coronavirus lockdown, he wrote his debut children’s book, Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang, which was published in September 2021.
Throughout his career O’Grady picked up various accolades including a TV Bafta, a British Comedy Award, and a National Television Award for The Paul O’Grady Show.
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