Tributes paid following sudden death of beloved British entertainer Paul O’Grady

Paul O'Grady
Paul O’Grady (Photo: Shutterstock)

Tributes have been paid following the passing of legendary British entertainer, Paul O’Grady. The 67-year-old first became famous as his drag queen alter ego, Lily Savage, before achieving mainstream success on British TV in the mid-90s.

Although less known outside of the UK, in Britain, many have been left devastated by the beloved gay star’s sudden passing.

O’Grady’s husband, Andre Portasio, said in a statement that O’Grady died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening.

Although he was working in recent days, playing Miss Hannigan in a touring production of Annie, O’Grady has spoken before of health problems. He had a heart attack in the early 00s. No cause of death has been disclosed at this time.

Originally from Birkenhead, Cheshire, O’Grady began performing as Lily Savage in the late 1970s. After relocating to London, by the end of the 1980s, he was the biggest drag queen on the gay scene.

He said he based Lily, a tough-as-nails scouser, on the women he loved and grew up with. The acid-tongued creation was famed for her brutal put-downs of hecklers.

O’Grady worked tirelessly on the scene and often fronted fundraisers for HIV and AIDS-related charities at a time when there was no treatment for the virus. He was also a big supporter of the UK’s LGBTQ+ rights organization, Stonewall.

Mainstream success

O’Grady took his Savage act to the Edinburgh Fringe festival in the late 1980s, where it proved an unexpected hit with more mainstream audiences. He began to make TV appearances on stand-up comedy shows, followed by The Big Breakfast on Channel 4. This led to the BBC inviting him to front a rebooted version of the quiz show Blankety Blank in 1997. That too proved hugely popular and Savage became a mainstream star.

Stepping out of drag, he shot popular travelogue shows for ITV. This led to him hosting his own chat show and then a documentary series, For The Love Of Dogs, which looked at the work of a well-known dogs charity in London. He became a leading ambassador for animal welfare.

Many stars have paid tribute to O’Grady.

Elton John called him, “A brilliant entertainer, wit, and supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and the fight against AIDS and HIV who I was fortunate enough to spend time with including when he hosted @davidfurnish’s and my Stag Party before our Civil Partnership in 2005. Thank you for all the joy you brought into the world, Paul.”

John Barrowman said he was “totally shocked and sad” to hear of O’Grady’s passing.

“I will never forget his generosity, warmth and humour,” he said on Instagram.

Queen Consort Camilla shared O’Grady’s love of animals. A post paying tribute to the entertainer appeared on the Royal Family’s official Twitter account.

Veteran LGBTQ+ rights activist Peter Tatchell said, “Paul wasn’t just a brilliant comedian and broadcast personality but a much-admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights … Paul was one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. Everyone whose lives he touched will miss him greatly, as will those who enjoyed his wit and admired his compassion.”

In 1987, London’s Metropolitan Police conducted a controversial raid on South London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, they burst into the packed bar wearing rubber gloves. O’Grady, as Savage, was on stage that night, prompting her to lambast the cops for looking like they were “here to help with the washing up.”