Paul O’Grady’s unexpected death last night stunned the world of TV after decades entertaining viewers with his quick wit and outspoken nature.
He is perhaps best known for his daytime chat programme, The Paul O’Grady Show, which was first screened 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 started performing in the 1970s while he was employed by Camden Council in north London.
His drag alter-ego Lily Savage, who left viewers in hysterics with her acid-tongued remarks and outrageous TV appearances, kick-started O’Grady’s career in mainstream TV.
He retired the character in 2004 after 20 years in TV, admitting at the time that her persona wouldn’t be as well-received by modern viewers.
Paul O’Grady kick-started his decades-long career performing as his outrageous drag alter-ego Lily Savage, pictured here on Blankety Blank in 2002
The veteran presenter and radio star, seen last year hosting For The Love Of Dogs, died ‘unexpectedly’ last night at the age of 67
His drag alter-ego Lily left viewers in hysterics with her acid-tongued remarks
O’Grady was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, in 1955. Tragically, both his parents died young due to heart problems – his father when O’Grady was in his late teens and his mother, whose maiden name was Savage, when he was 33.
He first began performing as Lily in the 1970s while working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council in north London.
The star credited the racy film Gypsy with kick-starting his interest in performing, telling The Big Issue: ‘I was an altar boy until I saw a film called Gypsy about Gypsy Rose Lee.
‘All of a sudden, my whole style on the altar changed – you had this 12-year-old stripper. I used to lift my cassock to go down the steps – you know, show an ankle – and swing the thurible more enthusiastically than I should have.’
He also said that Lily’s iconic look, including her huge blonde beehive and glamorous appearance, was inspired by her aunt, who was a ‘clippy’, or bus conductor.
‘A lot of the stuff I used to say as Lily stemmed from those days. They were all funny. I didn’t realise at the time. My Auntie Chrissie was a clippy on the buses.
‘She was very glamorous, a big blonde and she’d come in and say, ”I’m that hungry, I could eat a nun’s a**e through the convent railings”. You’d never laugh because it was a manner of speaking.’
While working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council in north London in the 1970s, O’Grady began performing as Lily in gay clubs across the capital, making a name for himself with his outrageous alter-ego.
O’Grady began performing as Lily in the 1970s whilst working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council, and even made an appearance in The Bill, above
He said his love of performing began after he watched the film Gypsy, and he based Lily’s look on that of his aunt, who was a bus conductor
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 presenting The Big Breakfast
Lily had further success as the host of a revived version of the game show Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002
The star retired his Lily Savage character in 2004 after 20 years in TV, admitting at the time that her persona wouldn’t be as well received by modern viewers
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 presenting The Big Breakfast as Savage from 1995 to 1996.
However he quit the show after a year, admitting at the time that the early mornings ‘didn’t agree’ with him.
He took on chat programme The Lily Savage Show for the BBC for a short run in 1997, interviewing stars including Elton John and Anthea Turner.
The show also featured one of the earliest appearances of his beloved dog Buster, who became a fixture on his teatime chat show in the 2000s.
Later that year, Lily had further success as the host of a revived version of the game show Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002.
In 2004, Paul retired Lily, later telling The Mirror: ‘People say to me, “Would you do Lily again?” And I say, ”Good God no, I wouldn’t last five minutes”.
‘It’s just the things that she comes out with. It’s a different time now. They probably wouldn’t like the inference that she was a lady of the night — she’d have to say she was a sex worker or just, ”Worked in hospitality”.
‘There’s not enough cash on Earth to get me dragged up. God no. It’s always been, ”Why don’t you be Lily Savage again?” Well, because one, I’m too old, and two, I couldn’t be bothered. I’ve moved on. At the time I thoroughly enjoyed it but I’ve moved on. Even in panto I wouldn’t fancy it.’
While Paul retired the Lily character 19 years before his death, he continued to perform in drag for the rest of his career, in London pantomimes and more recently as Miss Hannigan in the touring production of Annie.
O’Grady became popular with a whole new audience as the host of The Paul O’Grady Show, which was screened in a teatime slot on ITV from 2004 to 2005, later moving it to Channel 4 as The New Paul O’Grady Show.
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.
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 rescue 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 with a menagerie of animals including four dogs, goats, sheep, chickens and barn owls.
His other on-air appearances included hosting the 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.
O’Grady’s husband Andre Portasio, a former ballet dancer whom he wed in 2017, praised his ‘humour, wit and compassion’ in a statement announcing his death released just before 3am today.
The father-of-one’s cause of death isn’t known, but he had spoken of surviving heart attacks in 2002, 2006 and 2014, and having kidney failure. He also had a debilitating Covid battle that left him unable to work for two months.
O’Grady married Portuguese lesbian barmaid Teresa Fernandes in 1977 to stop her deportation. They divorced in 2005.
Decades earlier in 1974, he had his only child, a daughter called Sharon Mousley, with his friend Diane Jansen. O’Grady is also a grandfather to Sharon’s son Abel, who was born in 2006 and is now aged 16, and Sharyn’s daughter Halo, born in 2009.
O’Grady’s death was announced by his partner Andre Portasio after he died ‘unexpectedly and peacefully’ last night
He was pictured last week after announcing that he planned to take his radio show to Boom Radio after departing the BBC
Mr Portasio said this morning: ‘It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully yesterday evening.
‘We ask, at this difficult time, that whilst you celebrate his life you also respect our privacy as we come to terms with this loss.
‘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.’