Paul O’Grady obituary: Comedian and chatshow host who shot to fame in 1990s as his alter ego Lily Savage

‘A brilliant comedian and broadcast personality, and a much admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights’

Paul O' Grady with the award for best Factual Entertainment in the Press Room at the National Television Awards 2019 in London. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Born: June 14th, 1955

Died: March 28th, 2023

In 2010, Paul O’Grady broke his nose after losing his footing at his friend Cilla Black’s house in Barbados. “My nose was out to here and I had a black eye, but I said: ‘I’m not ruining my holiday,’” he recalled. “So we went out every night and were the talk of the island.” The story was typical of O’Grady, who loved to dramatise his indomitability and had an unquenchable desire to be in the public eye.

The comedian and chatshow host, who has died aged 67, was once called “the Edith Piaf of daytime television” and, given its connotations of a drama-filled life, he loved the epithet.


His defiant unshakeability and desire to perform came together in his first stage persona, the foul-mouthed Lily Savage, who sported a platinum blond beehive wig, vast quantities of make-up, white stilettos, a leopard skin miniskirt and a matching fake-fur coat. Born in the 1980s in the gay pubs of south London, as a sideline to O’Grady’s day job as a care worker, Savage thrived on insulting audiences and made no effort to conceal a streak of hard-headed lawlessness (“You need two things in a riot – flat shoes and a pram”).

She also hinted at a lurid past as a down-at-heel sex worker and made the work of previous British female impersonators, such as Danny La Rue and Dick Emery, seem tame.

Savage was inspired, in part, by O’Grady’s Aunt Chrissie, a bus conductor. “She had a hard life, but she used to suck her cheeks in and fancy herself as Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

Paul O'Grady as drag queen persona Lily Savage speaking with Michael Parkinson.

His alter ego acted as a kind of avenging angel, giving voice to the anger O’Grady was otherwise unable to express.

Savage eventually became a phenomenon, appearing on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. She presented the BBC celebrity gameshow Blankety Blank (1997–99) and the ITV comedy show Lily Live! (2000-01). She even returned in triumph to her native Merseyside, and became a regular on This Morning with Richard and Judy.

But O’Grady killed off Savage in 2005, claiming Lily had “seen the light, taken the veil and packed herself off to a convent in France”. Thereafter he took centre stage as himself. As the host of the Paul O’Grady Show and Paul O’Grady Live he could be just as caustic as Savage.

In 2010 he provoked complaints to Ofcom for attacking the new coalition government during Paul O’Grady Live. “Do you know what got my back up?” he told his ITV audience. “Those Tories hooping and hollering when they heard about the cuts. Gonna scrap the pensions – yeah! – no more wheelchairs – yeah! ... I bet when they were children they laughed at Bambi when the mother got shot.”

Paul O'Grady with Winston the lamb at his home in Kent. O'Grady rehomed the lamb after the animal was found dumped in a wheelie bin in Manchester in 2011. Photograph: Joe Murphy/RSPCA

O’Grady was born in Birkenhead to Catholic parents, an Irish father, Paddy, and English mother, Molly (née Savage). “I was born late – what my mother calls the last kick of a dying horse,” he said in his 2009 autobiography At My Mother’s Knee ... And Other Low Joints.

“There’s three of us children, but I’m 13 or 14 years younger than my brother and sister. When I look back on my childhood I have no bad memories. Our family was loving and full of affection. I never knew what divorce was until I moved to London. I was an indulged child and completely protected from anything bad.” Not quite true: he was sent by his parents to a school run by the Christian Brothers. “They were wicked, wicked,” he told an interviewer.

‘I spent most of me childhood in Ireland’: Paul O’Grady on growing up on a Galway farmOpens in new window ]

O’Grady left school at 16 to work for the DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security) in Liverpool, and then went on to a string of jobs – hotel skivvy, office worker at an abattoir, and clerk at a magistrates court.

In the 1970s he worked for Camden council in north London as a peripatetic carer. “If a single mother had to go to hospital, I’d move in and look after her kids so they didn’t have to go into care,” he once explained. “Often there’d be a drunken father turning up at 2am, wanting to know who I was, and I’d say, mincing slightly: ‘I’m from Camden council!’ and he’d smack me. So I’d be going around with a black eye and nits from the kids.” He cited this period of his life as part inspiration, along with his Birkenhead female relations, for the Lily Savage character.

Paul O'Grady with his partner, Andre Portasio (left), sister Sheila Rudd and daughter Sharyn Mousley at Buckingham Palace, where he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2008. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

In the 1980s, Savage had a solo residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London that ran for eight years. Each night his waspish patter spared no one, not even the boys in blue. One night in 1987, his performance was rudely interrupted by a police raid, one that many of the gay club’s punters took to be a homophobic attempt to intimidate them.

Thirty-five officers burst in wearing rubber gloves – this being the height of the Aids epidemic, they feared touching those they arrested. According to the veteran LGBTQ+ campaigner Peter Tatchell, O’Grady at first thought they were strippers and part of the show.

In 2021, O’Grady described what happened next: “I was doing the late show and within seconds the place was heaving with coppers, all wearing rubber gloves. I remember saying something like, ‘Well well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.’” He was handcuffed and taken to the police station before being released without charge. “They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night.”

While working as a court clerk, he had an affair with a colleague, Diane Jansen, who became pregnant with their daughter, Sharyn. In 1977 he married Teresa Fernandes, a Portuguese woman, in order to prevent her deportation from the UK. The couple divorced in 2005.

Tributes outside Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where the late Paul O'Grady had been a Battersea Ambassador since 2012, on Wednesday. Photograph: Ming Yeung/Getty Images

O’Grady claimed there was always an unspoken understanding in his family that he was gay. “It was no big deal. I never stood up in the front room and said, ‘I have something to tell you!’ – but I wasn’t hiding anything.”

During the mid-80s he met Brendan Murphy, the manager of a sauna in south London. They were a couple until Murphy’s death from brain cancer in 2005.

By then O’Grady was a popular household name, and in 2008 he was appointed MBE. Three years later, the Museum of Liverpool staged an exhibition of his alter ego’s frocks. In 2011 he quit Paul O’Grady Live after becoming exasperated with his role as a chatshow host: “I felt part of the PR machine. They’d want this guest or that guest. Every question had to go through the lawyers. I was just another plug for someone’s book.”

He went on to make shows such as ITV’s For the Love of Dogs, Me and My Guide Dog, a documentary about the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, and a series for the BBC, Paul O’Grady’s Working Britain. A two-part eulogy to the British working class, broadcast in 2013, it prompted press scepticism – not least because O’Grady told viewers he still considered himself working class despite being a millionaire who owned a generous plot of land in Kent.

He lived there with 14 sheep, three dogs, two pigs, hundreds of rescued chickens, ducks, a goat and barn owls. After Murphy’s death he had a long-term relationship with the former ballet dancer Andre Portasio, whom he married in 2017.

Queen Elizabeth II and Paul O'Grady during a visit to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London in 2015. Photograph: Ben Stansall/PA

Lily Savage returned from her French convent to perform as Widow Twankey in pantomime in Southampton in 2011 and London in 2012. In 2017, O’Grady hosted a Channel 5 reboot of Blind Date; and in 2021 the ITV celebrity gameshow Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up.

During lockdown, he wrote a children’s book, Eddie Albert and the Amazing Animal Gang (2021). Last year he made a special one-off episode of For the Love of Dogs to mark 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, for which he was an ambassador. In August 2022, he presented his last show on BBC Radio 2 after 14 years on the airwaves.

Tatchell said of O’Grady: “Paul wasn’t just a brilliant comedian and broadcast personality but a much admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights ... Paul was planning to lead our forthcoming campaign for the police to apologise for their historic persecution of the LGBT+ community.” His fellow TV presenter Lorraine Kelly said that O’Grady was “the kindest, funniest man ... Dogs are the best judge of character and they loved him.”

Paul O'Grady standing next to former costumes of his alter ego Lily Savage at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery in 2011. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

He is survived by Andre, Sharyn, and two grandchildren, Abel and Halo, and by his brother, Ben, and sister, Sheila. – Guardian