Family, friends and fans paid tribute to TV host and comedian Paul O’Grady after he died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening, March 28, aged 67. Following the news of his passing, the LGBTQ+ community has been highlighting his immense impact in shaping drag culture and his activism during the AIDS crisis.
Paul O’Grady, whose family roots were in counties Roscommon and Louth, started performing as drag queen Lily Savage in the 1970s, and he had a crucial role in defining British drag culture. He rose to fame in the 1990s when he hosted his own BBC chat show, The Lily Savage Show, introducing drag on primetime TV.
From then on, his career skyrocketed and he went on to present BBC One game show Blankety Blank and other entertainment programmes such as The Big Breakfast, Blind Date and his own The Paul O’Grady Show and Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs.
The announcement of O’Grady’s passing was shared by his husband, André Portasio, in a statement that read, “It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully yesterday evening”.
“He will be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, animals and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion,” the statement continued. “I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”
Before Drag Race and social media it was rare for queens to break through into mainstream media, Paul was one of the few leading the way and smashing down barriers. Everyone loved him, but he preferred animals. RIP Paul O’Grady AKA the legendary Lily Savage, you will be missed 💔 pic.twitter.com/CXwe1LsKoc
— Tom Knight (@TJ_Knight) March 29, 2023
After the announcement, tributes poured in on social media, with many recounting the incredible contribution O’Grady gave to drug culture and LGBTQ+ activism. Many people remembered one particular occasion in which Paul O’Grady was performing as his drag persona Lily Savage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s most famous queer clubs, when the venue was raided by the police in 1987.
The raid was believed to be part of a wider movement attempting to close down LGBTQ+ clubs during the AIDS pandemic, and when 20 officers stormed the establishment with rubber gloves on, O’Grady iconically shouted: “Well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.”
O’Grady himself recalled the episode in an Instagram post shared two years ago, writing: “They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night. I was in quite a few police raids all over the country at the time. I was beginning to think it was me – in fact the South London Press, in an extremely homophobic article, called Lily ‘a lascivious act’ which I was very proud of.”
Few entertainers have the range of Paul O’Grady. As foulmouthed, poison-heartedly hilarious Lily Savage, he was countless Brits’ first drag queen. As a dog-loving TV host he was your gran’s favourite celebrity, normalising homosexuality in living rooms up and down the country. pic.twitter.com/aPb4UDoxzH
— Philip J. Ellis // LOVE & OTHER SCAMS is out now! (@Philip_Ellis) March 29, 2023
Many others shared their memories of O’Grady, describing him as brilliant and kind. Malcolm Prince, the long-standing producer of some of O’Grady’s shows, wrote: “I’m devastated. Yesterday afternoon, I popped round to Paul’s for a good old catch-up. Surrounded by his beloved dogs, he was laughing, smiling, and full of life.”
Prince continued, saying: “And now he’s gone. I can’t believe it. We have lost a unique talent – and I’ve lost a dear friend. We were all lucky to have Paul in our lives.”
Paul O’Grady was in the trenches fighting for our community during the HIV & AIDS epidemic, she took drag mainstream, she made our mums howl with laughter and normalised gay people on TV by being utterly vile. I can’t imagine a world without her. A truly brave and hilarious man x pic.twitter.com/Zf5ABmg9J7
— James Barr (@imjamesbarr) March 29, 2023
British Radio DJ and comedian James Barr shared a message, writing: “Paul O’Grady was in the trenches fighting for our community during the HIV & AIDS epidemic, she took drag mainstream, she made our mums howl with laughter and normalised gay people on TV by being utterly vile. I can’t imagine a world without her. A truly brave and hilarious man.”
“As Lily Savage in the 80s and 90s Paul O’Grady was a really important performer and activist in the fight against AIDS and inadequate AIDS healthcare,” one fan wrote on Twitter. “Lily Savage did numerous benefit gigs that most people will never know about, including 2 in Belfast. Drag queens for life”.
A trailblazer. Truly one of the first to make drag mainstream and to liberate the rest of the community in the process. Rest in peace Paul O’Grady. pic.twitter.com/hsE2aVndPn
— Jacob 🏳️🌈 (@OhHeyJacob) March 29, 2023
Paul O’Grady, as himself and Lily Savage, leaves behind a phenomenal legacy from which the LGBTQ+ community in the UK and beyond continues to benefit from. Rest in Power.
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