TV presenter and comedian Paul O’Grady has died at the age of 67, his partner Andre Portasio has said. The TV star, also known for his drag queen persona Lily Savage, died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday (28 March) evening, a statement shared with the PA news agency via a representative said.
In August of 2022, O’Grady presented his final BBC Radio 2 show having hosted the Sunday afternoon programme for nearly 14 years. O’Grady had been set to return to the airwaves next month to host a one-off Easter Sunday radio show on Boom Radio.
Who was Paul O’Grady?
Paul James Michael O’Grady was an English comedian, broadcaster, actor, writer and former drag queen who 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.
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.
O’Grady’s career as Savage really 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. For a short run in 1997, O’Grady took on chat show The Lily Savage Show for the BBC, and later that year had success as the host of a revived version of the game show 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.
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 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.
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 won numerous accolades including a TV Bafta, a British Comedy Award, and a National Television Award for The Paul O’Grady Show. He was made an MBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to entertainment.
Was he married?
O’Grady and his future husband Portasio, a ballet dancer, began dating in 2006 and the two were married during a low-key wedding ceremony in 2017. He and Portasio lived in a farmhouse in Kent, alongside a menagerie of animals including four dogs, goats, sheep, chickens and barn owls.
O’Grady was previously in a long term relationship with partner Brendan Frank Murphy. Speaking following the publication of his third book in 2012, O’Grady recalled the death of Murphy, who had been his partner for 25 years, 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?”‘
When did he die?
According to a statement shared by O’Grady’s partner Andre Portasio, the TV presenter passed away on Tuesday (28 March) evening.
Portasio said in his statement: “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.”
Specific details of O’Grady’s death have not been shared, however the TV presenter had experienced problems with his heart over the years, suffering a heart attack in both 2002 and 2006. His second heart attack saw O’Grady undergo an angioplasty, and in 2012 he had further heart surgery after experiencing an angina attack.
Tributes for Paul O’Grady
Following the news of his death, ITV presenter Lorraine Kelly described O’Grady as “a really special man” in an online tribute.
“Such sad news. Paul O’Grady – funny, fearless, brave, kind and wise. Will be sorely missed. A really special man.”
Replying to another Twitter user, she added: “I always think dogs are the best judge of character and they ADORED him.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home also paid tribute to O’Grady as a “devoted animal lover” and a “champion for the underdog”. The TV star had close ties to the organisation, which praised his “razor-sharp humour and perpetual generosity and warmth”.
The TV and radio presenter became an ambassador for Battersea in 2012, following the success of ITV’s multi-award-winning For The Love Of Dogs, which was filmed at the home.
He presented the show for 11 series, during which time he laid bare his “passion for all things dog”, the charity said. Last year O’Grady was joined by the Queen Consort in a special one-off episode of the programme to mark 160 years of the organisation.
In a statement shared with the PA news agency, Battersea chief executive Peter Laurie said the home was “joining the nation” in mourning the loss of O’Grady, who helped raise its profile to millions around the world.
“Battersea will forever remember Paul as a devoted animal lover with the biggest heart, who fell head over heels in love with every dog he met at our centres,” he said.
“Paul will always be associated with Battersea and we are truly saddened to have lost such a true friend and huge part of our charity.”
He continued: “Paul had an extremely hands-on approach as a Battersea ambassador and has been fundamental in helping our charity to communicate important campaign messages. He was a champion for the underdog and would do anything to ensure all animals live a healthy and happy life. He will be dearly missed.”
O’Grady was given a special recognition award at the 2018 National Television Awards for the impact For The Love Of Dogs had on helping find homes for rescue animals nationwide.
During an interview during the first series in September 2012, he said it was “hand on heart… one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever had” and praised the home as “a magical place”.
Ali Taylor, who appeared alongside O’Grady in the series, said the presenter met “hundreds if not thousands” of dogs during his time working with Battersea but never lost his “infectious enthusiasm and interest in getting to know them all individually”.
O’Grady also personally rehomed several dogs at his Kent farmhouse.
During the first series of For The Love Of Dogs he took home Eddie, a Chihuahua Jack Russell-cross puppy. Eddie was joined by Boycie, a shih-tzu in 2014, Conchita, a Maltese in 2015, Arfur, a mongrel puppy in 2017, Nancy, another mongrel puppy in 2020, and Sausage, a wire-haired dachshund in 2021.
Laurie added: “Paul loved Battersea so much and we cannot thank him enough for everything he did for our charity and for rescue animals worldwide. We will forever be indebted to him for his endless generosity and support.”