Paul O’Grady as Lily Savage: alter ego explained - why did Blankety Blank host stop performing as drag queen

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O’Grady made his drag debut in 1978 at a gay pub in Camden called The Black Cap

Comedian and TV presenter Paul O’Grady has passed away “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday (28 March) evening at the age of 67, his partner Andre Portasio announced in a statement.

Portasio said: “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.

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“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.”

O’Grady rose to fame on the nightclub circuit as the acerbic, platinum wig wearing Lily Savage - this is everything you need to know.

When did he start performing as Lily Savage?

O’Grady began his career as Savage in 1978, making his debut in drag on 7 October at The Black Cap, which was a gay pub in Camden. He later joined a drag act called the Glamazons before founding a two person drag mime act with his fellow Glamazon, Hush, called the Playgirls.

O’Grady went on to tour northern England with the Playgirls, before settling into a solo show as Savage at the gay pub Elephant and Castle. As Savage, O’Grady hosted a Ladies Night each Tuesday which provided a space for amateur drag acts to perform. After six months, O’Grady took his act to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which ran for eight years.

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As Savage, O’Grady used his act to speak out on issues that affected the LGBTQ+ community, especially during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Speaking to the Guardian in 2015 about the crisis, O’Grady said that “people my age will never get over the horrors”.

File photo dated 01/04/99 of Paul O’Grady, as Lily Savage, during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game (Photo: PA/Peter Jordan)File photo dated 01/04/99 of Paul O’Grady, as Lily Savage, during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game (Photo: PA/Peter Jordan)
File photo dated 01/04/99 of Paul O’Grady, as Lily Savage, during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game (Photo: PA/Peter Jordan) | PA/Peter Jordan

He said: “When Aids hit London, it wiped out all of my friends. And you’d nurse them as well, and you’d have to break the news to their families, that they’ve got Aids, and the stigma surrounding it at the time.”

From 1989 to 1992, O’Grady took Savage to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, stating that performing at the Fringe “changed my life” and it “exposed me to a much wider audience than I’d previously been used to”.

As Savage, O’Grady toured the world and held sold out shows, later moving to radio where he made appearances as Savage on Woman’s Hour and Loose Ends. He was also later given his own late night Channel 4 show, Live from the Lilydrome and also stepped in as Savage to replace Paula Yates on the Channel 4 morning show The Big Breakfast.

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In 1998, a six week Sunday series called The Lily Savage Show was produced by the BBC which saw O’Grady interviewing celebrities like Elton John, and as Savage O’Grady also hosted the revival of the quiz show Blankety Blank.

Why did he stop?

Looking to make a name for himself outside of the character of Lily Savage, O’Grady retired her in 2004.

Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2012, he explained that Savage essentially died alongside his partner of 25 years, Brendan Murphy, in 2005. The two got together in the mid-1980s, and Murphy eventually became O’Grady’s manager. In June 2005, Murphy died from brain cancer at age 49, two days before O’Grady’s 50th birthday.

O’Grady said: “We used to fight like cat and dog. We were two alpha males vying to be top dog. He was a real tricky b*****d and I can be tricky too. We’d have real punchups.

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Paul O’Grady attends the Collars & Coats Gala Ball at Battersea Evolution on November 8, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)Paul O’Grady attends the Collars & Coats Gala Ball at Battersea Evolution on November 8, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)
Paul O’Grady attends the Collars & Coats Gala Ball at Battersea Evolution on November 8, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images) | Getty Images

“But I’d tell him everything. Suddenly, I was totally on my own. That’s when I said, “Lily’s going.” Because he’d always been here with Lily. I thought, “I can’t do it any more”. So she sort of died with him.”

In 2021, O’Grady said in an interview that there was “not enough cash on earth” to make him want to get back into drag, stating that he couldn’t “be bothered” any more with Savage’s elaborate outfits.

Speaking to the Mirror, O’Grady said: “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. At the time I thoroughly enjoyed it but I’ve moved on. Even in panto I wouldn’t fancy it.”

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