LGBTQ+ community celebrates Paul O’Grady’s impact on drag: ‘A primetime queen and your nan’s favourite’

Paul O'Grady Lily Savage

Following the death of presenter and comedian Paul O’Grady, the LGBTQ+ community is sharing memories of his incalculable impact on British drag culture.

The LGBTQ+ community is coming together to share memories of the late Paul O’Grady following news of the beloved broadcaster’s death in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The trailblazing entertainer passed away unexpectedly aged 67 on Tuesday evening, his husband Andre Portasio confirmed in a statement.

“It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully yesterday evening,” he said. “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.”

Lilly Savage (aka Paul O’Grady) attends The BRIT Awards 1995, Monday 20 February 1995, Alexandra Palace, London, England. (JMEnternational/Getty Images)

During his long and storied career, O’Grady became a much-loved part of British culture with his numerous game and chat shows such The Paul O’Grady Show and Blind Date, as well as ITV’s multi-award-winning programme For The Love Of Dogs.

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But O’Grady will undoubtedly be remembered most for his hilarious, foul-mouthed drag queen persona Lily Savage. After taking over from Paula Yates as The Big Breakfast presenter from 1995 to 1996, O’Grady took on the BBC chat show The Lily Savage Show for a short stint in 1997 before finding mainstream popularity as the host of the iconic gameshow Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002.

Brilliant and mischievous though O’Grady undoubtedly was, the impact of beaming a raucous drag queen into the nation’s living rooms, and simultaneously giving visibility to both drag culture and the LGBTQ+ community, can’t be underestimated.

Danny Beard, winner of the fourth series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, said O’Grady was “the most important person in British culture for drag” in an emotional tribute on BBC Breakfast.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who does the job that I do that doesn’t class Paul as an icon,” Beard explained.

“Paul was a trailblazer, they were on telly just after the AIDS crisis. They’ve been the most important person, I think, in British culture for drag, for the queer community.

“This is a really sad loss today.”

Other fans are remembering how revolutionary it was to see a drag queen on primetime TV, giving much-needed representation to the LGBTQ+ community while becoming a national treasure who cut across British society.

“Few entertainers have the range of Paul O’Grady,” wrote author Phillip J. Ellis. “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”.

Writer and broadcaster Damian Barr, meanwhile, wrote that Lily Savage was a “genius creation” who pushed drag into the mainstream.

Many fans are celebrating O’Grady’s LGBTQ+ activism, and how he used the popularity of Lily Savage to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ causes in the shadow of the AIDS crisis.

“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.

“Lily Savage did numerous benefit gigs that most people will never know about, including 2 in Belfast. Drag queens for life”.

Another fan recalled the iconic moment that O’Grady hit back after a homophobic police raid.

“Paul O’Grady was the Mother of British Drag,” they wrote. “When the Police raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern during the AIDS crisis wearing rubber gloves, Paul dressed as Lily onstage, quipped “Oh look, they’ve come to help with the washing up”. Give ‘em hell Lil.”

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