Paul O’Grady dies suddenly aged 67: ‘A really special man’

Paul O’Grady, the comedian and presenter known for his trailblazing drag act Lily Savage, has died aged 67.

Paul O’Grady died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday (28 March) evening. He had recently been touring in a production of Annie, playing Miss Hannigan.

His husband, Andre Portasio, paid tribute in a statement: “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.”

Peter Tatchell called him a “much admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights”.

Broadcaster Lorraine Kelly called him “funny, fearless, brave, kind and wise”.

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“Will be sorely missed. A really special man,” she added.

Born in Birkenhead, Paul O’Grady became a national institution in the 80s as the acid-tongued drag queen Lily Savage.

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

Lily had an eight-year residency at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern, where, in 1986, O’Grady was arrested in a homophobic police raid fuelled by HIV stigma.

Thirty-five police officers stormed the bar wearing rubber gloves while Lily was performing.

O’Grady recalled in 2021: “I remember saying something like, ‘Well, well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.'”

“They made many arrests but we were a stoic lot and it was business as usual the next night,” he continued.

“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.”

When ordered to give a name to the desk sergeant, O’Grady told him simply: “Lily Savage.” The officer pressed for a ‘real’ name. “Lily Veronica Mae Savage,” came the reply.

All those arrested were eventually released without charge, but the incident galvanised the LGBTQ+ community and exposed the deep homophobia of London’s police force.

Lily Savage went on to become a TV star, hosting the game show Blankety Blank among others.

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Paul O’Grady and his husband Andre Portasio attend the National Television Awards held at The O2 Arena on January 22, 2019 in London, England. (Joe Maher/WireImage)
Camilla, then the Duchess of Cornwall speaks with television presenter Paul O’Grady during a visit to Battersea Dog and Cats Home on December 12, 2012 in London, England. (Adrian Dennis – WPA Pool/Getty)

O’Grady retired Lily Savage in the early 00s, becoming a fixture of daytime TV with his eponymous chat show, which ran on ITV from 2004 until 2006, and then on Channel 4 from 2006 until 2009.

He was a passionate animal lover and advocate, hosting the series Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs from 2012. Last year the show aired a special episode with Camilla, the Queen Consort.

O’Grady is survived by his husband Andre Portasio and his daughter Sharon, who he shared with close friend Diane Jansen.

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