Paul O’Grady’s legacy of unapologetic drag ‘paved the way’ – and proves drag ‘isn’t going anywhere’

Drag performers Lily Savage and Danny Beard

Paul O’Grady made drag mainstream and blazed a trail for a generation of performers – without sanitising who he was.

For the last few decades of his life, Paul O’Grady often rubbed shoulders with the establishment. A regular on the BBC (until last year) and ITV, he was awarded an MBE in 2008 and had even presented a special show with Camilla, the Queen Consort last year, in support of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

His status as bona fide national treasure was a testament to his warmth, talent and sharp wit. But it’s also remarkable considering the truly subversive path he’d taken to the top.

To generations, Paul O’Grady was best known as Lily Savage, the towering, peroxide-blonde drag queen with a foul mouth and a big heart. Having made a name for herself in London, with an eight-year residency at the famed Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Lily became one of the UK’s biggest TV stars, presenting Blankety Blank and appearing on Coronation Street.

It’s often said that RuPaul’s Drag Race made drag mainstream – but Lily Savage was the definition of mainstream success in the 90s without sacrificing who she was. Sweary (post-watershed) and forthright, she was queer representation for many, and used her platform to counter HIV stigma and homophobia.

Paul O'Grady Lily Savage the Opening Night performance of "Cinderella" at London Palladium on December 14, 2016 in London, England.
Paul O’Grady as Lily Savage helped thousands of Brits see queer representation (David M. Benett/ Getty Images)

Danny Beard, the Scouse performer who won RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in 2022, told PinkNews: “It would be a travesty to not mention how amazing and trailblazing they were. As a performer coming out of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and moving into television in the 90s, Paul set the tone and really paved the way for people like myself, to be able to look at someone on telly, visibly queer, and really smashing it as a really funny, heartwarming comedy entertainer.”

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Today, drag is the subject of huge debate, with right-wing actors intent on branding every drag performer unsafe for children. It shows how far we’ve regressed from the 90s and 00s, when Lily Savage was on primetime Saturday night TV, entertaining families across the nation.

Divina De Campo told PinkNews: “Lily was an absolute powerhouse, a no-nonsense, character-led drag star that had a tongue like barbed wire and a way of showing us who we are. My first introduction to drag and queer culture but on a mainstream platform.

“Lily was what we all aspire to. Brilliance. I’m so grateful for all she did and for Paul O’Grady humanising us queers at a time where we were roundly vilified. Time for us all to be a bit more Savage.”

O’Grady retired Lily Savage in the early 00s – but remained political. In October 2010, he used his ITV chat show to attack the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, calling them “b*****ds” over austerity policies.

“I’d sooner have Ozzy Osbourne as chancellor,” he said. “At least with Ozzy the only cuts would be the f**king and blinding from his speech. Do you know what got my back up? Those Tories hooping and hollering when they heard about the cuts. ‘Gonna scrap the pensions – yeah! – no more wheelchairs – yeah!’ B*****ds.

Before his death, O’Grady was preparing to launch a campaign calling for a police apology for his “homophobic” 1987 arrest.

He’d been performing at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London as Lily Savage when 35 police officers raided the gay club, wearing rubber gloves.

It’s widely accepted that the police were there to intimidate the LGBTQ+ community, this being the height of the AIDS crisis. O’Grady recalled in 2021: “I remember saying something like, ‘Well well, it looks like we’ve got help with the washing up.’”

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.

O’Grady was working with veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell to demand an apology for what he called a purely homophobic incident.

The timing of the campaign, which was to launch in June, is notable. The Met Police was just this month labelled institutionally homophobic in a major review. Meanwhile, drag performers are facing protests and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in both the UK and the US.

While O’Grady had retired Lily, he’d been performing in Annie as Miss Hannigan the weekend before his death, and was due to continue the role.

Danny Beard added: “I also think today’s a really important day to remember that someone who’s 67, who’s still putting a pair of heels on to play Miss Hannigan… [it shows] that drag isn’t going anywhere.

“You’ve only got to look around the world now to see the drag bans in America, and a very small but very vocal right wing – even right-wing press – being so vocal and demonising drag.”

“You see someone like Paul and realise that drag is a really, really talented art form, and one that’s not going anywhere.”

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