How Paul O’Grady’s joyful LGBTQ+ representation helped queer kids feel less alone

Paul O'Grady Lily Savage the Opening Night performance of "Cinderella" at London Palladium on December 14, 2016 in London, England.

Trailblazing entertainer Paul O’Grady has passed away at the age of 67, with alter-ego Lily Savage helping to leave a legacy that made thousands of young queer Brits feel less alone.

The presenter and comedian, who died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday 28 March, had recently been touring in a production of Annie playing Miss Hannigan – which wasn’t the first time he’d assumed a fierce drag persona.

Before O’Grady’s multicoloured career led him to host The Paul O’Grady Show and Blind Date, he became a household name in the 80s and 90s with his foul-mouthed drag alter-ego Lily Savage on the iconic game show Blankety Blank.

Not only did the queen become a part of an important part of British pop culture, but Savage also provided vital visibility for thousands of LGBTQ+ Brits, who were able to see a joyful and unapologetic gay man perform queer art in the comfort of their own homes.

The show, which younger queer audiences may recognise as the basis of RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s challenge ‘Snatch Game,‘ featured Savage as its host from 1997 to 1999, and then later from 2001 to 2002.

Beamed directly into living rooms in the name of entertainment, it epitomised the extraordinary mainstream success of a queer, working-class Brit; and naturally, LGBTQ+ fans are lamenting O’Grady’s passing today, with many calling Savage their first experience of queer joy.

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One Twitter fan called Lily Savage their “first exposure to drag” in their childhood.

“One of the very few identifiably queer people you saw on TV growing up,” another added, explaining that watching Savage “meant a lot to me” even though he didn’t even realise why at the time.

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“Paul O’Grady was powerfully formative to my growing up,” a third added, attributing “My sense of humour, my sense of self, how I navigated the world,” to him.

After Blankety Blank, O’Grady enjoyed further mainstream success with Savage in a variety of projects, each one as subversive as the last.

He hosted Live from the Lilydrome on Channel 4, played the role of Nancy in Oliver! at the London Palladium and presented an episode of BBC’s Top of the Pops.

While hosting Lie-in with Lily, a celebrity interview show, Savage allegedly ignored the suggested questions written by the crew, instead asking personal questions of his guests which amassed over 2 million viewers.

O’Grady would also later appear as Savage on Comic Aid, Richard and Judy and Ready, Steady, Cook – all television staples for queer viewers in the late 90s and early 00s.

All of the above performances have led O’Grady to be remembered by the LGBTQ+ community as a “trailblazer,” and one of the first queer people on TV who lived unapologetically.

A large number of the tributes have highlighted the queer joy viewers felt watching O’Grady as Lily Savage – and that seeing his success was vital proof that LGBTQ+ people were indeed able to live happy, fulfilling lives.

“Beamed into UK living rooms in drag decades before Drag Race, making it mainstream and (sometimes) family entertainment,” one fan wrote that the queer community “owes him more than we could ever repay.”

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Also a figurehead offscreen, O’Grady enjoyed an eight-year residency at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern, where he was also famously arrested in 1986 in a homophobic police raid.

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

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

In a statement, Portasio said: “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.”

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