Paul O’Grady had a heartbreaking reason for not bringing back the legendary Lily Savage

Paul O'Grady (left) on a red carpet and as Lily Savage (right)

The sudden death of Paul O’Grady at the age of 67 has sparked an outpouring of love and tributes, as the LGBTQ+ community remembers one of its most beloved performers, who was best known for his razor-tongued drag alter-ego Lily Savage

The comedian and presenter passed away “unexpectedly and peacefully” on Tuesday (28 March) evening, his husband Andre Portasio confirmed.

In the last 20 years, O’Grady had carved out an acclaimed presenting career out of drag, fronting series including Channel 4’s The New Paul O’Grady Show, ITV’s Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, and long-running BBC Radio 2 show Paul O’Grady on the Wireless, which ended in August 2022.

For many though, O’Grady will be remembered for his no-holds-barred portrayal of Lily Savage, the Scouse sex worker whose persona was honed on the stages of London’s queer venues in the 1970s and 80s before bursting onto mainstream British TV in the 90s and being abruptly retired in the mid-2000s.

Lily Savage
Lily Savage attending The BRIT Awards in 1995. (Getty)

Following an eight-year residency at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern in the 1980s, which established Savage as a leading voice in the battle for LGBTQ+ equality and even saw O’Grady arrested during a police raid, the towering blonde drag queen moved into television, fronting shows like The Big Breakfast (1995-96), Blankety Blank (1997-2002) and Lily Live! (2000-2001).

Despite calls for O’Grady to reprise the role of Savage over the years, the character’s heels remained firmly on the shelf from 2005 onwards, save for a one-off return in a Southampton pantomime production of Aladdin in 2010.

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Why did Paul O’Grady stop performing as Lily Savage?

Save for one stand-up appearance as Savage in 2005 for Comic Aid, O’Grady dropped the character of Savage from 2004 onwards, the year he began presenting comedy chat show The Paul O’Grady Show on ITV.

2005 saw O’Grady grapple with personal tragedy when his partner of 25 years and manager, Brendan Murphy, died after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

In a 2012 interview with the Daily Mail, O’Grady revealed that Murphy’s death and the vital role he’d played in Lily’s success was part of the reason why he no longer wished to perform as Lily in public, saying she “sort of died with him”.

“When you’re with someone 25 years they’re family”, the star said. “We used to fight like cat and dog. We were two alpha males vying to be top dog. He was a tricky b****** and I can be tricky too. We’d have real punch-ups.

“But I’d tell him everything. Suddenly, I was totally on my own.”

O’Grady continued: “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.”

Asked in the same interview whether he believed in an afterlife, O’Grady replied: “I believe in something, not a man with a beard and a flowing white robe. But I’ve a need for something spiritual.

“Years ago when Murphy and me were in Venice sat in St Mark’s Square and we were a bit drunk, I said, “If I die first Murphy, when you die you’ll find me here.” He said, “OK, this is where we’ll meet.” We were going to dance to a tango.

“So that’s what’s going to happen. When I snuff it, there’ll be two ghosts on St Mark’s Square. We’ll meet up again.”

Despite having powerful personal motivation for not wanting to revive Lily Savage’s stage antics, in later years O’Grady made clear that there were more practical reasons for leaving the iconic drag queen firmly in the past.

Paul O'Grady holding a puppy
TV icon Paul O’Grady has passed away aged 67. (Getty)

Speaking to The Mirror in 2022, O’Grady said he was “too old” to reprise the character and “couldn’t be bothered”, adding: “There’s not enough cash on earth to get me dragged up.”

The TV veteran also stated that he believed Lily’s antics wouldn’t go down as well in the present day as they did towards the turn of the millennium.

“People say to me, “Would you do Lily again?” And I say, “Good God no, I wouldn’t last five minutes”, he told The Sun in 2021.

“It’s just the things that she comes out with. It’s a different time now.

“They probably wouldn’t like the inference that she was a lady of the night — she’d have to say she was a sex worker or just, “Worked in hospitality”.”