Let’s look back at the beautiful life of Paul O’Grady
BY ELEANOR NOYCE, IMAGE BY GETTY
“Oh good, have you come to do the washing up?” Ever the epitome of quick, witty comedy, that was Paul O’Grady’s response – as Lily Savage – to a Metropolitan police raid on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1987. It was the midst of the HIV/AIDS that was already decimating the LGBTQIA community: misguided by vastly homophobic untruths, the officers were donned in rubber gloves, refusing to touch anything or anyone for fear of infection. Of course, they were wrong, hence Lily’s red-hot comment.
That very same year, Princess Diana opened the very first specialist AIDS hospital ward at Middlesex Hospital and the UK Government launched the aggressive Don’t Die Of Ignorance campaign that no doubt fuelled homophobic attitudes. It wasn’t an easy time to exist as a member of the LGBTQIA community, let alone as a visibly gay drag queen performing at one of London’s most cherished, historic venues.
But Lily Savage was there, and she was fierce in all her working-class, gay, northern glory. That element of Paul O’Grady’s nature was never sanitised, even after he hung up Lily’s wig for the last time in 2003.
Born in Birkenhead, Paul was first introduced to the LGBTQIA scene in Liverpool in the 1970s. Taking up a job at local gay bar Bear’s Paw, he started to attend meetings with the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Later moving to London, he took up a job at another gay bar, the Showplace, before intermittently working as a cleaner, a waiter and a care officer. In 1977, he married a Portuguese lesbian – Teresa Fernandes – to protect her from being deported.
In 1978, he made his debut as Lily Savage – a character he wanted to be “more cartoon than human” – at The Black Cap in Camden. Between 1984 and 1992, Lily enjoyed a residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a platform she used to denounce rampant homophobia as the HIV/AIDS crisis took hold and Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28.
Having worked “ten years on the factory floor”, Lily Savage then felt she deserved “a shot in the office.” Throughout the 1990s, her character began to enjoy mainstream success, going on to present Live from the Lilydrome, The Big Breakfast, The Lily Savage Show, Blankety Blank, and more, a watershed moment for UK drag on television screens. British drag was messy; it wasn’t ruled by high glamour, and it wasn’t about being “fishy” or “feminine.” It was unfiltered, tongue-in-cheek chaos.
Importantly, Paul introduced unlikely audiences across the country to the concept of drag. Of course, it was universally understood that Lily Savage’s character was Paul dressing up as a woman: there were no illusions there, as he later laughed about with Alan Carr on Chatty Man. “Never”, he chuckled, asked if he was ever mistaken for a woman.
For me, the magic lies in the fact that the British public were watching drag, but perhaps were unaware of it. They knew the act, but would they have had the vocabulary to describe it as such? Perhaps not, but they enjoyed it nevertheless. The same can be said for comedian Kenny Everett, who as Cupid Stunt unapologetically brought drag to television sets across the country. They made people laugh, and they did so whilst dragged to the nines.
Paul O’Grady represents a special kind of magic for so many different people. Whether it was Lily Savage, For The Love Of Dogs or his early 2000s chat show that drew you in, we all share a common nostalgia. He was universally brilliant: always hilarious, no matter the appearance. That, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary folk, was a life well and truly lived.
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