JANET STREET-PORTER: Farewell to a national treasure… and my dear friend: Behind Paul O’Grady’s outrageous alter ego (I gave Lily my pink fake-fur wedding dress) there was a brilliant, caring man who will be sadly missed
Paul O’Grady was a brilliant wit whose withering one-liners were the filthiest on television. In private, he was the kindest, most modest and quietly spoken person you could meet.
The two personalities existed side by side. Dressed in a towering blonde wig, corset and suspenders as Lily Savage, Paul was fearless, reducing celebrities and film stars to quivering wrecks with his sharp wit and lightning retorts. Out of character, on a night out in smart clothes, he was softly spoken and never wanted to be the centre of attention. The real Paul O’Grady preferred to sip at a glass of cider when others were downing champagne by the bucket-load.
O’Grady was super-smart and fearless. His autobiographies were hysterically funny, painting a warts-and-all portrait of a tough life growing up in working-class Liverpool. He tirelessly fought for gay rights and was passionate about animals. And now he’s dead we’ve lost a National Treasure. Someone who elevated drag into an art form, equally at home chatting to royalty as supermarket workers. He was a special friend during a difficult time in my life.
We met in the early ’90’s at a fund-raising dinner when I was seated next to a glamourous forty-something bloke I’d never heard of, who was wearing an immaculate suit.
I read the name card, and it meant nothing. Who was this Paul O’Grady? When we got chatting he revealed his current job was dressing up as a foul-mouthed Liverpudian barmaid called Lily Savage, loosely based on his Aunty Chris. He toured the drag circuit and hosted regular evenings at the Vauxhall Tavern, a legendary gay pub just a mile from where we were sitting in a swanky restaurant.
Paul told me he’d spent eight years working in social care for Camden Council, before realising his wit could be turned into entertainment. By 1990, Lily was a big star on the cabaret circuit, but completely unknown on television or radio, even though he’d nominated for a comedy award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991.
We really hit it off at that first meeting – this bloke was simply the most entertaining and potty-mouthed person I’d ever met and he really loved strong women. Soon, Brendan Murphy, his manager and former boyfriend, started looking after my work too, so the three of us spent a lot of time together. Although they were no longer an item and lived separately near Tower Bridge, the two had the most intense fights about everything – which usually ended with Brendan disappearing for a couple of days.
He would return and peace would break out temporarily, until the next meltdown. They were joined at the hip because Brendan was instrumental in pushing Paul into the spotlight, realising how his humour could cross over into the mainstream.
In 1995, Paul took over from Paula Yates on the Big Breakfast, and then he got his first primetime job hosting Blankety Blank from 1997-2002. His career had taken off, but he never forgot his roots at the Vauxhall Tavern, and never changed or watered down his act to suit the mainstream telly audience.
We went on holiday together a few times, and both went to the same facialist to try and iron out our wrinkles without resorting to cosmetic surgery- Paul was obsessed with looking as good as possible. We even swapped clothes – after I’d ended a disastrous 4th marriage in 1997, I gave Paul my pink fake fur wedding dress for Lily to wear on stage.
When we attended George Michael’s 35th birthday party in London in June 1998, the fancy dress theme was Cowboys and Angels. Paul wore angel wings, and I borrowed a black and white fake fur Lily Savage skirt for the evening.
When Paul went on to host his own entertainment series on BBC1 I was thrilled to be offered a regular part – but not so happy to discover he had cast me as an out-of-work has-been, someone who’d started her career in porn. I can’t believe he persuaded me to film a scene for the first show dressed in a gingham mini dress cavorting with a donkey in a stable in North London!
But when Paul asked you to do something, you generally agreed.
When Elton John and David Furnish decided to have a joint stag party before their Civil Partnership in 2005, they chose Paul to host the evening as Lily Savage. He persuaded me we should do a song and dance routine together – I Love to Cry at Weddings from the movie Sweet Charity. Not an easy number with only two rehearsals.
On the night, I was useless and the butt of all the excrutiating Lily Savage putdowns. Paul’s footwork and delivery were perfect, whereas I tripped over and forgot my lines, panicking at performing in front of such a star-studded audience. Elton laughed so much I thought we might have to call an ambulance. Afterwards, he said I was the worse performer by miles.
In spite of his acid tongue, Paul was always kind and thoughtful, tirelessly supporting the LGBTQ+ community and never forgetting his friends from the start of his career. Flowers and cards arrived at Christmas and birthday every year. Brendan had already recovered from liver cancer, and when he got sick again, Paul dropped everything to nurse his dear friend at home.
By then, Paul was living in an old farmhouse overlooking Romney Marshes in Kent, surrounded by his animals and pets. When Brendan died from a brain tumour in June 2005, two months before Paul’s 50th birthday, he was utterly distraught.
Paul’s private life was always kept out of the spotlight, but the truth is, he was happy just feeding his cows and chickens and eating simple food. He wasn’t someone who was happy attending premieres and parties. He eventually found lasting peace and happiness with Andre, who he’d met through Brendan, and they married in 2017.
Paul was a home-body with a split personality, who had made a career out of being outrageous, wearing unspeakably vulgar clothes. Who – long before Ru Paul – took drag into our living rooms and made us laugh our socks off.
Although he had retired Lily Savage years ago, she was still lurking and could re-emerge at any time – in recent years in the musical Annie when he took the role of Miss Hannigan, giving it the Lily Savage twist. Only last week, he was spotted having a drink in a bar in Edinburgh after the show, and making time for fans.
Paul didn’t stand on ceremony, hated any kind of fuss or pretentiousness, and worshipped dogs because they give you unswerving loyalty and love. Through his TV series For the Love of Dogs he found a huge audience and even recorded a special edition with our next Queen Camilla last December, celebrating 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
Camilla has said she’s ‘deeply saddened’ by Paul’s death.
I can only echo her sentiments.