It has been announced that Paul O’Grady, one of the UK’s most popular entertainers has sadly died unexpectedly, at the age of 67. The news of the comedian and presenter’s death was given in a statement from his husband, Andre Portasio, who he had married in 2017, which said he passed away peacefully, on Tuesday 28 March.
The Merseyside born comic rose to fame in the 1990’s with his drag queen persona, Lily Savage, and went on to present several light entertainment programmes, before hosting his own chat show. He also had his own radio show until leaving last year after a 14-year stint.
He became an ambassador for the famous London dogs home at Battersea and his love of animals simply served to enhance his popularity with the general public.
More recently he had been on tour playing Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. In 2008, he was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for Services to Entertainment.
The cause of death has yet to be confirmed.
The statement that Mr Portasio released read: “It is with great sadness that I inform you that Paul has passed away unexpectedly but peacefully, yesterday evening. We ask, at this difficult time, that whilst you celebrate his life you also respect our privacy as we come to terms with this loss.”
He went on to say how he knew Paul would be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion. He also included animals in that list, in recognition to the star’s devotion to them. He continued: “I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”
Producer shock just hours after visit
Mr O’Grady’s long-time radio producer Malcolm Prince was clearly distressed when he revealed that he had visited his friend at his home just hours before his death. In a Twitter post, Mr Prince wrote how the comic was “laughing, smiling, and full of life”. He went on to write: “He was so proud of “Annie”, and he was looking forward to so many new projects, but now he has gone and I can’t believe it. We have lost a unique talent and I have lost a dear friend.”
Drag act launches career
Paul O’Grady was born to a working-class Irish migrant family in the Tranmere area of Birkenhead, on Merseyside in 1955. He moved down to London in the seventies where he developed his drag act, Lily Savage, which would go on to make him a household name.
His mother’s maiden name was Savage which was always believed to be the inspiration behind the act, which he also said was based on traits he picked up from several of his female relatives.
He became popular in the LGBT circles when he began openly talking about their issues and after slots on varies TV entertainment and variety shows, he was given his own chat show on the BBC, before being trusted with hosting a return for a previously hugely popular game show: Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002.
TV star and animal lover
After ditching his drag act, his success continued with further chat shows on both ITV and Channel 4. He also revived another former TV favourite: Blind Date in 2017. His obvious compassion for canines led to the launch of a programme which was a massive hit: For the Love of Dogs, a series based around the staff at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, an organisation for which he would become an ambassador.
Indeed one of his more recent TV appearances was in 2022, where he shared the screen with Camilla, Queen Consort for a one-off episode of the long-running show to mark 160 years of the organisation. His natural affection for the animals was clear to see and was what made the show so popular with the animal loving public of the UK.
In a statement, issued earlier this morning via the Royal Family’s official Twitter account, the message read: “We are told the Queen Consort is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Paul O’Grady. His warm heart and infectious humour lit up the lives of so many.”
Radio celebrity and musical performer
He was also a regular voice on the radio 2 airwaves and broadcast yet another massively popular show with his weekly slot on there for 14 years, before leaving in August of last year.
He was quoted more recently as saying he was “thoroughly enjoying” his latest run with the musical Annie, playing the role he had played previously, and typically praising those in the show with him: “especially with a truly amazing and lovely cast.”
Awards and honours
He won the British Comedy Award, a National Television Award, and a TV Bafta for his work and had also published several books, including a four-volume memoir. His appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) was followed by his appointment as president of the British Music Hall Society.
He lived in Aldington, near Ashford in Kent and he was given the honour of becoming Deputy Lieutenant for the County, a role which gave him the responsibility of representing the King at events in the local area, something he was immensely proud of.
He had suffered a health scare in 2013 which necessitated in him taking a short break to recuperate, and that had followed previous heart attacks in 2002 and 2006, the latter requiring a spell in intensive care.
Early tributes following announcement
“Funny, fearless, brave, kind”, “a lovely, lovely person”, “one of the nicest and kindest people you could ever meet, always a joy to be around and obviously, so much fun”, “an icon of British TV”, “devoted animal lover”, “champion for the underdog”, “unique and brilliant broadcaster who brightened the nation”.
These were just some of the early tributes paid to the immensely popular star from the likes of: Radio 2 breakfast show host, Zoe Ball, singer and TV host Aled Jones, Presenter, Vernon Kay, and former Radio 2 broadcaster, Ken Bruce.
There will be many, many more to follow.
Liverpool claimed him as one of their own
Although he wasn’t from Liverpool, because of his strong scouse accent most people actually believed he was, and he had become an icon of the city. After all, his birthplace was literally straight across the River Mersey, just a few minutes ferry ride away, in Birkenhead.
At Liverpool’s famous Royal Albert Dock there is an amusing portrait on permanent display of the entertainer, made entirely of… Jelly Beans. It has become something of a landmark with people queuing up daily to have their photographs taken beside it and those queues are likely to be extra long today and over the next week or so, as people stop to pay their respects.
Dogs home chief says star will be remembered fondly
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home chief executive Peter Laurie praised the star’s genuine affection for the animals in their care, saying: “We will forever remember Paul as a devoted animal lover with the biggest heart, who fell head over heels in love with every dog he met at our centres.”
He reminded everyone that Mr O’Grady had worked with the charity for more than a decade and said he was a “remarkable ambassador” not only for their work at Battersea, but also for rescue animals everywhere in the country and also around the globe.
He called him “the most generous and warm-hearted colleague” and remarked that he had probably done more than almost any other individual not only to promote their work, but also the importance of taking in, caring for, and finding new, loving homes for dogs and cats.
Entertainer loved all animals
It wasn’t just dogs who the brilliant entertainer took to his heart, his dedication to animals was endless. Back in 2011 he took in a baby lamb who had been rescued from a dustbin by the RSPCA. The month-old lamb, named Winston, had been treated for an ulcerated eye, and the entertainer happily added him to the flock of sheep which the star already owned and cared for at his home in Kent.
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, was quick to speak out on hearing the sad news of his passing: “His tireless campaigning saw Paul recognised with an RSPCA Animal Hero Award for his outstanding contribution to animal welfare,” he said, before adding that: “The thoughts of all at the RSPCA are with his loved ones and our friends at Battersea at this difficult and sad time.”
Moving message adds proof
Almost as if to emphasise the point, one of the last posts he placed on social media summed up his devotion to all animals. Two weeks before his passing he took to Instagram to pay tribute to one of his pet pigs, called Tom Tom. The animal had to be put to sleep while Paul was away from home and the star put out the message: “Got back from a week in Newcastle playing Miss Hannigan in Annie to find that Tom Tom, one of my pigs had been put to sleep.”
Clearly upset, he went on to say how he knew it was coming as the animal had been diagnosed with a tumour, but said: “Even so it is awful when you lose a pet; he was the cheekiest of the gang and one of the other pigs who was obviously very fond of him is now depressed and has gone into mourning, yet there are those who say that animals don’t have feelings.”
Always thoughtful with a caring kind heart, the entertainer will be sadly missed.