On Tuesday 28th March, I was immensely sad to hear that Paul O’Grady had died. O’Grady, for those who are not aware, was an icon of British broadcasting. He had been a constant figure on our television screens for decades. His nasal, northern accent and witty humour was a staple in the homes of many.
In the last decade or so of his life, he dedicated a lot of his time and attention to his passion for animals. For my generation, Paul O’Grady is synonymous with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London, of which he was the ambassador and where his show Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs was based. And while this was definitely not the only project of his I can remember seeing in my lifetime, the image of this funny, old man with a deep love for dogs encapsulates how much wholesome joy and love he represented. However, my mother’s memory of Paul O’Grady, equally as fond as mine, is more engrained in his early years in the entertainment industry, as a drag queen called Lily Savage.
Lily Savage first gained popularity in the London gay scene of the 80s (most notably through her residency at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern). This underground hype translated into mainstream success in the 90s as Lily Savage began to appear on British television. Paul O’Grady was groundbreaking in helping introduce the love and joy and campness of drag and drag culture to the general population when their perception of gay people was highly prejudiced, particularly as a result of the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
Nowadays, drag culture is much more widely accepted in mainstream media (mostly thanks to RuPaul’s insanely popular competitive reality television show, RuPaul’s Drag Race and its many international variants) and it is no longer unusual to see queens like The Vivienne and Bimini Bon Boulash on both our television screens and social media. Drag culture is more mainstream than it has ever been but it was hard for me not to think of the threat that is being posed to it in America recently upon hearing of the passing of Paul O’Grady.
Dozens of bills have been filed since the beginning of this year across numerous states in the US that specifically target drag performances. With the rise in mainstream drag culture comes an unfortunately inevitable backlash from conservative homophobes who cite discomfort for this artistic mode of expression and performance that defies societal gender norms. With the growth in public exposure to drag queens, there are concerns of the influence these ‘unabashedly queer role models’ will have on children. This just shows a failure to understand the multifaceted nature of drag. Drag can be extremely provocative, sexual and inappropriate for children, but it can also be wholesome, playful, lighthearted and it is ALWAYS a form of entertainment first and foremost.
Paul O’Grady’s Lily Savage is a prime example of this. Lily Savage defied the odds and became a staple of British television in a time where gay people were not accepted by the public because of her sharp wit, charisma and kindness. These qualities resonated with people, surpassing their prejudices and helped allow drag queens and the LGBTQIA+ community become more accepted by the masses. Drag is not an inherently evil or scary thing whatsoever, it is a beautiful craft that prioritises entertaining audiences, making them HAPPY. What more could people want than that?
Paul O’Grady was a lifelong advocate for numerous causes (animals, Save the Children are just some examples) but most notably he was a trailblazer in aiding the positive representation of drag queens and the gay community as a whole. It is an immense shame that there are those who fail to recognise the importance of the likes of Lily Savage and are trying to suppress this mode of expression out of a fear that feels very outdated in 2023.
The sudden death of Paul O’Grady is a great tragedy and now he is gone, the world will be a little less bright. One can only hope that everything he stood for and represented will continue to be a mainstay for the public, because we all need drag queens the same way we all need to have fun. Drag queens are the embodiment of skill, artistry and enjoyment, a beautiful craft that must never be suppressed. To do so would tarnish everything Paul O’Grady achieved.
RIP Paul O’Grady MBE 1955-2023