How Paul O'Grady's Lily Savage became a gamechanging trailblazer

The foul-mouthed character was an icon that shaped O'Grady's career

LONDON -  JULY 7:  Lily Savage - real name Paul O'Grady - poses dressed as the wicked queen at the photocall for
Lily Savage - Paul O'Grady - poses dressed as the wicked queen in 2004. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Paul O'Grady was a TV legend, with his "unexpected but peaceful" death breaking hearts of celeb pals and fans alike all over the UK.

Starting his career as the larger-than-life Lily Savage, O'Grady spent the first decades of his career best known as his drag queen alter ego.

Read more: Paul O'Grady: A truly good person remembered

But in doing so, O'Grady paved the way for LGBT representation on screen and became a trailblazer at a time when the community needed it most.

From first conception to Lily being "killed off" in the early 2000s, here's what you need to know about the "life" of the iconic character.

Comedians Mark Thomas and Paul O'Grady (in character as Lily Savage), Soho, London, United Kingdom, 1993. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)
Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage with Mark Thomas, 1993. (Getty Images)

How Lily Savage became a trailblazer

Her grand debut: Lily Savage made her debut into the world in 1978 at the Black Cap in Camden. At the time, O'Grady worked for the council, and wanted to create "someone more cartoon than human".

Lily – a foul-mouthed chainsmoker – was based loosely on O'Grady's female family members. Savage was his mother's maiden name.

She would perform as part of troupes including The Playgirls, before going solo in the 80s.

File photo dated 09/11/98 of Paul O'Grady, as Lily Savage, during a photocall on Hyde Park, London, where it was announced that he was to play Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie on stage in London. TV presenter and comedian Paul O'Grady has died at the age of 67, his partner Andre Portasio has said. The TV star, also known for his drag queen persona Lily Savage, died
Paul O'Grady (PA)

A London landmark: Savage became a resident drag queen at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1985 – a particularly difficult time for the LGBT community as HIV/AIDS began to viciously spread.

Savage was present at the infamous 1987 "rubber gloves raid", an intimidation operation where police raided the pub in gloves over fear of catching the disease.

Arrested, O'Grady refused to use any other name to the police than "Lily Veronica Mae Savage", and continued to speak out for gay rights with the platform.

Fight For Your Right: Savage became a regular face at protests and marches demanding equal rights for the gay community. Among these was a 1988 march against Section 28, Tory-imposed legislation law banning education or "promotion" of homosexuality.

Losing friends to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Savage also became a regular fundraiser.

Lily Savage aka Paul O Grady the Birkenhead born comedian drag artiste Mirrorpix
Paul O'Grady (PA/Mirrorpix)

Edinburgh success: TV came calling in 1991 when Savage was nominated for a Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Read more: How BBC Radio 2 has transformed in its bid to attract new listeners

"The Edinburgh Festival changed my life," O'Grady said. "The experience opened doors for me that would otherwise have been firmly closed." In 1994, Savage made her TV presenting debut on Top Of The Pops.

Getting Bigger: Savage's major breakthrough into 90s pop culture came in 1995, when the character replaced the popular Paula Yates on outlandish morning show The Big Breakfast on Channel 4.

Stirring up trouble by ignoring PR requests and digging for personal questions, Savage became beloved, and remained on the show for a year.

O'Grady quit thereafter after not being a fan of early mornings.

Paul O'Grady at the National Television Awards in 1997. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Chat show icon: Savage's unique brand of camp humour made her perfect to host variety shows – landing An Evening With Lily Savage in 1996. It was nominated for a National Television Award.

The Lily Savage Show, a BBC variety chat show, launched in 1998 and attracted a swathe of celebrity guests, but the scripted format stunted Savage's outlandish and natural persona.

It was axed after a six-week run.

Blankety Blank: In 1997, Savage became a gameshow host, taking over Blankety Blank for a revival.

Savage remained with the show when it moved from BBC One to ITV, before the series was eventually cancelled in 2002.

By this point, O'Grady had started making radio appearances and TV roles as both himself and as Savage.

Lily Live!: In 2000, Savage was given her own live show for ITV. It ran for two seasons, where she was joined by celebrity guests and performed songs to open and close the show.

Gayle Tuesday, a ditzy blonde character played by Brenda Gilhooly, was her sidekick.

She also landed major ad deals for Ford Escort, Pretty Polly tights, the drink Oasis, and bingo promos.

TV personality Lily Savage during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game. The commercial, scheduled to run during peak time viewing on ITV, Channel 5 and Cable and Satellite stations, will premiere on Easter Monday.
Lily Savage (PA)

Lily's Last Dance: Savage made one of her last major appearances for Comic Aid in 2005 – a stand-up comedy special to raise money for the Asian Tsunami Appeal.

Read more: Paul O'Grady had legal dispute with brewery over 'Savage' ale

Dressed in her best furs and leopard print, Savage states it was her "coming out of retirement" from a year prior.

Long Live Lily Savage: O'Grady officially retired Savage in 2005, going on to an illustrious career all his own. He's since referred to the moment as "killing her off".

Speaking to The Sun in 2021, O'Grady said: "People say to me, ‘Would you do Lily again?’ And I say, ‘Good God no, I wouldn’t last five minutes’.

Read more: Paul O'Grady says there's 'not enough cash on earth' for Lily Savage to return

"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'."