TV star and comedian Paul O’Grady has died at the age of 67, his husband Andre Portasio has said.
In a statement, he said the star, known for his drag queen persona Lily Savage, died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening.
The presenter, who was born in Merseyside, hosted a number of game shows including Blankety Blank in the late 90s under the guise of Savage.
His career spanned more than 30 years, during which he hosted The Paul O’Grady Show, Blind Date and For The Love Of Dogs.
He also featured on TV shows such as Dr Who and Holby City.
Mr Portasio, who married O’Grady in 2017, said: “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 will be greatly missed by his loved ones, friends, family, animals and all those who enjoyed his humour, wit and compassion.
“I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”
O’Grady also leaves behind his daughter Sharon, who he had with close friend Diane Jansen in 1974, as well as two grandchildren.
He was also once married to Portuguese model Teresa Fernandes in what he called a “marriage of convenience” in 1977, reportedly to stop her from being deported – they later divorced in 2005.
O’Grady said Fernandes, a lesbian from a strict Catholic family, had been feeling pressure to get married and that he wanted to help her.
In 2012, O’Grady spoke about his health after having had two heart attacks.
He said following the publication of his third book: “The worst thing you can do is to sit and fret.
“I take tablets and have check-ups every eight months when they put me on the treadmill. I say to them, ‘Heart attack or not, I’m hopeless on treadmills!'”
Both his parents died young from heart problems – his father when O’Grady was in his late teens and his mother, whose maiden name was Savage, when he was 33.
The name is believed to have inspired his famous drag alter ego who helped propel him to mainstream success.
‘We have lost a unique talent’
Long-time friend and producer, Malcolm Prince, offered his tribute to O’Grady having visited him at his home only yesterday.
Mr Prince said: “I popped round to Paul’s for a good old catch-up. Surrounded by his beloved dogs, he was laughing smiling and full of life. He was looking forward to so many new projects.
“And now he’s gone I can’t believe it. We have lost a unique talent – and I’ve lost a dear friend. We were all lucky to have Paul in our lives.
“My heart goes out to Andre, Paul’s family, and friends. Oh how I’ll miss him.”
‘He made millions laugh’: Tributes pour in for O’Grady
The rise of Paul O’Grady
He began his career as Lily Savage in the 1970s and the act later gained traction at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern cabaret club, where he was a prominent advocate of LGBT+ issues.
The Savage persona propelled him to TV and radio whilst he remained in character, and he took over as The Big Breakfast presenter in 1995.
Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002, would showcase his dry humour.
O’Grady was a trailblazer – and his humour and honesty resonated with people
Funny and formidable. Paul O’Grady was a one-off. Few that could match his sharp tongue, that warmth, that wit.
Much is made today of how Ru Paul’s Drag Race has brought drag to a mainstream audience, but long before that here in Britain it was O’Grady who brought the subculture from the fringes of society to primetime TV without watering it down or compromising what it stood for, not even an inch.
Incidentally O’Grady wasn’t a fan of Drag Race.
“That’s not drag!” he’d said. “It’s all about shading and contouring your face now and being like supermodels.”
With O’Grady it symbolised more. He was a trailblazer at a time when the queer community endured horrific homophobia.
Yes there’d been Danny La Rue and Dame Edna Everage on screen, but his acerbic alter ego Lily Savage – a single mum turned middle-aged prostitute who regularly went on the rob – was born straight out of a London comedy scene that was loud, scrappy and up for a fight if you had a problem with what the community stood for.
O’Grady took no prisoners. His humour and honesty resonated and the public quite rightfully loved him. A true one-off.
Comedy chat shows would follow with The Paul O’Grady Show in 2004, and Paul O’Grady Live in 2010, which featured guests like Kylie Minogue, Tom Jones and Michael McIntyre.
The presenter was honoured with an MBE for services to entertainment in 2008, adding to a list of achievements including a TV Bafta, a British Comedy Award, and a National Television Award for The Paul O’Grady Show.
Last year O’Grady commemorated 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home with the Queen Consort in a special episode of For The Love Of Dogs.
Further tributes have poured in for the much-loved comedian.
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “Paul wasn’t just a brilliant comedian and broadcast personality but a much-admired campaigner for LGBT+ equality and animal rights.”
ITV’s Lorraine Kelly described him as “a really special man” and “funny, fearless, brave, kind and wise”.