Paul O’Grady improved the lives of Britain’s LGBT+ community and his cultural impact resonates across the world, fellow comedian Eddie Izzard said on Wednesday as Sir Elton John, Queen Consort Camilla and Ken Bruce led tributes.
The TV presenter, who rose to fame on the club circuit as the acerbic, platinum wig-wearing Lily Savage, died “unexpectedly but peacefully” at home in Kent aged 67.
Izzard said: “If you track back how LGBTQ was seen, over the decades … it got gradually easier and easier and easier, and he definitely had a good part in saying, ‘I’m a drag queen’.
“He was just very human … It’s great that he added so much to culture and existence and humanity in the United Kingdom, and that resonates around the world.”
Queer As Folk creator Russell T Davies said O’Grady was “ferocious in the fight against Aids” while Sir Elton called him “a brilliant entertainer, wit, and supporter of LGBTQ+ rights”.
The singer added: “Thank you for all the joy you brought into the world, Paul. You went places nobody had gone before and we will miss you very much.”
Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Chris Smith, the first openly HIV-positive MP, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Paul was one of a kind, was a very special person, brought huge joy to countless people, and fought nobly for the things that were important.”
Peter Tatchell recalled that O’Grady made a smart quip to the police after they raided an LGBT venue where he was performing as a drag queen in the 1980s.
Tatchell, a rights campaigner and friend of the star, recalled that in 1987 officers “burst” into London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern wearing rubber gloves while he was on stage as Lily Savage.
After O’Grady spotted the gloves, which officers allegedly wore due to misconceptions that HIV was contracted through touch, he said: “Oh good, have you come to do the washing up?”
In 2021 O’Grady spoke about the infamous raid to call on the police to apologise for their actions. The venue hailed O’Grady as a “fierce advocate” of their establishment and one who “paved the way for a legion of drag artists”.
Ken Bruce, who worked with O’Grady at BBC Radio 2, said: “I was always amazed by how easily Paul slipped into the style of radio presentation, because, you know, he was a comedian and an actor, and the two don’t always work together. But Paul came in and it was as if he’d been in a radio studio all his life.
The royal family’s official Twitter account also paid tribute, posting an image of O’Grady with Camilla, Queen Consort after they worked closely in support of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
The post read: “Deeply saddened to hear of the death of Paul O’Grady, who worked closely with Her Majesty in support of Battersea, providing lots of laughter and many waggy-tailed memories.”
Camilla will be sharing her sympathies with O’Grady’s family privately in due course, Buckingham Palace added.
O’Grady and his partner Andre Portasio married in a low-key wedding ceremony in 2017. “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 said. “I know that he would want me to thank you for all the love you have shown him over the years.”