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The truth about losing Paul O'Grady
Out, camp, scathing, political, unapologetic.
When I was growing up, my mum had a gay friend who worked in retail by day and was a drag queen by night. He performed under the name Tallulah, hopping across the Pennines and back, or up and down to London, on a circuit of backstreet boozers, tatty but lively gay bars, and the kind of dives where the next turn after him would be a girl of school-leaving age dancing topless while a pint glass was passed round for tips. As Tallulah, he’d run through the usual cabaret routines, a song or two, lewd jokes, and the kind of audience participation that necessitated nerves of steel in 1980s Yorkshire. Drag was often a commentary on the sins of men, expressed through a hyper-glamorous rendition of the women whose lives were ruined because of them, and Tallulah knew how to pick a target and tell a story. He is gone now, he died at the age of 52, almost a decade ago, after a hard life, yet one lived to the full. One of his fellow performers, who he knew from his time applying eyeliner under flickering lightbulbs in freezing cold cupboards in ramshackle boozers, is also gone: Lily Savage, the towering, mesmerising creation of Paul O’Grady.
So much has been said online about Paul’s impact both on drag and mainstream light entertainment; seeing Twitter light up with tributes and videos has been a reminder about the positive power of social media. While many of those grieving and reminiscing never met Paul, such was his energy and congeniality that people felt like they knew him. Paul O’Grady was a trailblazer in many ways – there had been drag queens and gay men on TV before but never quite like him. Out, camp, scathing, political, unapologetic, yet warm and compassionate. When people have spoken about O’Grady’s humble beginnings on the gay cabaret circuit, it’s sometimes presented as if his days tottering across the stage of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern were a seedy secret, something he was desperate to escape from. But Paul O’Grady was still openly proud of his roots, not just in the gay arena but also his hometown Liverpool (‘the Wirral, actually!’) and his working class origins. While some on the ascent collect fame with one hand and hauteur with the other, Paul O’Grady stayed genuine and fiercely defended the people like him that fame’s blinding lights had yet to reveal; he never forgot them. He mastered that difficult art few huge celebrities manage: enjoying the wealth and opportunities fame gave him but retaining his principles. Tallulah, on watching first Lily Savage and then Paul as himself rise through the celebrity ranks, was genuinely pleased and didn't have a bad word to say about him. If there was a tinge of ‘if only’, it was never expressed, there was no bitterness; those queens backed each other up all the way.
Like Tallulah, Paul O’Grady was of a generation we sometimes overlook, the queer people who were on the frontline during the community’s biggest crises. Reviled in the media, abused and diminished by much of the general public, and of course the HIV and AIDS years, fighting for their lives must have taken its toll. There’d be booze and drugs, sometimes to party, other times to cope. Some made it through, others didn’t. The ones who stayed with us were hardened, perhaps. Not in a cruel or cynical way, but in the sense of survival, knowing you’ve lived through almost the worst of times, that you can get through anything, but hoping you’ll never have to try. Do we ever stop to thank them?
I don’t know what to say about seeing Lily Savage on screen when I was growing up, except: wow. Obviously Lily was a cartoonish parody, with killer beehive and roots as dark as Boris Johnson’s soul, but the humour, and Paul’s personality, made this monstrous character feel approachable and real. I knew women who spoke like that, who didn't hold back, who could always find a crumb of pride somewhere to get them through. She devoured the scenery of any show she was in and gave my own nascent acerbic repertoire permission to exist; I was never short of a devastating comeback or two. When Lily was on screen, whether getting hammered on This Morning during a wine-tasting session, grilling someone on the bed on The Big Breakfast, or gently skewering Sid Owen on the set of Blankety Blank, it felt like watching a real person who’d elbowed their way into the studio and chipped away at the veneer of polite respectability of mainstream television. Even though O’Grady knew his act inside out, Lily brought an air of chaos and excitement to a sterile, cosy world sorely in need of a stiletto in the backside. The work she did to bring queer voices out of the shadows should not be underestimated.
Most who perform behind a persona tend to water down their act once unmasked, but when Paul left Lily behind, he was never anything but himself. Sure, he may have cut down on the swears while on air, but it never felt like he was selling out. It’s the curse of the revolutionary, perhaps, to leave a piece of their heart in the dark days of oppression – grateful for the air and space of freedom, but dreaming romantically of life before the underbelly was turned toward the sun. Paul O’Grady, however, was not one to wallow; he was not the kind of man whose own past hardship could only be validated by future generations suffering the same or worse. He was all about progress, and justice for those worse off than he was; he fought with his heart, and his fierce and filthy tongue. I know Paul found it difficult to reconcile the aesthetic focus and pageantry of the Drag Race era with the subversive social commentary of the drag he performed in his heyday, but I hope he was cheered to see the spirit of Lily Savage living on in today’s younger drag performers – fearless and defiant, never giving up, fighting for equality and opportunity. He may have taken the mainstream by storm, but Paul knew the fight wasn’t over. These darker days, where trans people are vilified in the press, anyone supporting them is labelled a groomer, and drag queens are being hounded, feel like a rerun of the 1980s, the decade that left an indelible mark on the community. We’ve never needed a hero like Paul O’Grady more. To have lost him now feels like the cruellest trick. How wonderful it would’ve been to see him age into an unrelenting and adored grande dame.
The truth about losing Paul O’Grady is that it’s not just the loss of a great man, it’s that there’s nobody else doing it like he did. With class, grit, tenacity, kindness, joy, spirit, savagery, and a wink. And lest we forget: he was really, really funny.
An icon. For Tallulah, for me, and for the other queer kids who watched you take over the world: thank you.
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