Paul James Michael O’Grady MBE was born to Molly and Paddy on 14 June 1955 in Birkenhead. He was brought up in a close knit Irish Catholic household at 23 Holly Grove in Tranmere and Lowther Street. He was the youngest of three, with a sister, Sheila and a brother, Brendan. He attended St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Woodchurch Road in Prenton and later St. Anselm’s College, Manor Hill, a Christian Brothers school. As a child he loved dressing up and says; “even today if I see a wig, a hat or a bit of material, it’s on my head. I can’t help it”. He was never into traditional boys’ things like football and the only sport he claims to have ever been interested in is wrestling.
Nicknamed ‘Twizzle’ at school, Paul did well in his exams but didn’t go on to University. Whilst working as a clerk in a magistrate’s court, he met Diane Jansen, who was ten years his senior. By the time Paul was 17 they had a daughter, Sharyn, yet Paul claims he was gay from the moment he was born and that there are no skeletons in the closet regarding his sexuality. Stereotyping is one of his pet hates. He claims that the press call him a “drag queen as a term of abuse, like satanist”. In 1977 Paul wed a Portuguese, lesbian waitress called Teresa Fernandes in a marriage of convenience.
Paul’s many jobs have included a civil servant, office work in an abbatoir, wood chopper and for a cleaning company when he once cleaned Cleo Laine’s house. He has also worked in West Kirby Residential Home and in 1977 he went to Manila where he worked as a waiter in Gussy’s Bar, which also happened to be a brothel. It was here he got the idea for Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage. He returned to London in the early 80’s, at one stage living in Victoria Mansions on South Lambeth Road, but it would be many years before he would achieve fame as the loud-mouthed, platinum, beehive blonde. Lily
Starting out By day, Paul was working as a social worker but to supplement his income, he tended bar, earning 7.50 a night, in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He moved from serving drinks to doing a mime act on stage and then compering during the amateur drag nights. Knowing he could do better himself than some of the acts, he unleashed Lily on to the unsuspecting public for the first time in 1985. He used his mother’s maiden name of Savage and counterbalanced that with the softer Lily. He based Lily’s character on someone he’d seen in a Sheffield market although some of her traits are drawn from various family members, in particular his mother and his aunts, Chrissie and Annie, whose antics were chaotic and memorable.
He honed his act performing in the pubs and clubs before progressing to theatres, playing the first of many Edinburgh Festivals in 1987 and culiminating in appearances at the London Palladium and Royal Albert Hall.
His TV breakthrough came from Lily’s appearances on ‘Live From The Lilydrome’ in 1995 and the ‘Big Breakfast’. Lily’s cult following now became mainstream and her massive appeal ensured further television work in series like ‘The Lily Savage Show’ and ‘Blankety Blank’ as well as lucrative advertisements. One such commercial, for ‘Ford Escort’, used special effects to show Paul transforming into Lily. On stage, there were West End appearances and major national tours of the musicals ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ between 1995 and 1997 and ‘Annie’ from 1997-1998. Two seasons of the Pantomime ‘Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs’ followed, initially at Birmingham Hippodrome in 1999 then the next year at the Mayflower, Southampton.
Paul quit the bright lights of London for the rural tranquillity of Kent where he was able to surround himself with his much loved animals including showbiz dog, Buster, a Shih Tzu Brichon Frise-cross. Buster had been left on a motorway when he was four weeks old and brought into the ‘Big Breakfast’ studio. Paul adopted him and nursed him constantly until he was fully recovered. The pair have been inseparable ever since. Buster has now been joined by Shih Tzu, Louis and Olga, the puppy Paul adopted after being on his daytime TV show. Other animals residing at Paul’s rural estate include more dogs, giant pet pigs Blanche and Jane, Dot, Thimble, Caroline, Ginger, Bessie, 52 and 53 the cows, Waupie the lamb, Billy, Nan and Olive the goats, a horse, chickens, donkeys, a rooster named Merlin, Treacle the love bird and what Paul calls his Geese-Stapo.
Finally, during 2000, Paul ditched his alter ego and appeared on the small screen as himself, to great critical acclaim, with his travelogue, ‘Paul O’Grady’s Orient’. It proved that the man was a comic genius and didn’t need the wig and frock to get the laughs. A follow-up trip to the United States in 2001 produced ‘Paul O’Grady’s America’.
In April of 2002 came the shocking news that Paul had suffered a heart attack at his London flat after attending a showbiz party. He was rushed to St. Thomas’s Hospital where he underwent a life-saving operation. Thankfully, Paul made a remarkably speedy recovery and was astounded at the number of gifts and messages of support he received from the general public. He was also given a rousing reception by fellow entertainers at his first public appearance since leaving hospital, ‘The British Soap Awards’. Paul gave up the cigarettes, changed his diet and exercise regime and within five months was appearing on the West End stage as the Child Catcher in the musical ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. At the end of the year, he appeared at Manchester Opera House reprising his Pantomime role starring as The Wicked Queen for the third time.
Early in 2003 Paul took part in Celebrity Driving School, a series of television programmes, in aid of Comic Relief, following six celebrities learning to drive. None of those taking part were successful during filming but Paul did eventually pass his test. He rewarded himself with a 20K VW Beetle convertible, which he named Emma Peel in recognition of his love of ‘The Avengers’. He ended the year back in Panto in Bristol.
The Autumn of 2004 saw perhaps Paul’s biggest achievement to date, when he was given his own prime-time chat show on ITV1 named, appropriately enough, ‘The Paul O’Grady Show’. It received rave reviews from the start and pulled 1.9million viewers and 14% of the available audience for the debut show, surging ahead of Richard and Judy. Straight after the TV series finished, there was another Wicked Queen appearance, this time in London’s West End. The Paul O’Grady Show returned for an extended 13-week run the following March.
Paul’s 50th birthday on 14 June 2005 was overshadowed by the tragic news that Brendan Murphy, Paul’s dear partner and manager, had died, aged just 49, from brain cancer only 5 days previous. Brendan and Paul had been together over 20 years.
“Murphy was instrumental in everything. If it wasn’t for him, I would still be traipsing around pubs as Lily Savage. I owe everything to him.” – Paul O’Grady
Tears turned to joy when on 30 July Paul gave his daughter Sharyn Jansen away at her marriage to Philip Mousley at Liverpool Town Hall. The previous week Paul had been presented with an honorary fellowship to Liverpool John Moores University to recognise his achievements in the field of entertainment.
A dream turned to reality in 2006 when Paul created his own production company, Olga TV, which took over the running of ‘The New Paul O’Grady Show’, now on Channel 4. Despite being apprehensive, Paul was over the moon at becoming a grandfather for the first time when on 26th December 2006 daughter Sharyn gave birth to a 7lbs, 14oz baby boy named Abel. Late in 2008 Paul’s autobiography, At My Mother’s Knee… and other low joints was published and became an instant best seller. It was shortlisted for the Galaxy British Book Awards 2009 in the Tesco Biography of the Year category but was pipped to the post by the United States of America’s president, Barack Obama.
He is also the winner of National Television Awards 1999 and2005 BAFTA Awards.
Throughout his career, Paul has been credited with many accolades including numerous ‘Entertainer of the Year’ awards by Capital Gay, a prestigious Perrier Award nomination at the Edinburgh Festival 1991, ‘Best Comedian/Comedienne’ in November 1997 by readers of Smash Hits, a Variety Club award for ‘Showbiz Personality 1997’, TV Quick award for ‘Funniest Person On TV’ and ‘Best Gameshow 1998’ for Blankety Blank, ‘Personality Of The Year 1998’ at the Scouseology awards in Liverpool and two National Television Awards, voted for by the public. ‘The Paul O’Grady Show’ won him ‘Best Daytime Programme’ at the 2005 Royal Television Society Awards, the British Academy Television Award for ‘Best Entertainment Performance’, ‘Best Comedy Entertainment Personality’ at the British Comedy Awards and another TV Quick award followed the next year by their ‘Ten Years At The Top’ award. Alter ego Lily Savage even managed a third place in the 1995 Pink Paper Readers’ Awards for ‘Man Of The Year’, behind Michael Barrymore and Peter Tatchell! On 22 July 2005 Paul was given an honorary fellowship to Liverpool John Moores University but his most prestigious award to date was announced on his 53rd birthday on 14 June 2008 when he was honoured with an MBE for services to entertainment. He picked up the award from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace on 16 October 2008, a week after receiving a Blue Peter badge. Paul said he felt ‘over the moon’.