Paul O’Grady was “laughing, smiling and full of life” shortly before his death, his friend and radio producer Malcolm Prince said, as the Queen Consort joined those paying tribute.
The comedian and TV presenter, who rose to fame on the nightclub circuit as the acerbic, platinum wig-wearing Lily Savage, died “unexpectedly but peacefully” on Tuesday evening at the age of 67, his partner, Andre Portasio, said in a statement.
O’Grady has been hailed as a “trailblazer” for breaking into the mainstream broadcasting landscape with his alter ego and for his charity work around animals and Aids.
Prince, who worked with O’Grady at both BBC Radio 2 and Boom Radio – an independent station aimed at Baby Boomers – said he is devastated by his loss and added in a tweet: “Yesterday afternoon 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 said that O’Grady, who had been touring playing Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie, had been “so proud” of the role and added: “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.”
O’Grady left his Radio 2 Sunday afternoon slot in August last year after almost 14 years, following a schedule shake-up which saw him regularly swapping with comic Rob Beckett.
He and Prince, known to fans as #TeamPOG, appeared on Boom Radio for a Christmas special and were due to return to the station for a one-off show on Easter Sunday.
The royal family’s official Twitter account paid tribute, posting an image of O’Grady with Camilla, 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 Mr Portasio married in a low-key wedding ceremony in 2017 and Mr Portasio’s statement 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’s love for animals was well-known, and he lived in a farmhouse in Kent with Portasio along with a menagerie of animals including four dogs, goats, sheep, chickens and barn owls, and his profile picture on Instagram shows him with one of his dogs.
His last post on the social media platform, dated March 13, paid tribute to Tom Tom, one his pigs who had been put to sleep, with the star saying: “I knew it was coming as he’d been diagnosed with a tumour but even so it’s awful when you lose a pet.”
Good Morning Britain presenter Richard Arnold was also among those paying tribute and reflected on the impact the animal-loving star had had on him.
He recalled meeting O’Grady in character as Lily Savage in 1990, adding: “It’s impossible to overestimate what a trailblazer he was because Lily was of course a persona that became famous on the drag circuit in south London… and you idolised him as a gay man actually because trailblazer really doesn’t do him justice and then of course he broke in to the mainstream broadcasting landscape…”
During his career, he hosted The Paul O’Grady Show, Blind Date and Blankety Blank, as well as ITV’s multi-award-winning For The Love Of Dogs.
Following the news, ITV confirmed the upcoming 11th series of For The Love Of Dogs would still launch on April 13 as planned.
The broadcaster also said it had changed its schedule on Wednesday evening so it could re-air the special one-off episode of the show when he was joined by Camilla.
Last year the Queen Consort featured in the programme to mark 160 years of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, an organisation for which O’Grady was an ambassador.
In a statement shared with the PA news agency, the charity paid tribute to O’Grady as a “devoted animal lover” and a “champion for the underdog”.
The organisation’s chief executive, Peter Laurie, said: “Battersea will forever remember Paul as a devoted animal lover with the biggest heart, who fell head over heels in love with every dog he met at our centres.
“Paul will always be associated with Battersea and we are truly saddened to have lost such a true friend and huge part of our charity.”
The presenter also hosted ITV celebrity game show Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up.
O’Grady took over the reins from Blind Date’s long-running presenter and his close friend Cilla Black, who died in 2015, as he hosted the Channel 5 reboot of the show in 2017.
During the coronavirus lockdown, he wrote his debut children’s book, Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang, which was published in September 2021.
ITV presenter Lorraine Kelly described O’Grady in an online tribute as “a really special man”.
“Such sad news. Paul O’Grady – funny, fearless, brave, kind and wise. Will be sorely missed. A really special man.”
The official Twitter account of the musical Annie said its cast and crew were “stunned and saddened” by the news.
“An incredible Miss Hannigan and an irreplaceable, hilarious and generous person who we will all miss immensely,” it added.
“Our thoughts are with Paul’s family and friends at this very sad time.”
The production, in which O’Grady shared his role with a rotating cast including Craig Revel Horwood, is currently on a week-long break but bosses said further news would be released in due course.
Born in Birkenhead, on the Wirral, Merseyside, O’Grady’s mother’s maiden name was Savage – which is believed to have inspired his famous drag alter ego.
He began his career performing as Lily Savage in the 1970s while working as a peripatetic care officer for Camden Council in London, going on to tour in northern England as part of drag duo The Playgirls.
He later settled into a solo show as Savage, which ran for eight years at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and made a name for himself speaking out about LGBT issues.
O’Grady’s career as Savage took off with TV and radio appearances in character and he was eventually asked to take over from Paula Yates as The Big Breakfast presenter, as Savage, from 1995 to 1996.
He took on chat show The Lily Savage Show for the BBC for a short run in 1997 and later that year had success as the host of a revived version of gameshow Blankety Blank, which ran until 2002.
His self-titled teatime programme The Paul O’Grady Show aired on ITV from 2004 to 2005, later moving to Channel 4 as The New Paul O’Grady Show.
In 2022 he appeared on an album by rocker Miles Kane, re-recording a spoken word piece that originally featured in one of his older BBC shows.
Kane, one-half of The Last Shadow Puppets alongside Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, told PA he had been “touched” by the offer and that they shared a mutual affection because they were both raised in the Wirral Peninsula.
Throughout his career O’Grady won numerous accolades including a TV Bafta, a British Comedy Award and a National Television Award for The Paul O’Grady Show.
He was made an MBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to entertainment.
He attended the ceremony with his daughter, Sharyn Mousley, his child from a brief relationship he had when he was 17.