O'GRADY'S MONSTER

Lily Savage started life as the figment of a social worker's imaginatio n. Now she's one of the hottest properties in showbusiness. For the man behind her, it's getting beyond a joke

ARRANGING an interview with Lily Savage is both a complicated and simple affair. Complicated, mainly, because Lily is this year's hottest thing in popular entertainment, and therefore surrounded by a plethora of minders. You start by trying to locate Lily's manager, a curiously elusive man; and move on to negotiations with two different press officers for the Big Breakfast, a television show in which Lily stars every weekday morning; and are then transferred to the publicist for Lily's forthcoming West End musical (an adaptation of Prisoner, Cell Block H, the Australian soap opera so kitsch it's hip); only to be referred back to Lily's personal PR, who is handling the soon-to-be-released video of Lily's one-woman show. Each professes ignorance of the others' activities, but finally, mysteriously, they reach an accord. An interview slot is offered some weeks later - on the understanding that this is a very precious chunk of busy Lily's time. The appointment gets postponed, for one reason or another, and then, just as you are about to give up hope of ever seeing the celebrated Ms Savage, it suddenly becomes simple. This is when Paul O'Grady gets involved. Out of the blue, he rings, gently apologises for the various delays, and fixes up a meeting.

Not many people talk about Paul O'Grady, but Paul is Lily: her creator, her scriptwriter, the man who brings her to life by donning a platinum blonde beehive wig, a vast quantity of make-up, a precariously high pair of white stilettos, an indecently short leopardskin mini-skirt, and a matching fake-fur coat. Paul O'Grady has been playing Lily Savage - a foul-mouthed Birkenhead trollop who makes Danny la Rue look like the Duchess of Kent - for 10 years, but it is only in the past 12 months that Lily has become famous. Her original audiences in gay pubs and clubs were delighted by O'Grady's knowing, camp appreciation of popular culture (Lily is obsessed by soap opera of all forms, in particular Coronation Street); but then, bowled along by the recent revival of the British public's enduring interest in drag, Lily stopped being an ironic commentator on the sidelines, and moved into the mainstream of light entertainment: appearing on Brookside; presenting Top of the Pops; taking over from Paula Yates as the blonde bombshell celebrity interviewer on the Big Breakfast.

Despite this shift towards the middle market, O'Grady has so far managed to keep the quality that makes him different to earlier male comedians (such as Dick Emery and Barry Humphries) who found success in a dress on the small screen: namely, his willingness to talk about poverty and grimy English low-life. Lily is a former part-time prostitute, a single mother with a penchant for shoplifting who isn't afraid to admit to living life on the margins of respectable society. According to one of O'Grady's many fans, the writer Adam Mars-Jones, "He has found a way of talking about deprivation through the excesses of Lily's character. He is obsessed with the world as it is - but maybe he can only do this by stepping outside himself, and into Lily Savage."

So complete is his transformation that unlike the other men in frocks who became fashionable at the same time (Julian Clary, Eddie Izzard), Paul O'Grady did not become famous under his own name. But this has not stopped the tabloid press revealing details of O'Grady's private life, which they grafted, rather peculiarly, on to his creation's (recent tabloid headlines have included "Lily Savage Is My Secret Husband"; and "Lily Meets His Long Lost Love Child").

This was not, presumably, what he had planned all those years ago, when being Lily was a part-time hobby, an occasional diversion from his day job as a social worker. Nor can it be entirely pleasant to work 20 hours a day, in order to sustain Lily Savage's brilliant career. Little wonder, then, that when we talk on the phone to arrange the interview, Paul O'Grady tells me that he is feeling anxious. "Very, very anxious," he says, in a manner which one would not usually associate with big, brassy, hard- as-nails Lily. "In fact, I think I'm going to have a nervous breakdown."

A few days later, we meet in an empty room backstage at the Old Vic theatre in London, where O'Grady is rehearsing his new musical, in between filming the Big Breakfast (which involves getting up at 4.30am) and making his video (which keeps him up past midnight). He looks as unlike Lily Savage as you could possibly imagine: a tall, thin man; grey-haired, and grey- faced with exhaustion. He wears black jeans and a plain white shirt, and his voice is as understated as his appearance.

It is only when he starts talking about his childhood that you can hear traces of Lily creeping in. "I was born in Birkenhead in 1955," he says, his Liverpool accent becoming ever more pronounced, "which makes me the ripe old age of 40 - 40 going on a hundred. I was born late - what my mother calls the last kick of a dying horse. There's three of us children, but I'm 13 or 14 years younger than my brother and sister."

O'Grady was sent by his Irish Catholic parents to a private school run by an organisation called the Christian Brothers. ("They were wicked, wicked!") Despite doing well in his exams, he did not go to university. "Nobody in my family had ever gone," he says. "They thought I should get a job - preferably a job with a good pension. So I went to work for the Civil Service. I'd wanted to work for the Ministry of Defence, because I had some far-fetched idea that it had something to do with the Avengers, but I ended up in Social Security."

After leaving the DSS, he had a disastrous spell in London as a hotel skivvy, and then came back to Liverpool in disgrace (he'd borrowed a bottle of wine from the hotel bar to take to a party, and returned to find the police waiting for him; he was subsequently convicted of theft, and fined pounds 60). Still only 17, he flitted through a variety of jobs, including one in the office of an abattoir; and another as a clerk in a magistrate's court. While there, he had an affair with a colleague, a woman 10 years older than him; she became pregnant with their daughter, Sharyn, who is now 21. "Am I the first gay man to have a child?" he asks indignantly. "I've never tried to keep her a secret." He says that although he did not live with them, he has always stayed in touch with both Sharyn and her mother, but is reluctant to discuss them further.

He is equally unwilling to talk about his motivation for making a career out of being a woman ("I was never really interested in drag," he says); but when he starts describing the prostitutes he came across as a court clerk, it becomes apparent that they might have been prototype Lilies. "They'd had the rollers ripped out of their hair in the cells, but they were so brave. I used to admire them for giving as good as they got." He is equally affectionate about the Lilies in his family: his mother's maiden name was Savage, "and there was my Auntie Lily, who was married to a sailor, my uncle Willy. She was a great character, Lily. And there was me auntie Chrissie, who was a clippie on the buses. She had a hard life, but she used to suck her cheeks in and fancy herself as Marlene Dietrich."

Neither of his parents ever saw O'Grady's act as Lily: his father died in 1973, and his mother six years ago. But he says that there was always an unspoken understanding in his family that he was gay. "It was no big deal. I never stood up in the front room and said, 'I have something to tell you!' - but I wasn't hiding anything."

He moved back to London in his twenties, and ended up working as a peripatetic social worker for Camden Council. "If a single mother had to go to hospital, I'd move in and look after her kids so they didn't have to go into care," he says. "Often, there'd be a drunken father turning up at 2am, wanting to know who I was, and I'd say [mincing slightly], 'I'm from Camden Council!' and he'd smack me. So I'd be going around with a black eye, and nits from the kids, and scabies."

O'Grady retains a soft spot for the children he met, and their mothers. "I met loads of Lilies - London Lilies. They'd say, 'I'm just going to the shops, Paul,' and then come back three days later. You couldn't help liking them for it - seizing their chance to have a bit of a party. But then you'd see them with a black eye, and they'd say it was their fault. Lily Savage would never say that - she wouldn't let a fella lay a finger on her. She'd break his arm first, and take great relish in doing so." Creating Lily was perhaps in part a form of revenge against the drunken men he met at work, who beat up their wives and children. "I'd see some swine of a father, and want to kill him," he says. "But of course I couldn't do anything, because I was the social worker." As Lily, however, "I can be outrageous. I can do whatever I like, which I couldn't as Paul O'Grady."

She first came to life 10 years ago at the Vauxhall Tavern, an anarchic gay pub in south London which entertained its clientele with a series of mostly hopeless drag acts. O'Grady was working behind the bar at the time, earning some extra money while off duty from Camden Council; and persuaded the pub manager that he should compere the drag shows. He started out doing it for fun, "just to show off, really", but went down a storm as Lily Savage, who was quite unlike any other drag act at the time: swearing and blinding in a broad Scouse accent, instead of doing the usual miming to Diana Ross records.

O'Grady emphasises that being Lily is, for him, a professional prop, and nothing to do with transvestism. "Transvestism is a sexual urge. People say to me, do you get sexual pleasure out of dressing up as a woman? No, I don't. It's absolute agony! I've got a whalebone corset on, and there's the heels, and the wig which weighs a bloody ton, and three inches of make-up. I could never see myself having sex with anyone looking like that!"

He is obviously irritated by the fact that because he is gay, he is often assumed to be a transvestite. "Barry Humphries is straight, so he never gets called a drag queen or a transvestite. But because I'm gay, I do - I'm seen as a pervert, basically. I've had journalists saying to me, 'We've got pictures of you working as a gay transvestite prostitute.' The more I tried to explain to them that it's nonsense, the more annoyed I got. Now I just wind them up, and say, 'Have you got the photos of me in a brothel in Manila - they're the ones you want to get hold of!'"

But whatever the press think of him, he has clearly now been deemed acceptable for prime-time television. For years, his act was confined to the gay circuit, and then he was given the occasional slot on Channel 4, "but always one of the low-budget 5am shows. Then I started seeping into radio, but the big thing that got me into the mainstream - to the Mums and Dads - was when I went on That's Showbusiness. It's a quiz show, the frothiest of light entertainment on BBC, but they liked me. And then I did Top of the Pops, and one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden you're 'the ubiquitous Lily Savage'. "

Perhaps the strangest of his many television appearances was on Brookside last year, when O'Grady played Lily Savage, with no reference to the fact that she was a man dressed up as a woman. "Lily was a woman for Brookside," says O'Grady, "a real person. I was Lily Savage, the celebrity, opening Barry Grant's restaurant because Loyd Grossman couldn't turn up. It was bizarre." It was indeed bizarre, and yet also perfect for the Nineties obsession with kitsch popular culture. O'Grady is well aware of the current appeal of all things camp. "I think it's a reaction to the Eighties, when everything was stylised, matt-black, minimal. I was never into that," he says, going on to talk fondly of his giant ceramic cockatoo. ("It's not even kitsch, it's so revolting. But I like it.") After hearing his discourse about the cockatoo - his own, not Lily's - I ask him if he'll ever go on stage as Paul O'Grady.

"Doing comedy, no, I don't think so," he says. "I like a bit of show business. I think it's boring going on in your jeans and your T-shirt, talking about the clitoris. It annoys me, male stand-ups trying to ingratiate themselves with women."

By the end of our meeting, Paul O'Grady, despite chain-smoking furiously, does not seem to me to be a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. In fact, he seems rather invigorated as he describes his ambitions to do more straight acting. He's already had a few small parts, "but what happens is that Lily gets in the way. I play second fiddle to her all the time. I sometimes come in to my flat, and there's a leopardskin handbag on the floor, and a pair of her shoes and an old coat - and it's like living with some boozy old barmaid who's trashed the place. I think, 'Slag!' and start muttering about her under me breath."

"Do you ever think of killing her off?" I ask.

"Oooo, I'm tempted, very tempted. But why cut off your nose to spite your face?"

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil