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
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?"
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