Danny La Rue, the queen of drag, dies aged 81

Danny La Rue, the pioneering female impersonator, stage legend and gay icon, died on Sunday night at his home in Kent, aged 81. He had been fighting cancer.

Over six decades at the summit of showbusiness, much of it spent coated in eyeliner and wearing outrageous frocks, La Rue charmed his way into the hearts of millions of television viewers.

Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork, Ireland, in 1927, he was one of five siblings and moved to London with his mother when he was nine. His father, a cabinet maker and soldier in the Irish Republican Army, had died when La Rue was 18 months old.

Best known for mimicking famous women such as Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, he came to national prominence via cabaret and pantomime performances in the post-war years. Asking to be referred to as a "comic in a frock" rather than a drag queen, in the 1970s he was the most famous and best paid female impersonator in Britain, according to The Stage newspaper. Yesterday, his spokeswoman said: "Danny died peacefully in his sleep just before midnight last night after a short illness."

La Rue first put on his wig and fake eyelashes while taking part in concert parties while serving with the Royal Navy towards the end of the Second World War. By 1964, he had opened his own nightclub in Hanover Square, London, which eventually attracted more than 13,000 members. Its guest list included Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Margaret, Shirley Bassey and Warren Beatty.

La Rue eventually became a fixture on the BBC's prime-time schedules but it was to the stage he owed his reputation, and to the stage he always returned. He was the first female impersonator to appear before the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance, and was awarded the OBE in 2002.

Annie Galbraith, his beloved dresser for almost 30 years, was with him when he died at the home they shared in Kent. Noel Coward once described him as: "The most professional, the most witty... and the most charming man in the business."