Paul O’Grady has come a long way since his drag queen days as foul-mouthed, acid-tongued blonde bombshell Lily Savage.
Yet there’s a touch of nostalgia for his drag days, the era in which he made his name in the ’80s. Lily – his alter ego – would be too old to make a return now, he reflects.
“It did flash in my mind to do a tour – which I would not do in a million years as I haven’t toured for so long – of Lily for Prime Minister.
“People are always asking me, ‘Where’s Lily?’ like she exists and I say, ‘She’s working in the hospitality industry in Amsterdam. The house has closed down and she’s got 15 women to furlough’.”
But in reality, he thinks her time is over. “I’m 66. I always thought Lily was about five or six years older than me, so she’d be in her 70s now. I’d come on with a stick, because she’d had her veins done.”
O’Grady has hosted Blind Date and Blankety Blank and these days is most recognised as the presenter of ITV’s For The Love Of Dogs, and for his new prime-time celeb game show, Paul O’Grady’s Saturday Night Line Up.
Now he has written his first children’s book, Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang, centring on a shy 10-year-old boy who can talk to animals, rather like a miniature Doctor Dolittle, and embarks on an adventure in Amsterdam with his dog Butch.
However, unlike the original Doctor Dolittle, Eddie is embarrassed by his gift and by the fact that he is different. Was it like that for O’Grady, growing up gay in a Catholic household?
“No, I didn’t know I was gay, even up to quite a late stage, because I had a daughter (Sharyn, from a brief romance) when I was 17.
“My poor mother was demented! She’d grown up with a house full of animals and now this. Her little boy had reached puberty and turned into Attila the Hun!
“I do sympathise with teenage boys and girls in this day and age. We didn’t have the pressure of social media. We didn’t have the pressure of the body beautiful or the fabulous teeth. It wasn’t a competition. It was a different era. Simpler things amused us.”
During lockdown, O’Grady got a new puppy, learned how to play the ukulele, and made tons of chutney from the wonderful harvest he had on his farm in Kent. “It was lovely. I didn’t wear shoes. I didn’t have a shave. I looked like Catweazle.”
He also saw more of his husband, ballet teacher Andre Portasio, given the reduced work schedule. “We cleared out cupboards and I decided I had far too many clothes which didn’t work. So, I got a bit over-enthusiastic and now I haven’t got any!”
He now has four dogs, five pigs, three goats, a brood of chickens, four barn owls and seven sheep.
“I’ve got my hands full but I don’t mind,” he says happily.
Kent is the couple’s permanent home, although they have their own separate flats in London for when they are working.
O’Grady has been commissioned to write another two books in the children’s series, but scoffs at the notion that he might be a latter-day Enid Blyton.
“A mate of mine recently asked me, ‘How did Lily Savage become Uncle Paul?’ And I just snarled like an old cat. But it’s very strange which paths you take in life – and I’ve never had a game plan.”
Paul O’Grady – Eddie Albert And The Amazing Animal Gang, HarperCollins, £12.99
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