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Here’s what Paul O’Grady had to say in 2010 about Grindr, the church, and his advice on being happy: ‘stop giving a f**k’

Attitude takes a look back at an interview with the legendary performer.

By Attitude Staff

Paul O'Grady and Lily Savage
Paul O'Grady and Lily Savage (Image: Wiki Commons and Alamy)

The world won’t be quite the same without Paul O’Grady.

The icon, known to many for his drag persona, Lily Savage, was just that. An icon. The likes of which are rare to come by these days.

As we honour and remember the legend, we thought we’d take a look back at one of Paul’s interviews with Attitude.

Speaking to us in 2010 (Issue 197) the performer said we could ask him anything. So, how could we resist?

Paul discussed his TV shows, being Lily, Grindr, the Catholic Church and what he thinks about being happy.

Let’s talk about your new Friday night ITV chat show first. It’s a bit more adult than your Channel 4 teatime programme, isn’t it?

Yes. Mary Poppins has turned into Medusa! I’ve had six years of kiddies and doggies and Snow Whitey where everyone thought I was an absolute saint! Eve always got on well with kids, and I’ve just got a way with animals – they can plonk a hen on the desk and I can chat to her and she’ll look at me. But this time it’s a bit more adult: 9 o’clock, after the watershed. I don’t mean effing-and-blinding, but there’s an edge.

After Jonathan Ross do you think people want to hear more from the guests?

If you have a guest in, they’re the person you want to know about, not the presenter who you see every night. Like when we had Gaga! Sweetheart, she is. Totally relaxed with me because she knows the score, she loves the gay scene, the drag queens, that whole genre, the whole era; she understands it. And her icons are Gypsy Rose Lee and all these people I like. So as soon as she plonked down with me, that was it. Marriage made in heaven!

What about Britain’s Got Talent – are you going to be a judge?

There was all this stuff in the paper saying I was going to be a judge. Nobody’s asked me, put it that way, so it’s probably nonsense.

Paul O'Grady died aged 67. (Image: WikiCommons)
Paul O’Grady. (Image: WikiCommons)

But it would be interesting to see you sandwiched betwixt Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden on the panel.

If I was a judge, I’d be fair but kind. I couldn’t say to a little old lady who’s doing Edith Piaf badly: “Oh no, love, you should know better at your time of life.” I just can’t do it. There’s no need for it, is there? If I have a row with anyone, I feel like a piece of s**t afterward. I can’t hold a grudge, no way I ring them up and say sorry, even if it’s not my fault, because I just hate it. I’d say: “You’re sensational! I closed my eyes and I thought it was Edith, but you’re not what I’m looking for – but thank you very much for coming.”

Now, about Lily…

She’s back at Christmas. I gave in because I got sick to death of taxi drivers saying, “When’s Lil coming back?” Heterosexual men loved Lily, I mean they loved her. Seriously. So did hard-bitten divorcees. And tough queens. I’d had enough of it; I’d had 20 years of it. So I was going to do Aladdin and was discussing it with the director – would I be the wicked uncle or would I be the genie? And I said: “Do you know who’s perfect? Look at the evidence: single mum, no money, running a launderette in back Peking? Who does that sound like?” He said: “Lily Savage”.

So there you go: the Widow Savage is making her appearance in Aladdin. It’s not a career move. I’ll do it for the four weeks and I’ll have a ball. And Jon Lee from S-Club 7 is in it too.

That’s quite a queer panto.

Oh God, I think half the chorus is. Because I’m always aware you’ve got to tread a fine line between entertaining the adults and the children, I go from Auntie Lily to the Lily of the Vauxhall in a flash. You’re a bit mad when you come off. You’ve got to be so careful, but it’s such fun. And it’s also bloody hard work, but a great social life. You don’t go home – you’re out after the show.

Paul O'Grady in For the Love of Dogs
Paul O’Grady in For the Love of Dogs (Image: ITV/Battersea Dogs & Cats Home)

Will you be raving it up in Southampton?

I’m already very familiar with Southampton, The Edge: I was carried home by seven dwarves one night after a night there – seriously.

One thing that’s unique about Lily Savage is that she was almost the first mainstream showbiz personality that was one of ours.

Exactly. Well, I’d be in the Vauxhall Tavern drinking on a Wednesday, so everybody knew me: I lived up the road. And I’d talk about things that were relevant and nobody did that, really. Nobody mentioned gyms or signing on or drugs. I’d say: “Our Vera’s just dropped an E; she’s dropped it over there by the door, so if anybody finds it could you hand it in.” Lily really pushed the boundaries. And she was tough as well, Lily: she wasn’t camp at all, she wasn’t effeminate.

She was ferocious.

But she had a very soft side as well, which would come out. I mean, people would come into my dressing room and say: “I’ve just had an HIV test and I’m positive” and I’d do a bit of counselling. When AIDS first hit, and they wanted somebody to talk to who they sort of knew, Lily was ideal as a father confessor. And that’s where the mask would come off.

What are your memories of the start of the AIDS epidemic?

It was about ’83 when that bloody horror struck. It was awful, just awful. All my friends just went one after another – it was terrible. I was either at hospital looking after people or at cemeteries. I got to a stage where I could identify the Co-op funeral cars. And you try and find humour in all this misery because that’s what it was – terrible, really bad.

The Salvation Army (this is why to this day I support them) was so good, unbelievable. The Westminster Hospital — they’d be up there: they’d counsel, they’d tell parents who had no idea their child was even gay let alone doing a drag act and was dying they’d pay for funerals for people who had no money, they’d go in and sort their houses out. I’ve got nothing but praise for the Salvation Army: not judgemental, not opinionated – they came in and they did it. And I realised why they’re called an army, because that’s how they perform: they’re as efficient as an army

Lily Savage on Parkinson
Lily Savage on Parkinson (Image: BBC)

What do you think about young gay guys’ relationship to HIV now?

Well I think it’s this attitude: “Oh, it’s an old queen’s disease,” which it isn’t at all, we all know this. But I suppose when you’re out of your mind on chemicals and you’re down Vauxhall under the arches and Prince Charming comes through the smoke machine, all caution goes to the wind. And it shouldn’t really – it’s still a danger – we don’t want another epidemic. And they all say: “Well, you take tablets, now.” But there are side-effects. It’s not worth taking the tablets – you want to live a healthy life.

I’m always kicking off on young queens I know: “Put a bloody rubber on it!” They say: “You sound like Elsie Tanner” It’s true, I sound like I’m from another era. I say: “I hope you had a rubber on, you dirty little slag!” Why do you think I’m here? I mean, really. They have to be told! And there’s syphilis and gonorrhea and all that nonsense. It’s irresponsible behaviour. And I know it’s an old queen kicking off, but it’s true. If you’ve been there, when you’ve been on the front line of AIDS and you’ve seen the casualties and you’ve seen what it does to people, then you’d get a rubber on. So I’m always kicking off about that.

Lily’s been away a while. What do you think she would make of Grindr?

Oh, she’d love Grindr! She’d be on that as a 16-year-old with a swimmer’s body lying and posting all these pictures. She’d be way up with technology. She was technological before it came out – she was fitting gas meters and erecting woks on roofs to get satellite telly for the neighbours. She was way ahead of her time in all that. She’d have her own website; she’d run a dicey escort agency. There’s a whole world for her there to experiment with – she’d have a field day.

What can you say about what’s in the second book?

It picks up where we left off, and I’m in bed with my mother because I’d been to see The Exorcist and I’m too bloody scared to sleep in my own room. So I’m in bed and she’s torturing me: she’s having a field day, she’s got her victim. It starts from there and recounts a succession of jobs – working in a lesbian bar in Finchley, working in a hospital, escorting prostitutes into hotels; I mean, you name it. And then I went to work for Camden Council and I found myself in all sorts of situations, till eventually I’m up there on the Black Cap stage. And that’s where it ends, 1980.

So could there be a trilogy then?

Oh, there will: there’ll have to be. But I’ve held off on the third one because the third one’s going to be the hard one because I’ve got to write about everybody in this book, the second book, who are dead. So I’ve got to go through all that where they die. Murphy, my partner, when he died after our 25 years together. I’ve got to dig that up again and go through all that. The telly stuff I find boring, to other people it mightn’t be, but to me what’s interesting is the nitty-gritty of life and all the characters that I’ve met along the way.

And that’s what they liked about the first one – they loved my Mum and my sisters. I mean, there’s a chapter about my auntie putting make-up on, which I thought was pushing the boat out and people loved it!

Lily Savage during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game.
Lily Savage during a photocall to launch a TV advert campaign for a new bingo game. (Image: Alamy)

Your family background is Catholic and I wondered what your attitude to it is now?

I’m going on a march against him [the Pope]. I’m doing a book signing in Bluewater and then I’m going straight up to Hyde Park on a march against him. The Catholic church has hidden paedophiles behind their skirts for far too long. I mean, you look at the Magdalene laundries and the brutality that those single mothers suffered at the hands of those vicious nuns. Christian Brothers? I was taught by Christian Brothers. They didn’t sexually abuse me but physically they did. They were a group of sadist losers.

And the Pope’s attitude towards gays? We’re worse than global warming, are we, my lad? My! And also the way that they treat women, the Catholic church. It’s so bloody archaic and we’re supposed to pay for this old bloody b*****d to come over here and do his speech. The Catholic Church is one of the richest, wealthiest organisations in the world and they can’t pay to send the boss over to give a little show in the park? We’re all expected to cough up. My arse!

So I’ll be out there, seriously. And I have had people say to me: “Should you do it?” Yes I bloody should! Too right. You need people to go out and say “No, no, no: we’re not putting up with this – we’re not second-class citizens.” It drives me f*****g mad. Really. It’s about time this kind of thing was stamped out. All my mates who were bought up Catholic, we’re all going.

I renounced Catholicism years ago. This kind of stuff with the Pope, he’s allowed this kind of speech and it’s allowed to go on unchallenged. Well, he should come to London and face the backlash of very angry gay men and women.

And also gay Catholics! How can you be? It’s almost like Anne Frank joining the Gestapo. How can you follow what the Catholic church is preaching? This is what the head of the church is saying: “No you’re not welcome, you’re substandard, you’re worse than global rearming” It’s ridiculous. F**k that. I’ll probably get arrested.

Your neighbour is Julian Clary.

We’re like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: I’m Bette, he’s Joan. We were going to do a send-up remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Lily? And it was old Julian in a catsuit with a beer-belly, bald, sat in a wheelchair watching reruns of Sticky Moments, and old Lily, the size of a house, raving alcoholic, with her white wig and a tray, going up, turning it off and going – “Here’s your din-dins, Julian.”

Me and Julian get on – we’re like chalk and cheese. Actually, we’re not because we’ve come from the same background you see, the same sort of working environment and we sort of feel the same way about what’s going on at the moment. He doesn’t get as annoyed as I do.

What do you think about the coalition government?

Oh, it’s an unholy liaison those two! The sooner they’re out, the better! You know who’s gonna suffer? The poor and the vulnerable – as usual.

So you’re not a fan of this whole Brokeback Coalition thing people saying they have this kind of bromance going on?

It sickens me. You can see through them: you can read them like a tuppenny novel, as my mother used to say, the pair of them. He’s a bloody Tory, David Cameron, he knows nothing about how ordinary people live. He’s never been in the corner shop, the Asda, for 10 ciggies and half a-pint of sterilised milk. He’s never witnessed anything like that – they come from privileged backgrounds. And they really need to get on the shop floor and just have a look.

Paul O'Grady filming For The Love of Dogs
Paul O’Grady filming For The Love of Dogs (Image: ITV)

And they’re hell-bent on cutting the deficit, which is just a drop in the ocean.

I love this “our spending” – we haven’t spent anything! The banks have crippled us, and yet they’re getting billions still in bonuses! So they penalise some single bloody mother on the China Walk estate in Vauxhall, slam her benefits – it just sickens me. I refused to go to No. 10 when they came in. They asked some “prominent gays” (I love that: what makes you a prominent gay? Please tell me!) And I said: “Tell them to bugger off.” I went just before Gordon Brown went: it was a fabulous night, it was full of the Army, the Navy and the Airforce, the gay branch. And I walked past this room and I could see all these sailors, and I said to Paul Burston: “Jesus, it’s like the old days – hold my coat!” and I was found down Old Compton Street with four sailors at three o’clock in the morning, roaring drunk, having a ball, fag on, bevy in my arms, all these sailors.

For all his faults, I liked Gordon Brown, I really did. For me, it was the tortoise and the hare. He was the tortoise. And Tony Blair was disreputable. He was a total let down.

So you’re not going to pick up his memoirs then?

Certainly not, no. I was asked would I have him on the show? I said no. Because the first question I’d have asked is: ‘Why did you send all these young men and women off to be killed? Why did you form this alliance with Bush? The idiot! The hick! A complete Beverly Hillbilly – not even a Beverly Hillbilly, just a hillbilly!

Are you happy at the moment?

Oh, yeah. Do you know what, my advice for gay men is, is to stop giving a f**k. I mean, really I’ve got friends in their 30s – ‘I’ve gotta go. I’ve got to be up at half-six to go to the gym and get on the treadmill.’ I say, ‘That used to be used as torture in Victorian prisons. Oscar Wilde, the poor bugger. He was on that, and you’re going volunteering, and you’re paying £175 a month for this?’ I swim every day and I like to walk. But as for going into some bloody gym and eyeing each other up. It’s all about the body, all about appearance.

I don’t give a f**k anymore. Honest to God, I’m really past caring. My hair’s white as a sheet, I’m not dyeing it. Nothing’s ‘lifted’. I can’t be bothered. And there is pressure on gay men about the body. It’s all about how they look. You could be Goebbells inside, a piece of s**t, but it wouldn’t matter as long as you were standard-issue, Action Man.

Do you get a good reaction on the street?

People are always lovely with me. But I was on my way to the radio and I walked past a city boys’ pub, off Oxford Street, and this one shouted to me “Shut that door!”. So I went over and let ’em have it. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Even if it meant getting a black eye. It’s alright saying to people who are wealthy and in the public eye, ‘Come out.’ But if you’re on a council estate in Hull, and you’re 16, it’s extremely difficult.