As I was signing out of my shift a little after 3am this morning, I checked my phone to see the gutting news that Paul O’Grady had passed away.
Like so many others, I found myself with tears springing to my eyes in disbelief. Never one to get overly emotional about this kind of news, I found myself unexpectedly sad. Besides the obvious reasons (death is terrible and O’Grady was simply fantastic) I have been trying to pinpoint why I had a reaction that felt so visceral.
As a child of the noughties, I was lucky enough to always have had him in the background as I grew up: ever-present his self-titled TV talk show, or on Radio 2. His cheeky voice cut through the chaos and emanated comfort, somehow always managing to sound like he was winking at you at the end of his sentences, including you in the joke.
I knew him as an infectious personality, a panto star, as Lily Savage, as an animal lover, and a friendly face and voice. He was these things, but from what I have managed to read in outpourings of obituaries since his passing, he was so much more as well. Witty, resilient, brilliant. Iconic.
As I write this, I am highly aware I am not his number one fan (although do not get me wrong, I am still one of the many). I obviously wasn’t lucky enough to know him personally either — but he was the kind of personality that makes you feel seen and known, all the same.
He has always existed in my lifetime, has always felt like a friend reaching out through the airwaves and I am lucky enough to have taken his omni-presence for granted.
To have lived my whole life with Paul O’Grady existing as a role model is something that from my position of privilege, I have never thought enough about to be grateful for. Now, I realise how thankful (and ignorant) I am.
The world, this country, is not perfect and I do not want to get political. But it cannot be stressed enough that simply existing as vibrantly as O’Grady did — his wit and humour in the face of homophobia, and his kindness and friendliness in the face of cruelty — has taught people far more than our “leaders” ever could about what we should strive for. About what ‘exceptional’ looks like.
He set a gold standard, and his presence and example have taught me so much about how to be a good ally.
Going forwards without him, make sure to ask yourself what Paul would do (or if you prefer, what Miss Savage might have done). And for all of the fantastic role models we are lucky to have in our media every day, make sure to acknowledge them — they have lit the way forward.
In memoriam of a life lived so incredibly well, and shared so very generously: Paul O’Grady, 1955-2023.