Danny La Rue, a popular female impersonator who was the first man to take the lead role in a major production of “Hello Dolly,” has died May 31in Kent County, south of London, after a short illness. He was 81.

He had been suffering from cancer, said his spokeswoman Pat Lake-Smith.

Born Daniel Patrick Carroll in Cork, Ireland, La Rue lived from the age of 9 in London, where his widowed mother ran a dress shop.

“See what they did to me in England,” he once told an audience in Ireland. “I left in short pants and I’ve come back in a frock.”

La Rue first donned a dress to entertain fellow sailors while he was serving in the Royal Navy at the end of World War II. Back on land, he toured Britain in variety shows before breaking into London’s then-thriving cabaret scene.

La Rue — he had wanted to adopt the stage name D anny Street, but found it was already taken and opted for the French translation — soon gained fame for his impersonations of divas including Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of Britain’s highest-paid entertainers.

In 1964, he opened a London nightclub, which attracted a celebrity clientele that ranged from Judy Garland and Noel Coward to Warren Beatty and Princess Margaret.

La Rue became a household name in Britain, appearing on dozens of television shows including Royal Variety Performances in front of Queen Elizabeth II. In 2002, he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, by the queen, and boasted that he was the first female impersonator honored by the monarch. He wore a sober suit and tie to the Buckingham Palace ceremony, though.

He took the role of matchmaker Dolly Levi in a production of “Hello Dolly” which opened in Birmingham 1982 for a season before transferring to Lo ndon’s West End.

La Rue made millions, but later said he lost his fortune in a bad property deal.

La Rue lived for three decades with his partner and manager Jack Hanson, who died in 1974. He is survived by his companion, Annie Galbraith.