The life and legacy of Cherry Valentine star George Ward: ‘An extraordinary person, my Georgie’
The family and friends of George Ward, aka Drag Race UK star Cherry Valentine, talk to PinkNews about their life and legacy, one year on from their passing.
Joe Black, Cherry’s fellow Drag Race UK season two star, likens it to The Simpsons’ character Dr. Hibbert. Ginny Lemon says it woke them up at 3am, when they were on the Drag Race UK tour with Cherry in early 2022 (though they didn’t mind).
Once, in London when George was waiting for an Uber with his mother Joanne, a fan picked him out of a crowd after hearing him hoot.
“I thought: ‘He can’t go nowhere, because everyone recognises his laugh,'” Joanne says, laughing herself.
Cherry’s humour was “dark and silly”, Joe shares. During the Drag Race UK tour, Cherry and Ginny would call each “silly, silly girl” in childish, shrill voices. At first, it “annoyed everyone” – but by the tour’s end, everyone was doing it, and everyone was chortling like Cherry.
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It’s been one year since George’s death, on 18 September 2022. Earlier this year, an inquest confirmed that he had taken his own life. Though he was young, George managed to cram more into their 28 years than most people do in a lifetime.
Born on 30 November 1993, George lived in Darlington with his parents and was raised as part of the Traveller community.
He left the community after coming out as gay at 18. His journey to reconcile both elements of his identity was the driving force behind the BBC documentary Gypsy Queen & Proud.
George qualified as a mental health nurse while studying at Lancaster University. It was there that he began flyering for a queer club on Manchester’s Canal Street, which was managed by Adam, who swiftly became a close friend.
After six months, Cherry was born, and they began performing.
“George was always the life of the party … You could spend hours and days with George, and it would feel like it just went so quickly.”
It was on the Drag Race UK tour that Ginny and Joe first found out quite how much fun George was. Joe remembers playing the piano backstage in Birmingham, as Cherry danced around the room.
“She liked to drink,” Joe says. One morning, as Ginny and Joe woke up, Cherry crossed them on the stairs – she was just going to bed.
Katie and George became friends in secondary school, and she remembers them “going out, lying about our age and trying to get into nightclubs”.
Even before he became famous, people were drawn to George.
“He was like: ‘I only have that energy when I’m in drag’,” Katie shares. “And I’m like: ‘No, that’s not the Cherry energy. That’s just you. That’s just who you are’.”
Though Drag Race fans only saw Cherry on three episodes, they warmed to her effervescence and candour. Her outfits – most of which were made by Cherry – were praised as some of the season’s best.
Cherry’s gothic aesthetic became her trademark; red and black were her signature colours (earlier this summer, Joanne wore red and black at the wedding of her youngest son, Nathan).
“She had a shed in her back garden that she kept all her drag in,” Ginny says. “She’d do all of her looks and stoning. I just used to laugh at how she’d potter down to the shed to be a fabulous creature, a glamorous gnome.”
Joanne thinks he got his creative flair from her, but believes he was “a lot more creative than [she] ever was”.
She recalls sitting with him on his childhood bedroom floor, doing his art homework together. One project required him to draw mannequins wearing dresses. George’s “unbelievable” imagination quickly took over.
“He was going: ‘Well, why don’t we do this, and why don’t we do that?’ We were working out ideas together,” Joanne says. The project got an A, and he went on to study fine art at college.
Cherry Valentine’s creativity defined her even beyond her drag looks
George was passionate about creating an ethical drag events company that treated its performers with respect, and it showed in his plans for the future of Throne Events.
“You could sit at a table and say, ‘right, who’s got the ideas’, and all of a sudden, a flood of ideas would come from Cherry for 30 minutes non-stop,” Adam remembers. “We’d be writing notes, trying to catch up!”
Fans saw Cherry’s enthusiasm for their craft on Drag Race, but never got to see them perform – not how they usually would, anyway.
On the Drag Race UK tour, that changed. Cherry performed a mash-up of Beyoncé and Shakira’s “Beautiful Liar” and Doja Cat’s “Woman” in a Gypsy-inspired dress.
For many fans, she stole the show. It was also the first time Joanne had seen her son perform.
Was she surprised at how well he could dance? “No, I wasn’t,” she says instantly. “I knew he’d be that good, because he put his everything into everything he did.” What did she say when she saw him after the show? “I just cried. I went, ‘I am so proud of you’.”
Backstage at the Drag Race UK tour, the other queens swiftly learnt why George had a background as a mental health nurse. He was the go-to for a heart-to-heart.
Joanne recollects phoning George while he was on tour, but he’d often have to hang up as he was in the middle of a deep chat with one of the other queens.
“He would be my therapist, we’d cry together, laugh together,” Katie shares. “It’s rare to have that. I think that’s what I miss the most.”
George changed the world for LGBTQ+ Travellers with Gypsy Queen and Proud
Watching the documentary back now is incredibly poignant, and in places devastating. In it, George discussed closing himself off from his Traveller roots, feeling he couldn’t be jointly proud of his heritage and his queerness.
He said of his childhood: “I was just different. I was always so different. I never felt like I fitted in anywhere, and I still feel like that.”
It’s impossible to know whether George ever fully found peace with the two sides of his identity, but what is certain is his impact on others in the intersectional community.
As part of the documentary, he met Tyler Hatwell, the founder of Traveller Pride, a group for LGBTQ+ Travellers. The documentary’s aim was to show that the two intersectionalities can exist as one.
“The meetup after the film broadcast was the most successful one we’ve ever had,” Tyler reveals. “We had people travelling hundreds of miles on the train to come to it because they were so excited that we existed.”
Suddenly, a wave of queer Travellers had found a place for people with similar backgrounds.
“Seeing that there was this whole group of us, and it wasn’t just an isolated experience, I think was incredibly touching for some people,” he says. Since the documentary aired, Traveller Pride has grown and just launched an advice phone line.
Joanne is infinitely proud of how her son changed the world for LGBTQ+ Travellers.
“I find it quite refreshing that Georgie actually did it, and it really did make an impact on some of the people that I know,” she says. “He was extraordinary, my Georgie.”
In the weeks and months after his death, the outpouring of love for George and Cherry was staggering
A virtual remembrance book received thousands of tributes, while an equal number attended Iconic, a memorial concert held in London in November. Fans left letters, handmade gifts and crocheted hearts at a display of Cherry’s looks at RuPaul’s DragCon UK and LA earlier this year.
“People put a lot of time and effort into mourning Cherry, just as we had done,” Adam says. “It spoke volumes.”
Ginny has the leopard print jumpsuit Cherry wore to promote Gypsy Queen and Proud – Cherry offered it to them after Ginny couldn’t find it online.
“I have that hung up in my wardrobe, which is kind of traumatic every time I see it,” Ginny says, “but I love it at the same time.”
Katie’s flat, which she shared with George, is crammed full of his looks. She’s hopeful that the costumes might one day end up in a drag museum.
At the end of the documentary, Katie and Cherry, who is wearing full drag, pile costumes into a moving van adorned with rainbow streamers as they head off to their new London home.
“When we got to the other end, I kid you not, Cherry was still in the heels, taking the boxes up the stairs,” Katie laughs. “It was just the best time of his life, and the best time of my life, to be honest.”
There are so many ways to remember George, and Cherry for their creativity, passion and caring disposition.
Joanne remembers him, along with the rest of the family, in her own way. Every Sunday, they visit his final resting place, with fresh flowers.
“To me, deep down, he’s just my son,” Joanne says. “Everybody else sees him in a different way. They see him as a drag artist or a mental health nurse. To me, he was just my Georgie, and I loved him.”
Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in America can contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by texting 988 (988lifeline.org).
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