I use He pronouns and speak of George rather than Cherry because that’s how I knew him. Off-stage.
George Ward/Cherry Valentine 1993-2022
On Friday we heard the news the George Ward, known to much of the world as Cherry Valentine, died on 18th September. He was 28. In the time since, many of us have been grappling with the depth and pain of this loss.
There is a lot to celebrate about George’s life. Through his own achievements and his tremendous impact. He is one of what is still a small number of Travellers to ever go to university. He had a successful career as a mental health nurse. He returned to the NHS during the Covid 19 pandemic to deliver vaccinations. Through drag he became a gifted dancer, choreographer, designer, singer and more. It was drag, and the platform it gave him, more than anything else that allowed him to make the impact that is his lasting legacy.
On a human level, what stands out most about George was his vibrant ability to connect. He was very easy to like and he took great joy in everyone he met. I remember filming with him and a group from Traveller Pride and he connected with everyone immediately; we felt he cared and was interested without agenda and so felt comfortable. A gift.
He was also a person who respected other people very deeply. He spoke so respectfully of his home and his family, even if that relationship was not always easy. During the filming of “Gypsy Queen & Proud” he was impeccably polite to my dad and was very happy to work with us to make sure we were comfortable with what the film was going to look like. He cared. He took time to listen to my concerns about being filmed and was comforting, reassuring but without being false. His kindness and charm hid a great sharpness. George was nobody’s fool.
This is all without even mentioning his spectacular artistry when it came to drag. His influences were multifaceted and he had a real ability to make any style his own. In particular it was with macabre, gothic or otherwise “Halloween aesthetic” looks that were astonishing in their detail and design. Even to a casual observer, the talent and proficiency were obvious.
He set up “Throne Events” with an aim to making things fairer for performers, treating people equitably. He saw things which needed doing and he did them, he treated others fairly. He cared.
I saw the Drag Race UK Season 2 tour and he was as charming as ever during the meet and greet beforehand, introducing us to all the other queens with enthusiasm and love. When it came time for his performance in the main show (finding clips online is recommended) I was blown away. Not only by the ability but at how he had proudly included his Romany-ness. The dress was flamenco in style. The background changed frequently but had Crown Derby style patterns before fading to the Roma flag. I could have cried, thinking of how terrified he told me he was about talking about his background on Drag Race just a year earlier to him there, at the Palladium, flaunting his Romany culture and seamlessly working it into a drag world. In his many interviews around the release of the film, his tremendous respect for the culture he grew up in was evident. It has not always been easy for George to reconcile being these two elements of his identity, it had been a source of much struggle, but he was valiant in his attempts to bring himself closer to himself, to unify and accept himself. Whether he ever did fully reconcile this cannot be known but I know for a fact that George’s public efforts to do this have certainly helped other people with their journeys. The feedback from the documentary, the messages I’ve received since George’s death, the people who found Traveller Pride through George, how it made me feel, all provide so much evidence of that reach.
We are so proud of George and of everything he did. I tried to tell him as often as possible, but I do hope that he had an idea of what an amazing leap forward it was for LGBT+ Travellers for him to be so open (and likeable) on such a wide platform. That openness was not easy, but the impact his bravery had is extraordinary. We saw so many people getting in touch after his drag race appearance and later after the film came out. I am so proud of having worked on that film with George and it stands as a loving tribute to him and to so much of what he cared about.
His death is tragic. 28 is no age. No age for anyone, but it is particularly bitter to swallow when it’s someone who had such creativity and vision and kindness. We will look into ways to appropriately commemorate and celebrate George & Cherry in the future. For now, hold that wonderful laugh in your mind, know that whoever you were he would probably have thought the world of you and try to embody some of that kindness.
If you need to find some time to talk about this loss, get in touch.
The film being referred to is "Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen & Proud" which is on the Iplayer or Wow Presents Plus if out of the UK