Drag Race UK’s Cherry Valentine didn’t think she’d live ‘much longer’ until she made radical change
Growing up in a Traveller community in the north-east of England, Drag Race UK star Cherry Valentine felt like “the only gay person in the world” .
Mental health nurse George Ward became the first-ever queen of Romany descent to appear in the entire Drag Race franchise when he competed as Cherry Valentine in the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.
In a new documentary for BBC Three, Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud, Ward revisits his upbringing, hoping to reconnect with his roots and learn to feel proud of being both queer and a Traveller at the same time.
Speaking to PinkNews, Ward described growing up in the Traveller community as “very closed”.
“We don’t really speak to many people outside of that,” he said. “When we’re brought up, we get taught certain things, like what we should do when we’re older, who we should interact with.
“It has negative connotations, and but the actual community was lovely. I really loved it.
“It was a really good experience, growing up with that sense of community.”
When Ward realised he was gay, he thought he was “the only gay person in the world”.
He explained: “It wasn’t talked about… The feelings that I had, the only person I ever mentioned anything to was my mother, when I was really, really young. She was like: ‘We can’t talk about that. It’s just something that’s a no-go.’
“When we started watching TV a bit more, because we moved into a house, adverts would start coming on, or like storylines Coronation Street and EastEnders about LGBT+ relationships.
“[The channel would] just get turned straight over, and we weren’t weren’t allowed to talk about it.”
“It did feel really lonely,” Ward added. “But I think a lot of LGBT+ people can resonate with that. It’s not just specifically because I’m from a different community, I think it’s something that we all feel growing up at times.
“It was just a little bit magnified.”
Cherry Valentine left the Traveller community at 18 years old
Ward has distanced himself from the Traveller community since the age of 18 and, reflecting on his decision to leave, he told PinkNews: “I sort of came to a crossroads in my life.
“I didn’t really know where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do specifically, but I just knew I couldn’t stay within the community because of how I wanted to live my life.”
When he began attending college, and with access to the internet, he met young people from a spectrum of different backgrounds.
“I honestly felt in that moment, when I was 17, if I stay where I am, I’m not going to be alive for much longer because I just couldn’t do it,” he said.
“It sounds so dramatic when I talk about it now, but that’s honestly how I felt at the time.
“So I made the decision to go to university, I spoke to my college tutor and was like, ‘I need to move away, I need to do something.’ And then I just moved away for uni.”
At university, Ward met his partner, and began to get more involved with LGBT+ culture and community, a process that would eventually lead to the creation of Cherry Valentine.
Ward has been doing drag as long as he can remember, recalling: “When everyone was out of the house… I’d be upstairs rooting through my mom’s clothes and trying her giant heels on.”
But while at university, he first discovered “drag as an art form” on a trip to Manchester’s Canal Street.
Ward said: “There were just people performing in drag on the stages, and I was like, ‘How can people do this and be so proud of who they are? And like get dressed up, and do all these fabulous things, and really be celebrated for it?'”
The experience led Ward to explore drag professionally, “doing it behind the scenes for a good few years”, before finally competing on Drag Race UK.
Regardless of what community you come from, we’re all human.
Throughout his life, both as George Ward and as Cherry Valentine, the Drag Race star has seen that “society seems to have this generalised belief about what Travellers are, or how Gypsy people are, or how they act”.
He continued: “I’ve discovered through this whole process of making the documentary that a lot of people are just fearful of things that they don’t fully understand.
“I think it just comes from education, or a lack of education, on certain communities.
“One of the other reasons why I wanted to make this documentary was to show people that Travellers are everywhere. Gypsy people are everywhere. LGBT+ people are everywhere. We’re just part of society, and that’s okay.”
One of the other factors that spurred Ward on to talk openly about his heritage was the number of people also from Traveller and Gypsy communities that reached out to him after he appeared on Drag Race UK.
He said: “I just felt if I’ve got this platform, why would I not talk about it?
“If I had something when I was younger, like [as] an LGBT+ person from that community that felt that they couldn’t be fully themselves, if I saw something like that, someone celebrating it, then maybe things would have been different.”
“I honestly just hope people take away from it that we’re all human,” he added.
“At the end of the day, regardless of what community you come from, or who you are as a person, or how you identify yourself, we’re all living this life together.”
BBC Three’s Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud will be available on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday (25 January) and will air live on BBC Three when the channel returns to television on 1 February.