George Ward, better known as the drag sensation Cherry Valentine, passed away on September 18th, 2022. His death was a shock to so many, as he was an amazing human being who had dedicated his life to being a mental health nurse since 2015, as well as taking up the role of an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic and coming into the limelight in season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.
Cherry Valentine first appeared on our screens as a contestant, with her contagious laugh and iconic looks. She revealed later in the season that she was part of the Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) community as a queer man and drag artist – creating an immense amount of engagement for such an under-represented community.
Cherry was also brave enough to announce her background on the show – regardless of the fear of backlash from the community as well as the public.
Despite this, Cherry became the second person to be eliminated from that season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, but the amount that they had achieved during this time on the show created an immense amount of support from the GRT community and elsewhere.
George had the platform to represent queer travellers – and did just that.
Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud
George went on to create a documentary for the BBC named Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud in January 2022. In this, he speaks about the struggle of leaving the Gypsy community behind to become his drag alter-ego, and accept himself as a gay man.
George explored during the filming whether he would be accepted into the community as a queer gypsy and feel proud.
Tyler Hatwell was a friend of George’s and founder of Traveller Pride, and he told us about his life and what they meant to each other. Tyler was a guest in the BBC documentary in which George spoke about being brought up in the GRT community as a queer traveller, as well as the battle of accepting himself in what he felt, was “two separate lives”.
When Cherry Valentine announced their traveller heritage, Tyler told Artefact that the “reaction was huge”, adding that “representation for us is usually piecemeal and dreadful, yet here was this big, bold, fun, charming character talking almost casually in an LGBT space about being a Traveller – or so it seemed; he told me how frightened he was about it airing after they wrapped filming,” he admitted.
“It encouraged people, it made many of us feel more allowed. And what’s more is that wasn’t the end of us, through the documentary he put Travellers in the mainstream and his sincere desire to reconnect and get involved again showed respect and love for where he came from. That kind of earnest respect was reciprocated.”
In the documentary, George went on to meet the Traveller Pride team with Tyler. “He was so thrilled to have found out about us at Traveller Pride and we had so many plans for future collaborations. He wasn’t just doing it for the cameras, he really cared,” Tyler said, and described George as “kind”, adding that “his care was genuine and his interest in others was sincere.”
“It would be easy to talk about the charisma and charm, that wonderful laugh, his spectacular artistry but my abiding thought is how sweet and kind he was,” Tyler said. “I won’t be able to see this loss as anything other than having lost a friend, but everyone has lost a terrific artist.”
George struggled with accepting himself as a queer traveller. Tyler said that in the documentary George spoke of how he felt he “wasn’t traveller enough or that the community wouldn’t accept him”. But what stood out to Tyler was that regardless of this feeling, George still loved the community.
“It mattered dearly to him and his respect was evident. On a personal level, sitting and having these conversations with him was enormously cathartic.”
Tyler ended by saying “He had been on my mind for a few weeks but I’d been busy and not reached out, waiting until a better time. The night before the news broke that he was dead, a friend came over and did some drag make-up on me for a laugh. George’s journey was about being very comfortable in LGBT spaces but less so in traveller ones and trying to get closer, whereas mine is broadly the opposite,” Tyler explained.
“It got me thinking more about him and I was going to message him that night to say I hoped he was OK and that I was proud of him. I had drunk a couple of wines so decided to wait until the morning. I woke up and he was dead. If you find yourself thinking about someone you care about, let them know. Time is short; often far shorter than you think.”
The documentary that George had created with Tyler made a huge impact on the representation of queer travellers. George’s voice and his story were told to many other queer GRT people that it most certainly helped make young and old LGBTQ+ travellers feel seen and heard – including myself.
Iconic: Cherry Valentine’s Memorial Concert
In June 2021, Cherry Valentine and her friend Adam Edwards founded Throne Events following the COVID-19 pandemic. They both felt that Drag Artists and Drag Fans deserved better, so they set up a new entity with three simple objectives:
- Be ethical
- Be caring
- Put fans and artists above profits
On November 28th 2022, Throne Events hosted a memorial concert to remember the legacy of Cherry Valentine and celebrate George Ward’s life.
At the Clapham Grand in London, people from all over the country came together to celebrate the memory of George. The tickets were free, but you could choose to donate a selected fee to the charities that he had supported.
The concert included acts such as George’s lifelong best friend Katie Coleman alongside Bimini Bon Boulash, Joe Black, Black Peppa, Ginny Lemon, Tia Kofi, Sister Sister, Veronica Green, Ryan J Keen, The Alleycatz, Traveller Pride and more.
The night had jaw-dropping acts from the line-up, starting off with Yshee Black, with a high energy and celebratory, soulful feel in the air. Katie Coleman said she wanted the evening to “celebrate George’s life” and remember him in the happiness and warmth that he had. There was a huge cheer, laughter and roar for Cherry’s memory whenever an act would finish, with all acts being uplifting and, of course, iconic.
Yshee Black lip-synched her heart out for the opening act – she spoke of loving yourself, black empowerment and closed her eyes to scream the lyrics at the crowd, impassioned with the memory and dedication to Cherry Valentine. The crowd raised fans inscribed ‘Cherry’, with a sea of black and red clothing, accessories and make-up in order to commemorate her life for this concert.
When her performance was over, the light dimmed behind her as she looked up to the ceiling of The Clapham Grand to remember Cherry, as did all the acts. The respect for Cherry’s life and pure passion in all the performances were felt in the crowd. As the audience’s applause echoed through the venue there was a confirmation, in everyone’s heads I believe, that tonight was going to be a roller coaster of emotions.
As the artistry on stage went on, the emotions in the crowd were strong. A reminder of George’s life was played in a video behind the acts, on the two screens, including his infectious laugh and moments that he had shared with family and people who had been performing that night. Everyone’s mood shifted, with soft sniffles from the crowd around us as these videos played out.
It was very hard not to cry at many different moments that evening. Cherry fans continued to celebrate her life, with amazing energy and spirit circling through The Clapham Grand. Everyone was reminded that this was a safe space to not only celebrate George’s life but to also process the mourning and sadness of his loss.
Although the encouragement of celebration was given, there was sadness in all the speakers’ voices and in the crowd. Pauses were taken between speeches, people were still and quiet when George Ward’s voice was heard in audio clips. You could look around and see the glassy-eyed Cherry fans consoling the people around them by pulling each other into their arms. The entire room projected how much George was, and still is, loved.
The high emotion of all kinds added to all the performances, families and audiences and kept the mood for the most part upbeat and celebratory. You could tell that everyone was pushing through their emotions and going through all the stages of grief, love, reminiscence and peace.
Ginny Lemon’s act was exactly what you would expect from her persona. Much like her appearance in Drag Race UK alongside Cherry, Ginny always has to add laughter to any situation, and made everyone in the audience, and those behind the stage, giggle with her outrageous granny-drag and her infectious personality. She added she knew George would’ve wanted people to laugh – so that’s exactly what she made people do.
Ginny left the stage teary-eyed after her bittersweet comedy performance for Cherry, and next up came Bimini Bon Boulash to perform in Cherry Valentine’s memory.
“We spent three months together,” Bimini told the crowd, between breaths after their performance of the song Rodeo “Me, Tayce, we got to know Cherry so much. We spent everyday together. I had so many amazing moments with Cherry,” Bimini said.
“There was no ego, everything they did was pure and that laugh just goes through my mind all the time. Watching the amazing stuff that Cherry did, we need to remember the pure person that they were. They were the person that people would go to with problems on tour, and she would be like ‘girl, it’s not that deep’ and we would all be like yeah, you’re right! I love Cherry so much.”
After a quick break, Traveller Pride came onto the stage to add their thoughts. Tyler Hatwell was joined by Lois, a queer traveller woman who works alongside Tyler in the charity.
Tyler wanted to make a speech in George’s memory, and told the audience about “George’s deep love and respect for his community were as clear as day and it really meant something to him. What I tried to impress on him, was how much he meant to us.”
“Out of nowhere, when the representation is terrible and basically doesn’t exist, there’s this big, beautiful, kind, funny, sweet drag queen on the telly, looking glam as anything, talking about being an LGBT traveller. This was the representation that this poxy charity I run could only dream of,” Tyler said.
“I could not tell you what it meant to LGBT travellers to feel seen like that. So many of us felt more accepted and more real. He gave us so much and we’re so grateful and I only hope that he knew it.”
Tyler then announced that Traveller Pride is launching a bursary in George’s memory for Travellers in the UK who want to study mental health nursing and psychotherapy or a related mental health course. The crowd went wild at the announcement of the bursary with screams and cheers echoing throughout The Clapham Grand.
Everyone knew how much this would have meant to George dedicating most of his life into being a mental health nurse. But also knowing that only four per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Irish traveller pupils manage to access higher education in Britain today meant that this was a huge support to people in the GRT community looking to get into higher education.
“I hope this adds to something in the spirit of who he was and what he cared about,” Tyler said. “I can’t follow that announcement, and I don’t have an act, so it’s my pleasure to pass it over to Lois. A friend, a wonderful poet, who wants to read a piece about George.”
Lois’ poem read as follows:
I think about George most nights, most days I think about the constellations that fall behind my mother's eyes When he glittered our screens as raven beauties do Feeling seen, feeling heard When a community raises a child it feels its loss An empty chair, smiling face on mantlepiece Wanting to tell other people their quirks, their ways, before we forget With George, he lines the way for the amore The eternally adored Resting on the plush cushions of the beloved, Lit by candles she saw melded from ash to rags Spilling her presence like honey into rooms in need of a polish In need of bountiful abundance Bowls of roses to smell, devour Consume like the gold held by my grandmother's ears Like fruit between cigarette drags to taste what I never really hold Sustenance, ancestors, time I was born into a world of colourful people Hording water colours in back pockets of rust Of a Rome that dreams of empty days in the forest Using yellow ribbon to bind my bones instead To flourish and grow George added to that Neon A Pepsi Cola canvas of lipstick smudges Rouge hazes I see George on the difficult nights where pizza boxes stack empty Carpets un-hoovered I think of the revolution of being unapologetically queer, romany He was left on moved on doorsteps and mural on all corners To have grace and pride Even her apple by her fair plays but for me the divine comes in cherries He's found in fabric strips, the sublime But he's also found in the hearts of gypsy kids who need to know there is others like them Like us George has left marks in more than fucsia Shes underlined the lips of the children of wagon wheels and sovereign chains The punctuates the statement of Traveller solidarity Though she's passed on, she shaped generation of more than hourglass or pear The authentic sweetness Cherry paved the way in gold and ruby slippers only Dorothy could hope for The diamonds we sew into our gowns Everlasting, finite, forever She built a world for me to live in all my gayness Embrace my parents with loving arms And intertwine like they're the ribbon of my ancestors that have long tarred like long frayed Into a time for me to speak Berating my own fortune of unpalatable gypsy anarchy A creator and keeper of queer joy To the queen herself Cherry The only monarchy I willfully courtesy Who needs a Valentine's when you've got that kind of love?
The crowd was still, you could hear a pin drop during her poem. It felt as though at that moment every single person in the room felt every single word, describing Cherry and George with such literary perfection.
When Lois and Tyler left the stage, the silence was felt throughout the venue. Everyone had a minute to take in the amazing news from Traveller Pride and the incredibly emotional poem about George’s heritage and influence on the queer GRT community.
Guitarist Ryan J Keen appeared a few times throughout the night, joining performances like Black Peppa with his amazing bass skills, as well as solos dedicated to Cherry and George.
At the end of his performances, Ryan held his guitar up into the air and spun it around to reveal a note, scribed in red ink: ‘For Cherry.’ The audience clapped and cheered at this heartfelt sentiment, waving their Cherry Valentine fans into the air and looking to the ceiling of the Clapham Grand in solidarity with Ryan to show respect and love for Cherry and George’s life.
The night was spectacular. The entire team, the performances and everyone who attended made the evening at the Clapham Grand dedicated to Cherry and George something that no one will ever forget.
From the emotion-filled performances, the memories, the kind words and the rose petals being placed onto Cherry’s favourite dress in respect and love for her life from everyone in the crowd.
George was truly remembered for being a force to be reckoned with, a huge influence on an underrepresented community, a truly brave and beautiful soul and a wonderful, warm, kind human being.
Although George will be profoundly missed by everyone, he will be remembered for what an amazing person he was and is, and how iconic Cherry Valentine always will be.
Rest in peace, George Ward.
GALOP (0207 704 2040): GALOP are an LGBT and anti-violence charity. They have a variety of safety tips
LGBT Switchboard (0300 330 0630): a charity that provides confidential advice to members of the LGBT community
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LGBT Foundation (0345 3 30 30 30): a national charity delivering a wide range of services to LGBT communities
Featured image courtesy of Throne Events.