Cherry Valentine, who has died aged 28, was a drag queen who brightened up the second series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in early 2021 by performing Memory from the musical Cats in an emotional lip-sync battle with her rival Tayce; off screen, Cherry Valentine was George Ward, a mental health nurse who at the height of the coronavirus pandemic returned to his profession.
“It was a weird contrast to go from competing in the Olympics of drag … to the heart of a global pandemic,” Ward said. Yet the alter ego provided a welcome escape from the pressures. “I would come home from a crazy shift and just slap a face on and feel my fantasy and pick that back up, so it’s really helped.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK is a British version of the American reality show. A panel of judges, chaired by the American drag artist RuPaul, set challenges for 12 contestants such as being photographed bouncing on a trampoline or constructing an outfit from unconventional materials.
Unlike the bright colours of many contestants, Cherry Valentine had a darker image, with blood-red shoulder pads and piercing-red contact lenses. During filming she opened up about her background as a gay member of the traveller community. This piqued the interest of television executives, and in January this year BBC Three broadcast an hour-long documentary, Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud.
Meanwhile, Cherry Valentine’s entry in Drag Race had been as dramatic as her tight jumpsuit, thanks to a large headpiece that caught the top of a doorway. Taking the upset in her stride, she redid her entrance, this time calmly ducking and saying: “Roses are red and violets are blue, here’s your winner of season two.”
It was not to be, and she was eliminated in the second episode. RuPaul bade her farewell, saying: “Roses are red, violets are blue, you are Cherry Valentine and we’ll miss you.”
George Ward was born into a Romany family in Darlington on November 30 1993, recalling as a five-year-old “running around in my mum’s heels when she was out of the house”. He was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a car mechanic, though the closest he came was being able to drive for 45 minutes in full dress and 10-inch heels.
He came out by writing a letter to his family before running away from home for a week. On his return he was taken for a drive by each parent individually for a talk, but after that his sexuality was never again discussed.
He was introduced to the drag scene while studying mental health nursing at Lancaster University. “I went to Manchester for a couple of nights out and thought: ‘This is crazy, this is what I want to do’. That’s when Cherry was born,” he told the BBC, later adding: “Cherry Valentine is everything. She is glamour, she is a club kid, she’s dark, she’s gothic, she’s a dancer, she’s flippy. Look at me, I am a queen. I’m a high fashion queen. I look fierce, and my body is hourglass perfect.”
Cherry Valentine’s first stage appearances were in Manchester in 2016 but she came to wider attention after being selected by RuPaul in 2019. The television recordings were disrupted by the pandemic, with production suspended until late 2020.
There were also stage performances, although Ward continued nursing, working within children’s psychiatric intensive care and with adults diagnosed with Huntington’s brain injury. He also helped at vaccination centres.
In a “Meet the Queens” video interview for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ward/Valentine explained how nursing and performing complement each other: “If you’re a drag queen, you’re working with people. By understanding people, you’re going the extra mile.”
Cherry Valentine, born November 30 1993, died September 18 2022