We spoke to Drag Race UK’s Cherry Valentine about her ‘emotional’ new documentary
‘I wasn’t good enough to be gay because I was a traveller, I wasn’t good enough to be a traveller because I was gay’
Cherry Valentine captured hearts of Drag Race UK viewers in an instant. Her drag was big, it was bold, it was pristine. Her personality warm, her laugh as infectious as it is distinct. Cherry leaving early on season two of Drag Race UK had no bearing on her quickly becoming a fan favourite, and fans have been desperate to see more of her. Cherry spoke on Drag Race about her life growing up in the traveller community, and now she’s back with her new BBC documentary Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen And Proud to bring across the confidence she has as Cherry Valentine into her family life and history with the traveller community as George Ward.
The documentary is extremely moving and highlights a real lack of education on the travelling community in the UK and in the media – and I caught up with Cherry to discuss what making Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen And Proud has meant to her.
‘I’m excited and I’m terrified – all at the same time’
Hi Cherry! I watched the documentary last night and absolutely loved it. I bet you’re so excited for it to come out and for everyone to see it.
Excited and terrified! All at the same time.
Don’t be terrified! What inspired you then to get started on the documentary, did you pitch the idea or did The BBC come to you?
It was a from both sides kind of thing. They asked me if I wanted to talk about it more and we just went from there. It grew into its own thing. The BBC has a lot of ideas and I had a lot of ideas and we just made it work.
What was the hardest part of it all for you?
The hardest part of the whole process was actually talking about it fully – because I’m one of them people that never really goes into detail about how they feel or think. I’m normally the one listening on the other side, because that’s what I do professionally as well as a nurse so it was really strange doing it from the other side.
Did you find it more emotional than you anticipated?
Oh, completely. I told myself before we started that I wasn’t going to cry. I said I wasn’t going to get emotional, just be honest and open and talk about the facts. Before you know it, I was crying all the time and it was a journey. It really was a journey.
‘Growing up I felt like the only LGBT person in the world’
I think when family is involved like that it’s always going to be an emotional one. How did making Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud surprise you – did anything happen that you really weren’t anticipating?
I didn’t expect to meet so many people from similar communities who went through similar things. Growing up, I felt like I was the only LGBT person in the world never mind in the community. So when it came to filming and meeting all these different charities and different people, it just made me feel prouder than ever. I just felt so proud that people are out here doing it. And I thought why would I not be out there talking about it as well with everyone. So that was the most surprising thing, seeing just how many people can relate.
Are you still in touch with a lot of the people that you met whilst making it?
Yeah! I still talk to Tyler, the guy who runs Traveller Pride.
The conversation between him and his dad was so moving!
I know! Honestly, that conversation, being there in person really did change my perspective on a lot of things because I grew up in the part of the community that was very different to that and still are. It was very refreshing.
I think because he was so relaxed and not make a big deal of it. It’s so refreshing to see a parent take their child being LGBT in their stride.
Yeah, and so nice to show that side of the community.
Do you think Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud has the power to change the travelling community’s attitude towards queer children, and make things more accepting?
I think it’s so broad, but I definitely think it has the power to start and continue some conversation and that’s one of the things I set out to do. A lot of the time, these things don’t even get talked about. When I was growing up we just didn’t talk about it. Anything that came on TV, we turned it over. Any time someone mentioned anything about it, they got embarrassed and changed the conversation straight away. I was constantly told that being gay was the wrong thing to do or be. I hope that people can watch it and not feel so uncomfortable when talking about it.
Do you feel like there’s a real lack of education around travelling communities in this country, and that affects people’s attitudes?
Yeah, and it comes from both sides. Growing up in the community, we are very private. A lot of people in the community don’t like to talk to other people outside of that and that’s the norm. But when it comes to society’s depictions of what the community is, I think a lot of that comes from what we’ve seen on TV. We’ve seen all the shows that have come out, Here Come The Gypsies, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – and that is a small part of the community. There are a lot of positives though that I don’t think are shown as much.
‘Asttina Mandella and Lawrence Chaney are in the doc, and it was so nice to have that conversation with them’
What’s the response and support been like from your Drag Race UK sisters?
It’s been amazing. Asttina and Lawrence are in it and it’s just a really nice conversation to have with them. Every time we see each other we talk a lot about drag, acceptance, identity and growing up LGBT. They’ve been incredibly supportive, and it’s so nice to capture some of that.
What did you learn about yourself making it?
I learned not to care as much about what people think. Believe in yourself. I went through life growing up feeling like I wasn’t good enough for anyone. Wasn’t good enough to be gay because I was a traveller, and I wasn’t good enough to be a traveller because I was gay. Even becoming a nurse, I didn’t feel like I was good enough because I’m a man and society sees it as a stereotypically woman’s job. I’ve learned a lot.
What are three things you really hope people take away from Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud?
I hope that people take away that coming from a gypsy background isn’t all what people believe. I want people to feel like they can relate to it coming from any closed community – it’s okay to be LGBT and to live your life authentic to yourself. And just for people to be aware that it’s not always easy, and that’s okay. It’s normal. That’s what this documentary is all about; it’s about coming of age and it’s about identity and being proud of who you are.
It’s about those conversations that you try and put off having.
Definitely. Look, it’s not saying come out to your family right now and everything is going to be fine and dandy. It’s about being real. This is how it is and we have to take certain steps to get where we want.
Have you managed to reconnect with any family members since filming?
It’s still a work in progress. I think that I can start to open those conversations even more when people start to watch it. There’s still so much work to be done. I do speak to my parents a lot more, and my brother who’s very supportive. But outside of that, there’s still work to be done but I’m happy to do that work.
Do your family all know you’ve made the documentary?
My closest family, yeah. I think the community are aware and will watch it, but whether they will talk about it is a different question.
‘A lot of people have messaged me saying I’m so happy you’re doing this’
Have you heard a lot from other traveller drag queens since being on Drag Race UK and since announcing the doc?
People have reached out so much. Even from private accounts, saying “I’m from a similar community and I’m so happy you’re doing this”. If I had something to watch that was like that for queer gypsy kids, I maybe would have felt a lot different about who I was a lot sooner.
What are you most proud of about it all?
I’m just so proud about how authentic it is. Because it’s honestly the truth. I didn’t sugarcoat anything and I set out to talk about the real experience.
I really liked in Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud the parallels between you keeping your drag persona separate to your work as a nurse, and your queer self separate to how you were raised in the travelling community – do you feel a lot happier now you’ve taken steps to merge the worlds?
I think I’m still getting used to it. It’s a journey we all go on. We all try and compartmentalise different parts of our lives because we think people won’t accept certain parts of us but I do feel a lot happier than I did, definitely. Even speaking with my mum now I can talk about things I never would have dreamed of talking about. There’s still so much work to be done, and there’s still a lot of growing to be done. But that’s what life’s about isn’t it?
BBC Three’s Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen and Proud will be available on BBC iPlayer from 25th January and will air live on BBC Three when the channel returns to television on 1st February. For all the latest Drag Race memes and Netflix news, drops and memes like The Holy Church of Netflix on Facebook.
All images and featured image courtesy of BBC.
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