Cheryl Diamond, 34, is a former fugitive turned fashion model who spent the first 24-years of her life on the lam with her family evading Interpol. ‘It’s the simple mistakes that get you caught,’ she says
Cheryl Diamond was born an outlaw.
As a child, she claims she mastered the art of forgery, learned to shoplift, withstand an interrogation and most importantly – she knew how to disappear. ‘It’s the simple mistakes that get you caught,’ she says.
Now aged 34 and living in Rome, the former outlaw details her unimaginable life in her gripping new memoir, Nowhere Girl: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood. With Interpol reports and sworn affidavits to back it up, Cheryl Diamond proves that truth is stranger than fiction.
Belying her serene blue eyes and cascading blonde hair is a life of global intrigue – and a childhood that was more akin to the pages of James Bond than Dr. Seuss.
She claims her first memory was a near death experience at the age of four when brake failure sent her family’s rickety car hurtling down the Himalayas. They survived, only to narrowly escape a tense face-off with two Kashmiri soldiers.
To her, life was one thrilling adventure.
By the time she was nine, Diamond and her seemingly unbreakable family of five had already lived in more than a dozen countries, across five continents, under six aliases. One day they were in Cairo, the next in Vienna.
The drill was always the same: move without warning, destroy all evidence, and change names with new invented backstories. Repeat. They slipped by on forged documents, crisscrossing the globe while always remaining a few steps ahead of Interpol.
In the meantime, Diamond managed to train as a near-level Olympic gymnast, work as a teenage fashion model in New York City and publish her first book at the age of 19 – all under different aliases.
But as she got older, the mystery of her past and that of her parents began to unravel: Who were they? And what were they running from? Diamond didn’t know their real names and birthdates – or her own for that matter.
With her identity burned many times over, Cheryl Diamond (a pen name) realized that she belonged nowhere in the world. There was no real proof that she existed. After winging an entire life on fake passports, it seemed that getting a real one would prove to be the greatest challenge of all.
Cheryl Diamond was the daughter of a controlling, professional conman who led his family of five on a transcontinental escape for three decades. By the time she was nine, Diamond had already lived in more than a dozen countries, across five continents, under six aliases. The only problem is, she didn’t know ‘why’
The escape was always the same: move fast and frequently (often in the middle of the night), destroy all evidence of life, and change names with new invented backstories at every stop. ‘With each new country, Dad not only changes our last name, but also builds a different history, a different place we’re from,’ she wrote. ‘He drills me in mock interrogations when I least expect it’
Diamond claims that bogus passports were supplied by a family contact known to her only as, ‘Our Friend.’ She was a Brazilian woman who had a contact in the registrar’s office who would be able to backdate, insert the whole family in the real birth registry of Brazil, and have actual passports issued
Though the details are hazy, Cheryl Diamond says she was born ‘Harbhajan Khalsa Nanak’ sometime in 1986, in New Zealand to a captivating yet controlling conman named George, and her mother Anne.
Or as she put it, she was ‘the baby of two renegades; dreamt of in a Panamanian prison, conceived on a money-laundering run, and grown in her mother’s belly during a transcontinental escape.’
‘Back then it all seemed so right,’ she says. ‘I could not imagine that my future had already been written in the stamp of a fake passport before I was even conceived.’
As the youngest of three siblings with a ten-year age gap, Cheryl was the center of her family’s universe. And despite the unusual circumstances, she remembers the halcyon days of her childhood on the run as joyful and exciting.
So ‘why did we run so fast and for so long? Why did we risk it all?’ she writes in real-time. ‘That answer is simple. We were being hunted.’
Beginning at a very young age, Cheryl noticed that her father, George, checked into hotels under different last names. ‘Most often Cash, Sterling, and Gold, my father seemed to like money-related names.’
It was never clear where their money came from, she said, ‘I’m taught to shoplift, but that’s just to build character.’ Nonetheless, money was ‘always there, just a wire transfer away. Ready to buy us freedom.’
When they moved, it was always sudden and generally involved frantic packing, leaving possessions in storage facilities (or not) and dashing to the airport to go wherever Cheryl’s father decided – by looking at the upcoming flights leaving that day.
Life on the road meant that most lessons were taught on the fly, said Diamond. ‘Since Dad considers all educational institutions breeding grounds for government propaganda and square-thinking bureaucrats.’ Lessons in core subjects like math, and writing were few and far in between, taught by her mother mostly on the swirling carpet of five star hotels while on the run.
But her hardest lesson was something very different, she said. ‘I had to learn our rules:’ 1) Always have a back story. ‘With each new country, Dad not only changes our last name, but also builds a different history, a different place we’re from,’ she wrote. ‘He drills me in mock interrogations when I least expect it.’
2) Never give outsiders your home phone number. Instead, set up an answering service in a different town where people can leave a message after the beep. 3) Forward all mail to a P.O. Box and take abrupt turns, circuitous routes before picking it up. 4) Pay for everything in cash.
Nothing was as important as their cardinal rule: ‘When you leave a place—no matter how much you love it, no matter how many friends you’ve made—you can never, ever go back,’ she writes.
So deeply ingrained were these guidelines that Diamond never dared to question them at first. Nor did she question why her family fled countries, seemingly at the drop of a hat (and often in the middle of the night).
‘Back then it all seemed so right,’ she said. ‘I could not imagine that my future had already been written in the stamp of a fake passport before I was even conceived.’ Cheryl Diamond was born in New Zealand while her parents were on the run – but because they used fraudulent names and nationalities on her birth certificate, she technically didn’t belong anywhere
Cheryl Diamond was actually born ‘Harbhajan Khalsa Nanak’ – the name is a tribute to their devout beliefs in Sikhism at the time. As practicing Sikhs, her family abided by the sacred tradition of keeping long uncut hair, maintained a strict vegetarian diet and automatically recited prayers in Punjabi before every meal. ‘We must make quite a confusing picture,’ she wrote’ Just an average family of Sikhs. Except the father is a broad-shouldered six-foot Viking, face deeply tanned, with a head of untamed red-blond hair’
It wasn’t until Cheryl was 15 that she discovered how much of her family was a lie. Her two siblings were in fact, half siblings. Her mother, Anne, whom she always thought was French, was really Italian and raised in Luxembourg.
And the person hunting them? She claims was actually Cheryl’s grandfather – a high-powered operative in the Luxembourg secret police who disagreed with Anne’s unconventional lifestyle and threatened to use his influence to declare her an unfit mother and take her children away.
George was a handsome and charming gold bullion trader from Canada who offered Anne a way out. And so the stage was set for the great international drama that would take this family of five across several continents and forever alter the course of their lives.
True, they weren’t criminals yet, but they eventually would be. ‘Sometimes when someone starts treating you like a criminal, you have to become one to escape,’ said Diamond.
Chery Diamond’s absorbing memoir chronicles her traumatic childhood spent on the run. Her identity was erased so many times that she ultimately did not legally exist anywhere. As she began to see her controlling father’s deception more clearly, she questioned ‘was it all necessary?’
With the walls closing in, they needed money and they needed it fast. Faced with little choice, George drained an account containing almost $2million of investor’s money in his gold bullion fund. ‘In that moment he became the criminal Anne’s father had framed him as,’ wrote Diamond.
Years later, Cheryl wondered if it was all necessary. After her family bought new passports, they were successfully off the grid; and yet they continued to flee. ‘My father must have known we didn’t have to run anymore.’ Questioning his motives, she believes that their decades-long escape was really the deluded plot of a megalomaniac to isolate and control his family.
‘Maybe he was using the past to control us, or perhaps we had all lived in fear so long that none of us knew how to stop.’
By the time Cheryl was born, her family had already spent a few years on the road as nomadic Sikhs. Her real name, ‘Harbhajan Khalsa Nanak,’ translates to Song of God/ Pure/ Truth in Sanskrit. ‘It’s not just a name, it’s everything I know we stand for,’ she writes.
As practicing Sikhs, they abided by the sacred tradition of keeping long uncut hair, maintained a strict vegetarian diet and automatically recited prayers in Punjabi before every meal. As a family, they performed weekly half-hour silent meditations, and daily Kundalini yoga sessions.
‘We must make quite a confusing picture,’ she wrote. ‘Just an average family of Sikhs. Except the father is a broad-shouldered six-foot Viking, face deeply tanned, with a head of untamed red-blond hair.’
But like many things in their life, Sikhism would fly out the window with a new identity, backstory and country. George would eventually convert his family to Judaism, and Cheryl will celebrate a Bat Mitzvah while attending an Orthodox school in Virginia. It was a decision that he seemingly made on a whim, she says, after he stumbled ‘across the idea that Jewish people dominate the world financial markets.’
‘We have switched faiths like so many names, and now I have trouble taking anything seriously,’ she says in her memoir, which unravels in real time.
Cheryl’s first brush with a ‘normal’ life happened at the age of seven when her family accidentally stayed in Vancouver for two years. (They had never lived anywhere longer than eight months before). Her family moved into a grand secluded two-story mansion which they furnished with plastic outdoor patio furniture, that ‘seemed like a good temporary option when we moved in.’
She recalls the awkward practice of meeting kids her age for the first time, ‘Why is it that the more ordinary a situation is, the more it paralyzes me with anxiety?’
But for a brief moment, Cheryl got to experience a standard childhood: she was involved in competitive swimming and gymnastics, she enrolled in a puppet theatre group, joined an abacus club and took a children’s art class.
She didn’t take any of it for granted. ‘For the rest, there will always be next summer, next year,’ she said. ‘For us, everything we are tasting maybe for the last time.’
A few weeks later, clothes, books, and toys were scattered on the floor as her family frantically packed their suitcases. George’s Vancouver business partner in a get-rich-quick scheme started asking too many questions, and spooked the family when he showed up at their front door demanding answers earlier that evening.
By 4am, Diamond said, ‘it looked like a tornado had torn through our house.’
The drill was always the same: destroy all evidence of life, wipe finger prints and change names. They burned all important documents, and threw away other distinguishing items in random garbage bins on the way to the airport.
Within three hours, they were boarded on a flight to Germany with 14 suitcases in tow, leaving most of their belongings behind.
‘The concept of travelling light fascinates me,’ said Diamond. ‘It takes me until the age of five to figure out that other people didn’t take all their worldly possessions with them to airports.’
Diamond got her first taste of ‘normal’ life when she was seven-years-old and her family moved to Vancouver for two years. Never having lived anywhere long enough to make friends, she noticed the difference between herself and her peers: ‘I suppose what it all boils down to, is this: I know how to survive, and they know how to live’
Cheryl was 15-years-old when she discovered that the person ‘hunting’ them was her maternal grandfather, a high-powered operative in the Luxembourg secret police. He disagreed with his daughter’s unconventional lifestyle and threatened use his tremendous influence to take her children away. They were not law-breakers in the beginning, but they would eventually become criminals when Cheryl’s father ran off with investor’s money to survive
As she got older, Cheryl realized that her entire life on the run could have probably been avoided, especially after they bought new passports and were successfully off the grid. ‘We could have settled down, we could have built a normal life. But my father continued to move, to risk, to isolate us,’ she said. ‘Maybe he was using the past to control us, or perhaps we had all lived in fear so long that none of us knew how to stop’
In Germany, they assumed new identities and spend the next two years pin balling between Romania, Cairo, Vienna, Cyprus and Tel Aviv. Her siblings Frank and Chiara became Roy and Sara. And Cheryl Diamond (formerly Harbhajan) became Crystal.
In Romania, ten-year-old Cheryl gets invited to try-out for the Olympic gymnastics team. In Cairo, the family spends a night on lounge chairs by the hotel pool before heading to their early morning flight to Austria. After eight months of living in Vienna as a ‘stock broker from Key West,’ her father, George arbitrarily decides that he wants to convert his family to Judaism and move to Tel Aviv.
Before moving to Israel, the family makes a quick stop in Cyprus, where he needs to have money laundered. But not just laundered, ‘steamed, pressed, ironed and anointed with a little perfume’ too.
With five new bogus passports, a fake cultural heritage and invented backstory; the family slips through Israel’s notoriously difficult border control with ease. Diamond couldn’t help but think in that moment – ‘Did we really have to risk everything, just to see if we could get away with it?’
It wasn’t long before George ran afoul with his new Israeli business partner and the family had to skip town, this time to a suburb of Washington D.C.
‘He felt the time had come to move to a country with a good amount of hiding places, and the most potential avenues for profit: the United States of America.’
In the States, Cheryl was allowed to attend a normal school for the first time and is enrolled in a conservative Orthodox middle-school. Without any documentation of prior education (or any record of existence for that matter), they trade on the fact that she lived in Israel to get in.
‘We have all emerged from a fog a couple years ago, fully formed, yet lacking any history.’
For a short while, Cheryl’s life had all the hallmark trappings of a typical teenager: boys, jealous friends, school dances, and insecurities. But despite her best attempts to fit in, she said, ‘This gap, between my life and theirs, seems too wide to bridge. An impossible chasm filled with terrible secrets—all the things that make me strange, different.’ That feeling will follow Cheryl well into adulthood.
‘I suppose what it all boils down to, is this, I know how to survive, and they know how to live.’
And just when things started to seem all-too-easy, she says, ‘I’m reminded how far away I am from normal.’ Whilst everyone else was out, Cheryl’s father shows her the loose floorboard in his closet that hid a nondescript black backpack containing their passports, $10,000 in cash, $5,000 in gold Krugerrand coins and a burner phone. ‘I’m being put in charge of our family’s escape plan when I’m barely thirteen.’
By the time Cheryl turned 16, life on the lam had taken a toll on her family. It had been four years since she last saw her brother. To this very day, he is still missing. ‘Some secrets are unspeakable,’ she says.
Her sister, Chiara, ran away from home and threatened to get in touch with her grandfather – causing George to uproot the decimated remains of his family to North Carolina. His paranoia and unpredictable temper became more capricious as he started to loose his vice-like control over his family.
Years of lavish spending on custom-made tuxedos, luxury cars paid for in cash, mansions, and private dance lessons had left them destitute and living out of a rental car parked in a strip mall.
‘Mom and Dad trying to think of anyone left who might help—but that’s the problem with vanishing with such skill for decades. It pisses people off. And then they forget about you,’ wrote Cheryl.
Cheryl Diamond currently lives and works as a writer in Rome. After a life perpetual motion, she finds stability and comfort in the ancient city’s history
‘I used to think that I would never be truly accepted by other people if they knew about my history,’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘I always thought that people would see me as a freak because what I lived was so outside the bounds of normality’
But in this state of total despair, Cheryl was given a crack in the impossible when a modeling agent scouted her outside a pawn shop. New York City offered the promise of hope, ‘a way to pull us out.’ And without pause, Cheryl (still going by Crystal at the time) bought herself a fake North Carolina state ID card and hopped on the next bus to the Big Apple to start her new life as ‘Cheryl Diamond.’
For the next five years, she survived hand-to-mouth hustling between runways and photoshoots, posing for brands like L’Oréal, Clairol and Armani. At 19, she published her first memoir about her experiences in the modeling industry. Without a valid ID though, she had to collect her book advance through an LLC set up by a friend.
‘I’m adept at deflecting questions but live in constant fear of being found out.’
By the time Cheryl turned 24-years-old, she was done. Done with running, done with living off the grid and done following her father – whom she now believes has a ‘severe undiagnosed mental illness of some kind.’
Flimsy $30 fake IDs were no longer tenable and Cheryl was desperate for legitimacy. The problem is, she technically doesn’t belong to any country.
While her New Zealand birth certificate is a legally issued document, her parents are listed under false identities and forged Brazilian nationalities. The dilemma poses a legal nightmare. There is no haven for children in the home countries that their parents abandoned. If Cheryl were to claim citizenship in any country, she would be held accountable for continuing the fraud her parents started.
After many years if legal maneuvering, she was finally granted Luxembourgish citizenship at the age of 27.
It was only then, that she began to see the wool of her father’s deception more clearly. ‘All the places, all the things we would end up leaving behind. Why was it all necessary?’ she pondered. ‘He’d said it was because my grandfather and Interpol were chasing us. But was it because he’d stolen all that money, or was it . . . because it’s easier to make a family do what you want when they are terrified?’
Now living in Rome, the ‘nowhere girl’ has finally found a place where she belongs. After a life perpetual motion, she finds stability and comfort in the ancient city’s history.
Her memoir is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and a decade-long labor of love that she said, ‘started as a way to rectify the feeling of not belonging to the world.’ The prologue reads, ‘This is for the misfits.’
‘I used to think that I would never be truly accepted by other people if they knew about my history,’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘I always thought that people would see me as a freak because what I lived was so outside the bounds of normality – and also very traumatic and abusive at times.’
‘That was also a big reason why I wrote Nowhere Girl,’ she says. The more she opened up about her past, the more Cheryl realized how many people could relate with their own struggles. ‘Of course they didn’t have a story as crazy as mine – that’s one in a million!’
‘The thing I really like about being an adult is that you can choose your family.’ The only person Cheryl maintains a relationship with is her mother. She hasn’t spoken to Chiara in 10 years, and has no contact with her father. ‘I think blood is only important if those people act like your family and care about you in that way,’ she says.
When asked if she could go back and change the family that she was born into, would she do it? She responds, ‘But then I wouldn’t be me either.’