A drag queen who once shared a stage with Adele was forced to think about making money in another way after his gigs dried up.
John Hurley, 53, from Essex, has been performing as Bella Berserk for more than two decades, jetsetting around the world, hosting red carpet events and earning up to £1,400 a week.
But since the pandemic, a year of bookings were cancelled almost overnight.
So, the London College of Fashion graduate and amateur artist dusted off his easel and is now painting portraits of celebrities, children and animals.
On the day Captain Tom died, John was inspired to draw him – and even hopes the portrait might raise millions of pounds for the NHS too.
He said: ‘I’ve always been inspired by people who are not only successful, but want to do more to help others.
‘It is inconceivable to me that this man, who was 99 at the time and could barely walk, got up one day and decided to do what he did. How amazing is that?
‘I said to my partner, John, I want to carry on Tom’s legacy – and I want to use this painting to raise more money for the NHS.’
Being a drag artist has equipped John with skills he can use in painting including creating 3D effects, manipulating light and more.
John got his drag name Bella Berserk at a night club when a customer accosted him.
He said: ‘I was in drag and this Italian guy wouldn’t leave me alone – he kept saying “bella, bella bella”.
‘I told my friend “if he doesn’t stop calling me bella, I’ll go berserk” – and then I thought that’s a good name. And it just kind of stuck.’
Soon, John landed a two-year stint performing at holiday resorts in Cyprus where he honed his craft, wowing the crowds with a Tina Turner and Michael Jackson impression alongside his drag persona.
While never making the big time himself, John built a solid career performing his shows up and down the country and across Europe.
But 20 years of building up his act was destroyed in days when Covid-19 struck.
Hundreds of gowns and wigs – which had taken over the house he shared with his partner of over 20 years John o’Brien, 59 – sat collecting dust.
He said: ‘The only time the phone rang was to cancel or reschedule gigs.
‘Me and John had planned to finally get married in December 2020, so our engagement, marriage and honeymoon all had to be cancelled too.
‘It was like my whole career fell off the edge of a cliff, and I found myself at a crossroads, like I did in my twenties, all over again.’
John found solace in his love of drawing, digging out his pastels to draw his beloved Pomeranian dogs Martie, 12, and Penny, 10.
He had such a good response when he posted the finished result on Facebook that parents and pet owners offered to pay him for his services.
Now earning £300 a week from his artworks, which take him around two days to complete, John decided to use his skills to promote a cause close to his heart.
He drew six portraits of endangered animals and has been selling them on eBay, raising hundreds of pounds so far for the conservation charity WWF.
So the portrait of CaptainTom was a natural progression.
He said: ‘I was thinking about how I can best honour his memory and raise some money for the NHS.
‘As much as Captain Tom is loved, people won’t pay thousands for my drawing on eBay – so I thought maybe I could do a raffle.
‘If I got the nation involved, and people paid a couple of pounds a ticket, we could raise millions – and the winner could get the painting or donate it to Captain Tom’s family.
‘I don’t know what life is going to throw at me next, but I’m so happy my artwork is inspiring others and I’m able to keep myself creative.’
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