In 1989, when Cheryl Diamond was 3, she used to hang out with the Japanese mafia.
A group of yakuza met in the lobby of the hotel where her family lived in Tokyo, and she introduced herself by toddling over to them and doing a handstand.
“I thought they looked interesting,” said Diamond, now 34, who visited the consortium of gangsters whenever she could. “They sort of adopted me.”
By age 4, she was in India, and had her first near-death experience, careening down the Himalayas in a rickety car held together with chicken wire. She had her second aged 5 when she and her older brother wandered into the South African bush and came across a trio of menacing men who lived there.
Of course, all this is par for the course when you’re living life on the run. Diamond’s new book, “Nowhere Girl” (Algonquin Books), out now, details her childhood among a family of outlaws, crossing continents, changing identities and outsmarting authorities.
“By the age of nine, I will have lived in more than a dozen countries, on five continents, under six assumed identities,” she writes. “I’ll know how a document is forged, how to withstand an interrogation, and most important, how to disappear.”
Since her family was constantly traveling, neither she nor her siblings went to school, which her father saw as a breeding ground “for government propaganda and square-thinking bureaucrats.” They weren’t allowed to socialize with other children, either.
“I know my father’s laws by heart,” writes Diamond. “Always be loyal to our family — for we will never betray each other. Trust no one — they are outsiders. And be a criminal — but be a noble one.”
It was all so exciting, until her dad got violent, her mom withdrew and her two older siblings disappeared. Then, when Diamond started to have some success as a model and published author, she found that all the running, all the secrets, were quite literally killing her.
“There’s this Maya Angelou quote that says, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,’ ” said Diamond. “And that really was what I was feeling: this agony . . . It felt like there was a primal scream inside me, that I needed to tell the truth.”
Before Diamond was Cheryl, she was Harbhajan, “song of God” in Sanskrit. Born 1986 in New Zealand, she was the youngest in a quintet of merry bandits who lived off the grid and on the lam.
There was her Canadian father, “George,” the charismatic ringleader: a “broad-shouldered six-foot Viking” with a “head of untamed red-blond hair,” long unruly beard and scars. Her mother, “Anne,” from Luxembourg, was the stabilizing force: calm, collected, with wide blue eyes and a slender frame. Chiara and Frank were Diamond’s siblings, 12 and 10 years older than her. (Diamond is not her real last name, and she changed the names of her parents in the book for legal reasons.)
Little “Bhajan” didn’t quite understand why her family couldn’t leave a trail, just that some nefarious organization called Interpol was chasing them. She also didn’t quite understand how her parents made a living — aside from the brief money-making schemes her dad sometimes cooked up.
“The cash seems to appear without anyone exerting visible effort,” Diamond writes. “Sometimes Dad says it’s the interest on an investment, and sometimes he’ll let out a whoop while watching the gold prices spike on CNN, but there never seems to be anything like work involved.”
In truth, George was a bullion gold investor — who had previously swindled nearly $2 million from investors. When Diamond was 10 she remembered taking a family trip to Cyprus so her dad could “launder” money.
By that point, their tight-knit band had begun to show some cracks. On the way to Germany, 8-year-old Diamond spied her mother crying on a payphone and speaking a strange language. Frank told her Anne was talking with her father, whom Diamond assumed was dead.
“He’s the one chasing us,” her brother explained.
When she confronted her mother about it, Anne admitted that Diamond’s grandfather was a secret-service agent and was trying to put George in jail and take the kids away.
“Sometimes when someone starts treating you like a criminal,” Anne obliquely told Diamond, “you have to become one to escape.”
George had started displaying flashes of violence, too. After 9-year-old Diamond was caught tasting a forbidden ice cream cone, he singed her leg with an electrical wire as punishment. George punched Chiara several times, once getting blood on the wall of their house in suburban Virginia, where the family settled in 1998, when Diamond was almost 12. (He “felt the time had come to move to a country with . . . the most potential avenues for profit: the United States of America,” Diamond writes.)
A year later, her brother — her best friend, who often chafed against their father’s demands — finally escaped the family to go to college when she was 13. Chiara left two years later, leaving a note saying that she had contacted “Konrad,” the secret-service grandfather who had asked Interpol to put alerts out on the family. Suddenly Diamond and her parents abandoned their beautiful Virginia home.
In a motel in North Carolina, George and Anne divulged some shocking secrets. Chiara and Frank weren’t her full siblings (they were Anne’s children from a previous marriage). When Anne left Luxembourg to live with George, she took nearly all the money from her father’s bank account (which made him livid). When Konrad later put an Interpol alert out for the runaways, George said he had no choice but to steal $2 million from his investors so they could start anew. And though he was raking in money in the 1980s and ’90s with his investments, by the 2000s they were broke.
Soon, the three of them were living in a car. One day, Diamond, then 15, sought air conditioning at a mall across the road when a middle-aged woman, dressed in black, began walking toward her.
Diamond thought she was a cop, but instead of brandishing handcuffs, the mysterious lady handed her a business card.
“Have you ever thought about modeling?” she asked.
In 2002, the 16-year-old went to New York City with $300 and a new name: Cheryl Diamond. It took her less than two years to realize she couldn’t quite cut it as a high-fashion model, so she decided to write a book about it instead, scribbling away at her draft between go-sees and photo shoots.
“Model,” published in 2008 when Diamond was just 21, was supposed to fix everything. She went on “Good Morning America” and Fox News where she described her often-demoralizing life of a teen mannequin. Her parents joined her in New York, and soon she began scheming how she could get them all new passports, new identities, new lives.
Yet, as Diamond soldiered on, the weight of the secrets she was hiding began to take its toll.
“I knew I was in a lot of trouble,” Diamond said. “But I wasn’t ready yet to admit the truth.”
One night, after an event in Washington, DC, she collapsed. She ended up spending a whole year in her bedroom, too weak to even walk a few steps to the living room. She suffered internal bleeding, bruises on her legs, a locked left arm. Finally, her mother took her to get tested: She had Crohn’s Disease, a severe autoimmune disorder that can be brought on by extreme tension and PTSD.
She said that in a way, the disease saved her life: “I saw how my father reacted to [my illness] and his complete lack of sympathy and lack of love,” Diamond said.
She said George believed she should be able to heal herself with her willpower and even stole her money so she couldn’t seek treatment. Later, when she tried to get a lawyer to see if she could get some kind of passport, she realized how her father had trapped her. Though her New Zealand birth certificate was a legally-issued document, her parents’ fake names and made-up Brazilian backgrounds made it invalid. If she would come forward now and apply for a New Zealand or Brazilian passport, she would “knowingly exploit a fake backstory.”
If she went to the American authorities, she would risk arrest or deportation. And since she was over 18 — despite her not being born when her parents bought their first fake passports — she would be held accountable.
“I realized, [my father was] the one who put me in this situation,” writes Diamond.
Finally, in 2010, at the age of 24, she convinced Anne to call Konrad in Luxembourg. Even though Diamond had never met her grandfather before, he loomed large as a “terrifying” figure in her life.
“He was someone that I was always told was going to take us kids away from our parents — put my parents in jail,” she said.
At this point, Diamond and her parents had gone to Florida, near Miami. At first, Anne was hesitant to contact her father, but George’s behavior had gotten so abusive that she relented. Konrad was surprised to hear from his long-lost daughter and Diamond said he was “wary and suspicious.” Yet he agreed to help them get back to Europe — if only to keep them under his watch.
One afternoon, while George went for a supermarket run, Diamond and her mother made their escape, frantically shoving whatever they could into two small suitcases before he got back. They made it to Luxembourg, and for the first year lived in Konrad’s attic.
Though hostile at first, Diamond’s grandfather eventually made peace with his renegade family, and even paid for her hospital treatments. By the time he died in 2018, Diamond had moved to Rome to learn Italian and to become closer to her maternal grandmother’s Italian heritage. She finally got her Luxembourg passport after four years fighting for it, and her mother has also joined the documented, legal world. Her brother is long gone, and she hasn’t spoken with Chiara since her escape from the US.
As for her father, Diamond hasn’t seen him in a decade and she doesn’t even know if he’s been caught or is still on the run.
“It did cross my mind . . . about what he might do if he reads [the book], because I know he’s very unpredictable and violent,” she said. “But then I just decided, f–k it: I’m going to tell the truth and whatever consequences may come, I can handle it.
“I have experience in surviving.”