TV Preview: Thelma's Gypsy Girls

By Sarah Lang

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First steps to autonomy are chaotic, reports Sarah Lang

In 'Thelma's Gypsy Girls' Thelma Madine takes on some of the girls as apprentices to teach them skills that may get them jobs later. Photo / Supplied
In 'Thelma's Gypsy Girls' Thelma Madine takes on some of the girls as apprentices to teach them skills that may get them jobs later. Photo / Supplied

I am and I want to give something back. Thelma Madine, the dressmaker from hit British documentary series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and its new spin-off Thelma's Gypsy Girls, knows a thing or two about the crime and poverty that shadows the gypsy/traveller community. In 2001 the then-single mum-of-three, who'd started selling dresses at a market stall but hadn't stopped her benefit payments, went to jail for benefit fraud.

However, her four months inside helped her better understand the gypsy community who buy four in five of her giant-meringue dresses.

"Before jail I was quite judgmental of everybody," says Madine, a gutsy Liverpudlian. "In jail, when you're stripped of everything and basically everybody's the same, you think, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. Prison taught me not to judge."

The 60-year-old, her Nico Dressmakers business thriving - it's worth $2 million - had longed to do something for travellers. "They helped put me where I am and I want to give something back."

Specifically, she wanted to help traveller girls, who usually leave school at 11 or 12, marry at 16, and spend their lives caring for children, cooking and cleaning. Madine knew from experience that some girls wanted more than that.

Take Shannon, who, in the series opener, welcomed Madine into the tiny caravan where she spends her days. "There's not many people out there like Thelma who'd trust ya," Shannon said, "and

I think it's very good of Thelma to do that."

Deciding to pass on skills that could land gypsy girls jobs, Madine set up a six-month dressmaking course and the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings documentarians filmed it.

The consequent chaos and catastrophes are charted in the series Thelma's Gypsy Girls, whose second episode screens on Wednesday.

Organising the course was a far bigger task than Madine imagined. The traveller community view women in paid jobs as shameful. "The family would be looked down on, as though the father [or husband] isn't able to look after them," Madine explains. So it proved difficult to get girls' families to agree to the course, counting out many potential candidates.

Also, Madine didn't know running the course would risk her livelihood.

She moved into a far bigger factory, where renovations put her £36,000 ($66,000) in debt.

She also paid the gypsy girls, not vice versa, to give them a taste of economic freedom.

"The biggest challenge was that these girls [gypsies] have the mental age of 11-year-olds," Madine says. "They don't understand the rules of a workplace, so they mess around. How can you teach them a simple block pattern joining A and B when they don't recognise the letter A? There was a fight every single day - that's how they settle things. It grinds you down."

Visiting Ireland recently, Madine met a makeup artist who's been inundated with gypsy girls wanting to be apprentices. "She thinks it's down to this programme. And I have thousands of emails and Facebook messages asking if I'll do another course."

She's thinking about it, but it may take this fairy godmother some time to recover from the first round.

Thelma's Gypsy Girls screens Wednesdays, 9.30pm, TV One.

- Herald on Sunday

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