As fans of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings will of course know, Liverpudlian dressmaker Thelma Madine is the go to gal for travellers wishing to make a statement with their wedding or occasion frocks…
And she is set to star in her own spin-off show, entitled Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, which will see her tutoring ten traveller girls in the art of dressmaking.
However, in an interview with the Daily Mirror about the show – which debuts on Channel 4 next Sunday – 8th July – at 9pm, Thelma revealed that the project turned out to be far more difficult than she could have imagined.
Here’s what C4 say of the show…
Thelma begins the search for her ten new trainees. All of them are gypsies or travellers, some left school at 11 and some are unable to read, write or even tell the time…
Thelma’s hopefuls include headstrong 16-year-old Margaret from a local trailer site, who doesn’t like being told what to do regardless of who’s telling her; 17-year-old Kathleen, whose domestic duties include looking after her 17 nieces and nephews; and 16-year-old Rosanne, who desperately lacks education and thinks Lady Gaga worships the devil.
For the girls it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, for existing staff it feels like a serious upheaval, and for Thelma it could be out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Beginning with the first day of filming, Thelma revealed that when the cameras stopped rolling, she burst into tears out of frustration with how things were going.
She explained, “After the first day I cried my eyes out and thought ‘what have I done?’.
“My vision was to see them all sat in lines sewing and me saying ‘this is how you do it’.
“What I didn’t realise is they don’t act like 16 or 17-year-olds. They were more like 10 or 11-year-olds because they finished school at 11.
“They had no social skills at all or any idea how to behave in the workplace. It was chaos and a bit of a nightmare.
“I found out most of them couldn’t read or write. Some couldn’t tell the time so we had them asking what the time was – and even what day it was.
“You would tell them we were doing something on Monday and they would ask ‘when is Monday?’.
“It knocked me back. We are in the 21st century – I was really shocked.”
She added, “When gypsy girls come in to see me they don’t seem to have anything else in their head other than getting married.
“I know it does me favours but they don’t know any other way because they leave school so young. It’s all about that big day.
“The travellers have put me where I am today and I thought it would be nice to try to give something back to them.
“I thought I could teach some of them a trade where they could get a job and let them see what it’s like to earn money. So I came up with this idea.
“When we did an open day we had loads of girls turn up. I picked 10 and the rest is history.”
The paper adds that the show is “expected to cause controversy by lifting the veil on the lack of education among some girls in travelling families” because of course, it’s understood within the community that educating girls is pointless, given their ‘job’ is to clean house and raise children.
Of the shocking lack of education among her trainees, Thelma added, “We had to put clock faces up on the wall to show them when they had to be here, when they could have a cup of tea and when to go for lunch.
“Then I realised it wasn’t just teaching these kids to sew – we had to get a tutor to teach them how to read and write.
“It was full-on and turned my life upside down. It was three months before things settled down.
“Now they can all read. They are at different reading levels but they have all improved.
“We were trying to teach them to do things with tape measures. But how can you do that if they struggle with numbers?
“They didn’t even know how to use a calculator. It was shocking and surreal. The Romanies will say their kids go to school and learn, but these girls didn’t.
“They’re also very needy and will cling on to you and ask ‘Am I your favourite?’ They need you all the time.”
Thelma also revealed that while she’s been concentrating on her apprentices, she’s had to turn business away, which has of course cost her thousands of pounds.
She said, “I had to cut down by 50% while doing this.”
However, she hopes the new show will prompt new orders. She said, “People in America and Puerto Rico ask us for dresses.
“Now we have done this show I feel we should keep it going and train more people.”
Don’t miss Thelma’s Gypsy Girls on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm.