Big Fat Gypsy Weddings" Thelma Madine hires traveller girls to work for her in new TV show

Big fat gypsy catfights! Thelma Madine, whose dresses were the stars of the series, hires traveller girls to work for her in new TV show

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UPDATED:

21:39 GMT, 6 July 2012

Without Thelma Madine – dressmaker extraordinaire – all those big fat gypsy weddings might not have been so, well, big. Thelma, who runs a couture shop in Liverpool, had carved a niche for herself as the creator of (as she calls it) the ‘blingiest’ dresses in existence, even before Big Fat Gypsy Weddings came to our TV screens.

As the show became more and more successful – and the dresses became more and more audacious – Thelma emerged from under the skirts to become quite the TV star. Earlier this year she brought out her autobiography, which was almost as dramatic as anything her clients in the travelling community could offer. A failed marriage, single parenthood, money problems, even a stint in prison for benefits fraud – it was all there.

Now Thelma, a no-nonsense Liverpudlian, has her own show. So successful has her business become that she needs to move to bigger premises. And she needs new staff. In the new show she embarks on an ambitious project to recruit those extra workers from the travelling community.

Watch the feathers fly as Thelma tries to hire traveller girls to help on her new show

Watch the feathers fly as Thelma tries to hire traveller girls to help on her new show

‘Everyone told me it couldn’t be done,’ she says. ‘Travellers didn’t make good workers, they said. More importantly, women travellers wouldn’t work, because they never had traditionally. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to prove something. Being able to support myself saved me. I wanted to pass that message on to some of the girls because the more I saw of them, the more I came to think that some of them never had a chance.’

'Being able to support myself saved me. I
wanted to pass that message on to some of the girls because the more I
saw of them, the more I came to think that some of them never had a
chance’

The experiment sounded simple. Thelma would take on ten traveller women – most of whom had never worked a day in their lives, and some of whom had left school at the age of 11 – and train them as seamstresses. ‘Things are changing for women travellers. It used to be that divorce was unheard of, but now it’s creeping in. Women are finding themselves on their own, with no means of support. No employer would touch them because they were supposedly unreliable. I thought, “If I can’t give these girls a chance to prove that wrong, no one can.”’

But things don’t go exactly as planned. When the girls turn up for Thelma’s mass audition they are spectacularly late, and wearing possibly the most unlikely interview clothes ever. ‘We said dress to impress – and by God they did,’ she laughs. One girl pitches up in hotpants, knee-high socks, red stilettos and a beret. ‘Which would probably rule anyone out of an ordinary job,’ concedes Thelma. ‘But I liked her style, and the whole point of taking these girls on was that we are making dresses for exactly that market. They know better than anyone what they want to wear.’

Thanks to Thelma the dresses for My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding were big and beautiful

Thanks to Thelma the dresses for My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding were big and beautiful

Things don't go to plan when the girls turn up for Thelma's audition

Things don't go to plan when the girls turn up for Thelma's audition

Harnessing that creativity is one thing, but getting the travellers to adapt to an office proved to be quite another. ‘I knew most of them hadn’t finished school but I was gobsmacked at how behind they were. Some of them didn’t know the days of the week. I’d say a dress had to be made by next Wednesday, and they didn’t know how many days ahead that was. Some of them couldn’t tell the time.’

But before the girls could be taught, they had to be made to stay still. ‘They were feral – it’s the only way to describe it. When they were left alone for a minute in the auditions they started chasing each other all over the room. Even the ones we took on had no discipline. There were actually punch-ups. At the start I’d launch myself in and try to sort things out, but by the end I was saying, “Oh, go on, kill each other then. Just tell me when you’re done.”’

Slowly, and often painfully, Thelma does impose order. ‘It was a joy to see them make progress. I started to see that some of them were dead clever, underneath it all.’

With all the froth and fluff her dresses represent, Thelma, a mother of two, seems an unlikely person to be banging the feminist drum, and she recoils from the suggestion. ‘I don’t want to be doing any overt feminist thing, but I’ve seen enough of the travelling community to realise a lot of the women don’t have a chance. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be homemakers, I just want them to realise that if they can earn their own money, they’ll always have choices, and I know that from bitter experience.’

Warm, motherly, tough and feisty – you can see why the girls have come to trust Thelma. ‘I think the fact I haven’t had a charmed life helps,’ she admits. ‘I’ve been to prison – so I’m the last person in the world to judge. I know life isn’t a fairytale. When they come to see me for their wedding dresses, these girls are swept away with the happy side of it all. But sometimes I see them years later and the life has drained out of them. It doesn’t have to be like that.’

Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, tomorrow, 9pm, Channel 4.