'I'm glad I went to prison, I thoroughly enjoyed it': Big Fat Gypsy Wedding's Thelma Madine says time in jail for benefit fraud helped her understand the travellers who made her rich
12:03 GMT, 23 July 2012
It is hard to imagine the ever immaculate dress designer Thelma Madine doing time in a dingy prison cell.
But the glamorous blonde spent four months in prison in 2001 for benefit fraud after being caught out claiming benefits of 10,700 after she had started to make money from her dress business.
Naturally the mother-of-four missed her family, but amazingly the Liverpudlian insists she actually enjoyed her time in prison.
Good time: Thelma Madine says she enjoyed her stint in prison, meeting people she wouldn't have met normally. 'I'm still friends with a man who murdered her husband,' she says
She says: 'I'm glad I went to prison. I know it sounds wrong but I thoroughly enjoyed it; I mixed with people I would never have met normally and I saw the other sides to their stories.
'I am still friends with a woman who murdered her husband.'
Thelma started claiming benefits after the break down of her marriage 17 years ago.
While still receiving benefits to look after her then three children Thelma started a business making old-fashioned Christening dresses with two rolls of fabric bought for her by her aunt.
Soon her creative designs were getting noticed and the business started to take off while Thelma continued to claim.
She ended up serving four months of the one year sentence after being caught out several years later.
Go-to designer: Dressmaker Thelma has forged a special relationship with the traveller community – thanks in part to her experience in jail, she said
She says now that being separated from her children and long-term partner was the hardest part of the experience. Thelma told the Observer:
'I remember the prison guards saying: 'You're not here for punishment now – the punishment is you being taken away from her family.'
'And they were right; I spent most of my time in the gym.'
Today Thelma is close to her family, and her daughters often appear on her Big Fat Gypsy Wedding spin-off show Thelma's Gypsy Girls.
Now she puts all her energy in to making her dressmaking business a success after becoming the go-to designer for the travelling community.
And she admits that her spell in prison and subsequent ability to empathise with the Gypsy women who crave her outlandish designs is the one of the keys to her success as a business woman.
She says 'I only served four months but it was the making of me. I’m not proud of what I did but I learned when I was inside not to judge.
'That is why I’m supportive of the travellers. They get knocked from pillar to post. Yes, there are a few bad ones, like any group in society, but most of them are decent people.'