Back in February, I made a promise to myself that I would never watch Channel 4 again. I was to stage a one man boycott against the channel that had chosen ratings over human beings, the channel that appeared to have the sole aim of promoting derogatory ethnic stereotypes of the Romany and Irish Traveller communities. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – it had become the bane of my existence. So sick I was of people asking me if “oi’d grab that”, that I wrote an open letter to Channel 4 to highlight the inaccuracies of their ‘documentary’.
For those of you who know me, you’ll remember ‘that letter’ and the absolute media bombardment that followed. I got those five minutes of fame I had never wanted, yet something quite spectacular happened – it seemed I had actually rattled the cage of Channel 4, indeed Nick Hornby replied with his own open letter addressed to yours truly. For a brief moment I was hopeful that the reign of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was finally over but alas, it soon became clear that a teenage Gypsy could never take on the Goliath Channel 4.
Almost five months have passed since that weird and wonderful part of my life, and here I am again, sat here the morning after Channel 4’s new ‘documentary’ Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, feeling even more disgusted with the portrayal of my culture. Yes, I admit it, I cracked – last night I watched Channel 4. After witnessing the reaction to the ‘Pikey Apprentice’ unfold on Twitter, I had to see it for myself, and what I saw was yet again another outrageous, fictional, and covertly racist documentary from Channel 4.
Thelma Madine, who dubs herself ‘the Gypsy dressmaker of choice’ (she’s not), is ‘risking everything’ to become fairy Godmother to poor, oppressed, illiterate, Gypsy girls. Acknowledging that her new found ‘z list’ celebrity status is down entirely to the Irish Traveller community, Thelma wants to change the life of Gypsy and Traveller girls forever by teaching them the valuable skills of dress making. This is a scheme that Thelma has had in the pipeline for some time, indeed she told of me of her plans over a year ago, just before she blocked me on Twitter for questioning her integrity (that hurt, Thelma babes, that really hurt).
Thelma’s plan to employ and train ten Romany and Irish Traveller girls is in fact highly commendable. She insists she wants to give back to the community that ‘made her’ and seems quite aware of the barriers to education and employment, faced by the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, stating:
“Hopefully with this we could educate other people about them - if they’ve been good here, if they’ve turned up every day….well it shows they are reliable doesn’t it.”
“If they do turn up every day they’ll be able to walk out of here and get a job…well maybe not with their attitude”
What’s that Thelma? Oh, that’s just one of the insults against the girls that you’re ‘risking everything’ for, that is casually thrown around in episode one of the Thelma show. Indeed when breaking the news to staff, she delivers the good news that they are employing ten new girls and ‘the bad news is that they are all travellers’. When one member of staff questions why this is bad news, Thelma replies ‘you come back to me and say that in three months when they’ve been here’.
It came as a surprise to me that Thelma should think so little of the Romany and Irish Traveller girls she will be investing so much time and effort into. Indeed, throughout the documentary it became very clear to me that Thelma has little respect or knowledge about the communities that she believes are so besotted with her. Her first outrageous claim is that any woman who chooses to stay at home, rather than work, will never feel good about themselves. In fact, these woman are instead controlled by men, they are oppressed, they have no voice, and they need saving by her fairy dust. It seems to me that Thelma’s opinions are shrouded with ethnocentrism, as she cannot seem to comprehend the idea that Romany and Irish Traveller women take on the role as the ‘homemaker’ through their own freewill.
Indeed, ethnocentrism is a problem faced by many minority cultures, as the Western World with all its education, liberation and democracy, is of course the one true culture that all must follow and abide by (starting to sound a bit like religious extremism here!!!). If there is one thing that the media don’t want you to know, it is that behind closed doors, it is the Romany and Irish Traveller women who are ruling the roost. Certainly in my own experience, women are at the heart of the family and Romany boys are brought up to respect women, and to provide for women. This does not mean we view women as weak and incapable, but as the people who take on the hardest job of all – motherhood.
Women are the most valuable asset to the Romany people, as without them our culture would not have survived thousands of years of discrimination, a Nazi extermination, and attempts of forced assimilation. I have no doubts that our culture would be dead, if we had chosen to send our children, at the tender age of 2 weeks old, into state run institutions which serve only to promote the values of the white middle class. For that, I am thankful to every Romany woman, yet I see it not as a sacrifice made to please their husbands, but as the most commendable, unselfish and natural job a woman could ever take.
Yet, there are Romany and Irish Traveller woman who do chose to enter the world of education and employment, and in my experience it is something that is not so uncommon anymore. Within my own family I have an aunty who is a social worker, a sister, cousin and aunty who are hairdressers, a cousin who has ambitions to become a professional dancer, and a grandmother who is a business owner. Thelma Madine believes her scheme is a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that has never been offered before. She is of the opinion that ‘no one gives Travellers a chance’, yet this is misplaced arrogance. In fact, there are a number of academic scholarships, internships, and courses aimed at young Romany and Irish Traveller people, offered by much more prestigious organisations than a Scouser’s dress shop.
For a woman who claims to be firmly on ‘team Gypsy’, it was somewhat shocking to hear her slanderous statement that the Romany and Irish Traveller communities are all ‘racist’. According to Thelma, the communities ‘look down’ on those who cannot speak English, pointing to anecdotal evidence that the children of her Romany and Irish Traveller customers have discriminated against her staff, half of whom were born outside the UK. This discrimination consisted of, wait for it….. “Why can’t you speak English?”
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but unless this is the comment of a child raised by skinhead neo Nazis, then surely this questioning is nothing more than the bluntly phrased questions of a child discovering the uniqueness of British society? While Thelma is quick to brand these children racist, she seems to ignore the fact that her own, eight year old, daughter Katrina is guilty of this exact behaviour. Indeed, whilst reminiscing of the day she was first asked to make a Gypsy dress, little Katrina tells her mother that she ‘should have just said no’. It appears to me that Katrina doesn’t rate the Romany and Irish Traveller communities highly, an attitude inherited from her mother.
It would be foolish to suggest that racism isn’t present within the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, as intolerance to difference is found amongst all walks of life, yet to brand two entire communities racist seems slanderous. It is not Romany and Irish Travellers who are marching through towns displaying the emblems of the EDL and BNP, instead that would be mainly white, ethnically British people. It seems almost ironic to suggest that right wing nationalism has a place within the Romany community - an ethnic minority without a homeland.
As a second generation immigrant, I find it ironic that Thelma suggests that I hate people who cannot speak English, after all I speak mainly Bulgarian at home and my Grandmother’s attempt at the English language is somewhat inventive and comical. Excluding a few sanctimonious ‘Gypsy Kings’, I have never been ‘looked down’ upon by my fellow Romany and Irish Travellers. In reality, the majority are either interested to learn more about my Bulgarian ancestry, or not bothered by my ‘foreignness’ at all.
So what exactly is Thelma’s angle? She claims to be doing this to give back to the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, yet her words suggest something entirely different. Could it be, as I predicted over a year ago, that her sudden passion to give back is fuelled purely by money? Thelma’s own daughter, Tracey, was seen warning her mother that she had taken too much on and seemed perplexed as to why she would want to put her comfortable life ‘on the line’.
Indeed Thelma was keen to show off her luxurious, five bedroom house, complete with indoor swimming pool. Parading to the cameras, her ‘bling’ and expensive furniture, Thelma claimed she loved everything about Gypsy style. Yet, her garish furnishings seemed a world away from the reality of my trailer, let alone the homes of my family situated in Bulgaria’s Gypsy Ghettos. As Thelma dropped Katrina off at her private preparatory school , I couldn’t help but think that if Thelma had just said no as her daughter had suggested, darling little Katrina wouldn’t be skipping off to school, straw hat in hand.
According to Thelma, she has put every single penny she has into this project, yet this money is not being spent on her ten new Romany and Irish Traveller staff, but on the refurbishment of her new premises. Thelma has made it clear that these positions stand only for six months, thus it seems somewhat perturbing to invest over £30,000 pounds on a temporary training course. It appears that the transfer to her new premises was planned off the back of her Big Fat Gypsy Weddings success which has surely increased interest and demand for her unique designs.
Thelma openly stated that her passion to help the Romany and Irish Traveller communities had put her £36,000 over budget. It’s quite ironic that Thelma mocks her ten new employees for being school ‘drop outs’ as Thelma, herself, quite clearly needs to head back to school and resit GCSE Maths. Despite her supposed debts, I’m positive it won’t have a detrimental effect on her comfortable lifestyle as I am sure she has been compensated generously for her appearance on Channel 4’s latest ‘documentary’. What is more, I’m certain she can squeeze another book out of her new project, in between counting the thousands of pounds she charges for her creations.
I am willing to throw my hands up and apologise if I have misjudged fairy godmother Madine, yet I am positive that she most definitely is not on the side of the Romany and Irish Traveller communities. The project itself could have provided a new and exciting opportunity for the girls who were picked, but due to Thelma’s longing for money and fame, these girls have been paraded in front of the cameras as an excuse to induce humiliating, degrading and abusive comments over social networks and the media. If Thelma’s heart was truly in the right place, she would have had the decency to conduct her training away from the public eye. Instead all Thelma has proven, is that she is the most dangerous ‘spokesperson’ for the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, and one of the biggest threats to our fight for equality.