Identity Interview My Story

Thelma Madine: Being in Prison Opened My Eyes

Today we have had the absolute pleasure of interviewing TV’s most recognised Liverpudlian dressmaker, Thelma Madine. Best known for her star-role in Channel Four’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding as well as her own series Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, Thelma is a successful mumtrepreneur who is so driven and passionate for her job that she even has her own bed in her factory! Here Thelma talks to us about the trials and tribulations of the travelling way of life, as well as an insight to her personal battles and her views on bullying and discrimination.

Ditch the Label: Hi Thelma, thank you so much for taking the time for an interview with us! What do you think about Ditch the Label?
Thelma Madine: It’s an absolute pleasure! I think it’s absolutely brilliant what you are trying to do and achieve and I support it completely.

Ditch the Label: Excellent! Moving straight onto your new-found-fame in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, did you realise how successful the series would be when the programmes first started?
Thelma Madine: I’m not being funny but to be honest I think I did. I’ve always been able to ‘dine out’ on it as the travelling culture is very interesting. So I knew that people would love it and want to know more about it and understand their way of life, I think the programme has opened doors for them.

Ditch the Label: Obviously, your clients are renowned for being discriminated against and have been pigeonholed into a niche category; do you feel that both programmes project them in an honest and realistic light?
Thelma Madine: I think it does to a degree – a lot of programmes have been made about the travelling community. It shows the bad parts as well of course, but that’s what you get in every culture. The travelling community like to tell you a story, everyone knows of a traveller that has ‘done them wrong’ in the third person, and before the programme people ignored them. Whereas since both programmes have been aired, people come and shake their hand, and they receive tweets and facebook messages saying that people are glad they’ve got to know them and see them in a different light. This is important as I think parent’s and other influences effect your view towards these people, even my own parents told me to ‘never to look a gypsy in the eye as they will curse you’.

Ditch the Label: Do you think it is important that gypsys are given equal opportunities and are treated the same as everybody else? Or do you think it is important that they are recognised in their own right as a minority group?
Thelma Madine: Oh most definitely I think that they should be given equal opportunities. In Thelma’s Gypsy Girls I have trained some lovely kids who have a different kind of patience, and they should be given the opportunity to learn such skills just like everybody else. I think it is important that they are recognised in their own right in terms of that they should not be made to conform to what is expected of them, i.e. the Government want to put them all in houses but it is not what they are about and I don’t think we should try and get rid of their culture, it’s their way of life. It would be boring if we were all exactly the same.

Ditch the Label: We’ve established from both Channel Four series’ that the feeling of a community environment is essential to the gypsy way of life, do you feel part of this community through your work, or still an outsider?
Thelma Madine: Erm, I don’t think I’d ever be fully accepted as I’m not a born traveller, but I do feel they welcome me into their community, like they trust me and things like that – if they want things done by a none-traveller then they’ll come through me which makes me feel really honoured.

Ditch the Label: Thelma’s Gypsy Girls marked a shift away from old ways of gypsy life, especially towards the change in the role of the female within the gypsy community. You experienced a lot of back lash… Do you think that the travelling community are ready to break away from their stereotypes and dated ways of organising society?

Thelma Madine: I think that some of them are ready to break away, the younger ones definitely are, and a lot of them want to be educated and stay on at School. They get a really bad time at School and are seriously bullied and I think most of them want to break away. I learnt so much when the girls came (discussing the girls featured in Thelma’s Gypsy Girls) and they broke my heart and I cried, some of them couldn’t even tell the time. It needs to be changed. I don’t think their community should be destroyed but I do feel it needs to be brought up to the twenty-first century.

Ditch the Label: Moving on to your life as a successful businesswoman, recent statistics indicate that of all self-employed people, only 27% are female. This figure is much higher than ever before, but have you ever experienced prejudice in your own working life? Are there barriers to entry for women in business still?
Thelma Madine: I don’t think it is as bad as it used to be, but women are always looked at as second class citizens when it comes to business as people think women are incapable of running a business successfully. I’m lucky in the respect that in my line of business it isn’t dominated by men and my employees are female, so I’m pretty lucky.

Ditch the Label: Thelma, what drives you to be successful? Do you think it is important to surround yourself by a close-knit community of people?
Thelma Madine: Yes. I don’t think anyone can do it alone. Who you surround yourself by is so important, the people I work with are as passionate as I am about my business, and you need that for a business to be successful.

Ditch the Label: On a personal level, in your autobiography Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker, we learn about your imprisonment for over ten thousand pounds worth of benefit fraud back in 2001. Have you been disadvantaged or pigeonholed because of your past? What about the stereotypes associated with it?
Thelma Madine: I feel that if that had not happened to me then I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today, and if I hadn’t been through it then I definitely wouldn’t have gotten a book deal! It has helped me be where I am today and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it (minus the first week in prison as I was scared!). But consequently it has made me a better person. I met some lovely people – even a woman who was a murderer. I learnt the biggest lesson of my life and that is not to judge anyone, get to know them first before you judge them. You have to look at yourself and think what you would have done in their situation. Being in prison opened my eyes, and taught me a great deal.

Ditch the Label: If there was any message you could give to people reading this who have been bullied or discriminated for being different, what advice would you give?
Thelma Madine: Just be proud of who you are and where you’ve come from. We are all different, god made us different, so you should stand up for who you are. As for being bullied, we should feel sorry for those who do the bullying as it is their issue, not ours. In prison I was in a team of women who went round talking to people who were being bullied, and I think it is so important not to keep it to yourself, tell people you are being bullied and talk to people about it, you are not alone.

Ditch the Label: What advice would you give to a reader who is part of a minority community with strict rules and customs and is feeling like they have to conform?
Thelma Madine: I would say fight not to conform, definitely. We’ve lost so much in our society now, and when I watch travellers and the way their communities are so close, like they can walk out of their trailer and they’ve got children to play with and a community of people – you never see a traveller with post-natal depression as they’ve got so many people around them. In our society we don’t do that anymore, everyone used to know their neighbours and be sociable but unfortunately it isn’t like that anymore. People should keep hold of the things that make them different and celebrate them.
In the travelling community, even though you can tell straight away that some of the young lads are gay, they are not allowed to ‘come out’. It’s a taboo. It is so sad that the gypsy suicide rate regarding this matter is triple the national average. I once met two lovely young twelve year old boys who have both killed themselves since. I would encourage people to read a book by Mikey Walsh called Gypsy Boy, it’s an amazing read. Just believe in yourself and stand up for what you believe in.

Ditch the Label: Thank you so much for talking to us this afternoon, it’s been a joy talking to someone so down to earth.
Thelma Madine: It’s my absolute pleasure, I’m sure you’ll keep up the great work at Ditch the Label. I have a lot of work to do so I’m just going to crack on and do it, I’ll be staying in my bed here in the factory tonight!