When the United States attempts to makes its own versions of hit U.K. shows, we always seem to fail (The Office notwithstanding). America’s Got Talent has given us no Susan Boyle equivalent, and we remember the mercifully short-lived U.S. Coupling primarily as a cautionary tale. And so it was with trepidation that I learned that my precious My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, a British reality show highlighting the over-the-top celebrations, traditional gender roles, and midriffs of the U.K.’s Romany Gypsies and Irish travelers, was due for an American makeover.
But My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which premiered Sunday on TLC, is as horrifying, bizarre, and compulsively watchable as the original. Subcultures are a staple of reality television, hence the (waning) popularity of Jersey Shore and the unstoppable Real Housewives franchise. This one takes the standard elements—lots of makeup, very little clothing, in-group idioms and behaviors—and adds a twist. The American Gypsies, like those profiled on the U.K. show, exhibit the deeply conflicting dual traditions of extreme conservativism in slutty clothing.
The show sticks closely to the structure of the British version: In each episode, there is one primary story line about a Gypsy embarking on some grand celebration—a wedding, a birthday, a christening. Our ambassador to this closed community is a dressmaker who is not Gypsy but works with them and profits from their love of Swarovski crystals and tulle. The dresses that the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding girls love are beyond costume. One U.K. bride arrived at her wedding in a gown with an Baby Phat cat, plus the brand name—spelled with two Ts—on the skirt. Another bride and her maid of honor dressed as a pineapple and a palm tree for their hen night (aka bachelorette party). The American dressmaker, Sondra Chelli, recently told the Huffington Post, “I made a dress out of wigs once.”
The British and American girls and women profiled share another fashion preference: skimpy clothes, of the variety one would think are primarily found at stores catering to exotic dancers. Yet despite the expanses of flesh on display, unmarried girls’ virginities are fiercely protected by their fathers and the rest of their families; any rumor that a girl might be “dirty” could ruin her for life and damage her family’s reputation.
This seeming contradiction is highlighted by this Sunday’s episode “14 and Looking for Mr. Right.” Fourteen-year-old Romanichal Gypsy Priscilla’s parents throw her blowout Halloween party, ostensibly to help her find a potential groom (though that angle seems to be rather played up by TLC). When we spoke, Priscilla and her family were staying at a campground in Georgia. She has been homeschooled for a couple of years now because, she says, at her middle school, “there was kids making out in the hallway, and that’s just something a Gypsy girl should not be exposed to.” When she’s not doing schoolwork—that’s usually three days of her week—she helps out around the trailer, cleaning and taking care of her autistic younger brother. This is women’s work, but it’s not her only responsibility: “A woman’s supposed to have daylight hours. Soak in the bubblebath, take care of herself, get plenty of rest so she don’t get all them wrinkles,” Priscilla’s grandfather says during her episode.
Priscilla opens her Halloween party in an enormous Queen of Hearts dress, then changes into a sexy dancing outfit of tight, sparkly shorts—with two strategically placed hearts—and a bra top with long fringe. But outsiders shouldn’t get the wrong idea, she says: She and many other Gypsy girls dress that way not because they are easy, but because they are not. That’s “kind of, like, to lure the boys in,” she tells me. “We can’t kiss or talk to them or flirt, so that’s our best way to get a boy’s attention. Plus, it’s in my blood. We just love to dress real fancy.” (In a later episode, a woman warns a younger relative to stay away from “gorger,” or outsider, boys, because they will misinterpret the way she’s dressed.)
Many a 14-year-old American girl has dressed sexy to “lure the boys in.” But Priscilla’s matter-of-fact attitude about it is somehow more discomfiting, perhaps because of the striking self-awareness it demonstrates. Most 14-year-old girls wouldn’t confess so baldly to trying to catch a guy; they would giggle and evade the question.
Priscilla is so guileless that she is heartbreaking. She has inherited all of the accessories of a sexed up American teenager’s life—the short skirts, the dancing styles—but none of the savvy that could protect her. When asked what she wants in a husband, she says that she is looking for a man who works hard, is not abusive, and embraces the traveling lifestyle—hardly the romance one expects from a girl in her early teens.
In some ways, the revealing clothes serve the same purpose as modesty-preserving dresses worn by Amish or FLDS teenage girls: They mark them as different. Priscilla’s elementary and middle-school classmates didn’t know she was a Gypsy, she says, but they bullied her because of the way she dressed. The sexy garments serve to keep them apart from their peers, while the repeated insistence that gorger boys are after one thing keeps them scared.
There is obvious producer manipulation at points in My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, and not a few participants seem to be grandstanding for the cameras, but viewers get the sense that beneath the exaggerations for the camera is the impossibly rigid life expected of traveler women. Priscilla says that she has received messages on Facebook and phone calls from other Gypsies furious with her family for taking part in the show. I can see why they are angry: Most will be upset because it does not accurately reflect their lives—while others will be unhappy that elements they would rather hide are in the open.