The appeal of the original British series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is an interesting mixture. Sure, part of it is that old-fashioned reality show voyeurism, the kind that fueled Jersey Shore and the multiple addiction shows sprinkled on TLC and Lifetime. But there’s also something genuinely interesting and culturally relevant buried under all that gauze. As Ryan McGee remarked in his original review of the series, the travails of a historically persecuted and socially separate group like Romanichal Gypsies are interesting beyond just gawking at the members' sartorial choices.
Like its British predecessor, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding focuses more on the increasingly elaborate and absurd garments that the community wears to various ceremonies—not just weddings, as the title suggests, but also baptisms, first communions, and grand Halloween parties—than the dynamics of the group outside of those celebrations. But outside of the frills and event planning, American Gypsy Wedding offers up interesting glimpses of the strict rules and social norms that the Gypsy community lives by. Viewers of the original series will be familiar with the seemingly contradictory set of regulations: From elementary school up, girls dress like lower-level hip-hop video hos, but aren’t allow to be alone in the same room with a boy until marriage, which is usually in their mid- to late teenage years. After the wedding, women are expected to stay home to clean and take care of the children while their husbands go out and work. Weddings, and parties in general, really, are an apt focus for the show. They’re bright spots in a very regulated world, the only times when girls are allowed to mingle with boys and cast aside their household duties.
The couple featured on the finale of American Gypsy Wedding illustrates an exception to the standard teenage wedding. Nettie and J.R. eloped when they were 16 and 17, escaping their parents’ scrutiny and the pomp of a church wedding. They now have three children, and live with J.R.’s parents, sister, and her kids. Their wedding has all the trappings of the typical ceremony, but with none of the tension. The people that American Gypsy Wedding featured the rest of the season were jumping into an unknown life at a young age, ushered over the precipice on clouds of tulle and glitter. For Annie and J.R., the future is less uncertain. Their anxieties are primarily fashion-related. Nettie wants to have the yacht-sized wedding gown that’s typical of these events, in gold and white. It’s so large that it requires its own truck to be shipped down to her Maryland home, and at 100 pounds, it weighs more than she does. It comes complete with a pageant-level crown and expansive veil. The look is a combination of Princess Diana, junior prom, and someone attempting to smuggle a dozen children out of an orphanage under their hoop skirt.
The go-to purveyor of the outfits that spangle the show like an overenthusiastically bedazzled ice-skating costume is Sondra Celli, the American answer to Thelma Madine. On the British series, Madine doesn’t make many comments on her clientele, declining to reveal the prices for the expensive garments or speculate on the good or ill of their lifestyle choices. Because Americans love a good complaint here and there, Celli indulges the confession camera with more of an insight on the demanding schedule that making enormous dresses requires. Often with less than a week’s notice, Celli must churn out an extravagant outfit that takes a full team six days to execute. This comes with some eye rolling and the occasional “Couldn’t you have called me a week earlier?” but Celli gets it done. It’s clear that she finds the Gypsies she works for as alien as some of the viewers of the show do. “Everything is done in extreme,” she says. “Their children are never children. They’re men and women in waiting.”
The scope of American Gypsy is wider than the British series, which leaves more room for shock value Last week’s episode showed a Virginia woman named Annie, an old maid at the age of 26, who married her first cousin. “Our family believes in incest,” she asserted. What her family wasn’t thrilled about? The couple living together before marriage, of course. The same episode included an attempt at a lesbian Gypsy wedding, one that was shunned by the majority of the community. These are played out for the spectacle to some degree, but there’s also more room to show diversity in the Gypsy community. The finale’s other plot follows Chris, a Ludar Gypsy from Bosnia who settled in the Atlanta region. He’s saved up to afford a lavish baptism for his four children, the eldest of whom is 9 years old. Celli drives down from Boston to deliver the white outfits, stiff with rhinestone crosses. “I made sure to include a sexy element,” Celli explains, keeping the 9-year-old’s dress off the shoulder. The newborn, Bella, has a pacifier with 1,120 crystals on it, and shoes that make Dorothy’s sequined slipper look beige in comparison. The ceremony is over the top, and gawking at the garish clothing in the church is part of the pleasure of watching it, but there’s an undercurrent that’s more moving than I expected. Chris looks close to tears, thrilled to be able to finally afford a proper introduction into the church. Now he has to start gearing up for his little girl’s wedding, in what will likely be in less than a decade. This is the frustrating, and tantalizing thing about American Gypsy Wedding. There’s a world that we get to glimpse, but not quite enough of it. There’s too much frosting, and insufficient cake.
- The fight J.R. got into in the club is another example of the brushes with prejudice that happen on the show occasionally. It may have just been the editing, but the guy who socked him looked like he just came out of the blue.
- The little kid outside of the baptism was priceless. “Who can afford that nowadays?” he says of the outfits. “They were Gypsies? I did not know that.”
- Another example of the Gypsy gender double standard is the rules on drinking. The men are clearly adept at it, and the women are banned from sipping a drop, lest they spin out of control. When Nettie flouts that rule and has a bottle of wine at her “bachelorette” party, it was strangely adorable to see full-grown women tipsy on a sip of champagne.