In 2012, the first episode of “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” premiered on TLC. The show was a spin-off from the British reality television series entitled “Britain’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.” It promised to showcase the marriage customs of “Gypsies” or Romani Americans, and ran for six seasons before it was canceled. Immediately after its release, the show aroused criticism for misrepresenting Romani Americans, and encouraging the bullying of gypsies and Travelers, particularly since its poster campaign featured the tagline “Bigger, Fatter, Gypsier.” Although the show stopped airing after its 6th season, it continues to attract criticism for the alleged damage it caused to the image of Romani Americans, by portraying violence, vulgarity and early marriages as features of Romani culture.
A typical episode in the show featured gypsy families organizing their children’s weddings, going through the normal motions of wedding planning by picking the wedding dress, organizing venues and the wedding menu, and ensuring that the customs of Romani Americans are upheld. In some instances, drama arose when disapproving parents tried to sabotage weddings between gypsies and non-gypsies, or when love triangles threatened relationships and weddings. The show’s success led to a spin-off focusing on one of the families it featured, and produced a reunion episode showing where some of the cast members were, years after their weddings.
The reality television series focused on multiple brides and families from different Romanichal clans, or of Irish Traveler descent. The only permanent cast members were Ellen K, the narrator; Sondra Celli, the designer who worked with and dressed brides, birthday girls, and women planning other events; and several members of the Stanley family, who returned for several episodes across all six seasons to plan and celebrate the weddings of several women from the family. Every now and then, a news article about one of the cast members, a resurgence of the allegations of racism and misrepresentation of Romani Americans, or a memory of the show prompts its fans to wonder where the cast of “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” is today.
One of the features that made the show unique and set it apart from other wedding-themed reality television shows, was its unique wedding dresses, which were made exclusively by Sondra Celli, one of the show’s main cast, who graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She traces her interest in fashion to her mother, Yolanda Celluci, who owned a bridal store in Boston, and pioneered the sparkly embellished gowns in which Sondra specializes. After graduating from FIT, Sondra practiced her craft in New York before leaving the US for Italy and later Hong Kong, before returning home to start her own studio.
Sondra first worked with gypsies when she was overseas. She designed sweaters, added bling to them, and had some department stores in Italy and Hongkong stock them. She got her first order from Gypsies, but did not know anything about the group that ordered her sweaters in droves. She only got curious when she realized that most of her orders were going to stores along one street. Upon investigation, she learned that the stores belonged to gypsies who were enamored by the embellished clothes she made. When she retured to the US, Sondra had the make a choice between making clothes for the mass market, and branding her clothes and designs as couture. She chose the latter, and has continued to make clothes out of Swarovski crystal since deciding that gypsies would be her primary market.
It's #GypsyWedding Friday! Encore episodes @ 1p/12n on TLC & don't forget to pick up a DIY Bling Kit to add sparkle to your holidays! Order here: http://www.beaconadhesives.com/sondra-celli-bling-kit/
Sondra’s bold decision, her friendly relationship with gypsies, her understanding of their love for color, and the loyalty she’s cultivated from them in her years of making dresses for their special occasions made her the most suitable designer for the show. In the series, she lived up to her title as the self-proclaimed queen of bling by creating whimsical, over-the-top-gowns that ticked all the boxes on the show’s brides lists, earning her global recognition and expanding her fan base beyond the US, Italy and Hong Kong. She remained the sole designer in the show’s six seasons.
Since the show ended, the queen of bling has appeared in other television shows, created and shipped her signature crystal embellished gowns all over the world, and written a book. Sondra’s delivery of impeccable wedding dresses for the show earned her a spin-off entitled “Bling It On.” The show showcased seamstresses and rhinestone cowgirls or “blingettes”, in the process of creating the masterpieces that Sondra delivered to clients for their big day. The show was canceled after one season.
Sondra recognizes the racism that is often directed at gypsies, and is often quoted defending her clients against allegations such as having extravagant weddings, and investing in expensive wedding gowns while living in trailer parks. She first came to the defense of Romani Americans in 2014 – when asked how gypsies can justify investing a lot of money in wedding dresses, she cited their culture, stating that gypsies are status-oriented and want to marry in a dress that no other person had seen. Three years later, she defended the group again, after revealing that a wedding dress can cost up to $30,000, stating that culturally, gypsies moved around a lot, and therefore wore all their possessions on their body, making jewelry and clothing some of the tools they used to store their wealth.
In addition to designing clothes, Sondra is an author, having written the book entitled “Bling! The Uncommon Couture World of Sondra Celli”, which features her extraordinary designs. Sondra encourages people to embellish their clothes on their own, and has partnered with Beacon Adhesives to manufacture and sell adhesive glue and bling kits for people who love her designs, to bedazzle their clothes. Sondra’s creations have appeared in my publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, New York Magazine, New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe.
The Stanley family was featured in several episodes of “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.” Mellie, one of the Stanley sisters, stood out from her family after continuously rejecting the gypsy lifestyle, and expressing her desire to escape it. Mellie and her fellow Stanleys secured a spin-off show entitled “Gypsy Sisters”, after gaining fans who were interested in seeing more of the family. Mellie was married twice before the show – she eloped with her first future husband, Danny Cooper, after knowing him for a few months, but left him when he became abusive and locked her in the house to prevent her from returning home. In 2004, she married another man who was as abusive as Danny. When she became pregnant, he beat her up leading to a miscarriage. Mellie planned her third marriage in the show, marrying Robbie Yolk in the first episode of “Gypsy Sisters”, in a flashy gown befitting the opulence and extravagance with which gypsies were associated in the show. Although the gown was made by Sondra Celli, Mellie designed it herself, incorporating her colorful personality by making the bodice pink, and her animalistic personality by incorporating a leopard print in the frills of the bejeweled wedding dress.
True to form, Mellie’s marriage to Robbie only lasted a few weeks but yielded her first child, a son named Richard Joe Whetzel Stanley. Since the show ended, Mellie has entered other relationships, with some leading to marriage. She entered her most recent marriage in 2017, when she wed George Lee. In the same year, she was arrested alongside her husband, accused of fraud by using counterfeit coupons to make purchases worth $18,000 at Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us. In 2019, Mellie pleaded guilty to two felony counts of criminal possession of a forged document, and theft by deception. She was sentenced to five years’ probation, and required to acquire her GED as one of the conditions of the sentence. Mellie was pregnant at the time of her sentencing, and now has four children; Richard, Brandy, Divinity, and Serenity, however….she has since divorced George Lee, and is raising all four children alone.
Mellie’s sister, Nettie is the matriarch of the Stanley family. She eloped as a teenager and married against the wishes of her parents; in the show, she gets her dream wedding. The mother of nine lives with her large family close to a gypsy community comprising nieces, nephews and grandchildren; she’s ow married to Huey Stanley. After a long stint on “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” and “Gypsy Sisters,” Nettie walked away from television and the spotlight, to raise her family in private. Her departure from the spotlight was accelerated by the loss of her stepson, who was stabbed to death after an altercation in the parking lot of a local YMCA.
Sisters <3 pic.twitter.com/80rtsDEKDb
— Nettie Stanley (@NettieGypsy) January 9, 2014
Nettie maintained a low profile by making her social media such as her Instagram private, despite gaining a large following after appearing in two reality television series on TLC. She shares occasional snippets of her life with her fans, for instance in 2021, she shared pictures of the new house she and Huey were building. After a long absence from the public eye, she hit the news headlines early this year when she found herself on the wrong side of the law. In January 2023, Nettie was arrested and put in police custody on charges of conspiracy and fraud. According to records, Nettie is a pre-trial felon whose bail was set at $13,000. Nettie was arrested alongside her husband, Huey Stanley, who is facing similar charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit a felony.
Other Gypsy Brides
While the Stanley family brides dominated the reality series and returned for several episodes, several other brides were featured on the show. Although most of them are relatively unknown, unlike the Stanleys, some update their fans on their lives after their grand weddings. Priscilla Kelly was a teenage bride who worked with Sondra to design a dress to wear to a party, where she would meet potential suitors – fans remember Priscilla for the memorable and over-the-top “heart” dress she wore to the event. She has since abandoned her dreams of finding a husband, and pursued a new dream of becoming a professional wrestler. She adopted a new name, Gigi Dolin, and joined Toxic Attraction, a professional stable in World Wrestling Entertainment WWE). She has built a favorable reputation and large following among wrestling fans and is touted as a promising star in the women’s division of WWE. Gigi has over 430,000 followers on Instagram.
Another memorable moment in the show occurred in its second season, when Ana married Linda in the series’ first same-sex marriage. Ana overcame several obstacles, from lack of acceptance within her community for being a lesbian to wondering whether disapproving relatives would show up for their big day. Fortunately, the wedding went off well, and the couple set off to their supposedly happily ever after – unfortunately, the union didn’t last, and Ana and Linda are no longer together. Currently, Ana is a correctional officer.
Finally, most fans will remember the time when a bride took a tumble when wearing an exquisite turquoise gown that weighed 95 pounds, about 45kgs. Eden, the bride, married Elvis in the second season of the show; barely a year later, Eden and Elvis were arrested after she stole a purse belonging to a bride on her wedding day, using her position as the maid of honor to steal the purse, which contained $1,000 meant for the couple’s honeymoon, and the wedding rings. Following the arrest, Elvis was charged but Eden was set free. A year after the incident, she revealed that she’d lost custody of her children to the state, after her mother-in-law told the authorities that Eden had left them all alone. She is allowed to visit them, and is reportedly working hard to regain custody and live with them full-time. Whether she has custody of her children now remains a mystery, since Eden hasn’t posted an update.