What is “Gypsy Sisters”?
The short-lived but thoroughly entertaining “Gypsy Sisters” was a TLC reality series, that debuted in February 2013 and served as a spin-off to “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding”. Following the daily comings and goings of West Virginia-based Romanichal women, the show’s four seasons and 32 episodes were full of drama, physical and verbal fights, and 21st-century hootenannies.
Disappointingly, “Gypsy Sisters” was cancelled in July 2015 due to dwindling ratings. The show was heavily criticized due to its stereotypically negative portrayals of Romanichal people, although one colorful IMDB review says: “They act like trash, they are slobs, they are rude, they don’t tip, they are all alcoholics, they are perverted and disrespectful… They exist.”
The Cast – Then and Now
The infamous Stanleys led such nonsensical lives that some viewers wondered if they were caricatures or real people. Nettie Stanley, the family matriarch and self-proclaimed mother hen, was Dovie, Mellie and JoAnn’s older sister and mother of nine.
She married Huey Stanley in 2004 and the couple renewed their vows in the season three finale. A glamorous blonde with a penchant for flashy clothes, she stepped away from TV following her stepson’s death, and has since made her social media profiles private.
JoAnn Wells was known for being good-natured and more level-headed than her somewhat reckless family members. The brunette was the middle sister of the Stanleys, and didn’t seem interested in a TV lifestyle but appeared between seasons two and four. In season three, the mother of two announced that she planned to divorce her husband, Belcher; the couple reconciled in 2016, but parted ways once again.
In 2014, JoAnn was arrested for a Target coupon fraud scam to the tune of $14,000. After pleading guilty, she was sentenced to two years of supervised probation, and had to pay Target $14,786 in restitution. After finding love for the second time, JoAnn has kept on the straight and narrow, and is rarely heard about.
Mellie Stanley was the youngest Stanley sister, and the family’s black sheep who disapproved of the gypsy lifestyle, but did little to improve her situation. Born in Pennsylvania in 1989, the single mother of four was certainly unlucky in love, and had at least two failed marriages and two failed long-term relationships, each of them resulting in a child.
Her children – Richard Joel Whetzel Stanley, Brandy’Wyne Leveniya Picolo, Divinity Rose Lee, and Serenity Faye West – were all born between 2013 and 2020. Mellie and one of her husbands at the time, George Lee were arrested in 2017 for a coupon fraud scam linked to Toys R’ Us. In 2019, she was sentenced to five years’ probation, with one of the requirements being that she pass her General Education Development Test (GED), effectively online matriculation.
Sheila “Kayla” Williams was another recurring cast member, and Annie’s sister. The mother-of-five was with her husband, Richard, for 17 years before their mellow divorce; she has been married twice since. Her children – Danielle, Sissy, Richard, Lexi and George – vary in age, although the oldest two girls have now formed families of their own. If things weren’t complicated enough, Kayla’s ex-husband Richard shares two sons with Danielle Malone. Danielle’s brother, James Malone, is Annie’s ex-husband and the father of Dallas’s daughters.
These days, Kayla shares cooking, cleaning, and beauty tips with her hundreds of thousands of social media followers. She has a thriving YouTube channel, and would appear to be in a happy relationship with a new guy, but hasn’t shared if she plans on walking down the aisle for a fourth time.
Angela “Annie” Malone is a surprisingly immature mother of five, known for her clownish antics, and for marrying her cousin Josh in an episode of “Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. To keep things in the family, she married James Malone after he had children with her cousin Dallas, however, James and Annie divorced.
Dovie Carter is one of the four Stanley sisters who appeared briefly in season four, and was known for being the family mediator, much like JoAnn. The brunette is inactive on social media, and there’s little public information about her life.
Laura Johnston became part of the gypsy clan after marrying Gus, Kayla and Annie’s brother, and having three daughters with him named Savannah, Hailey and Bella. She was very much a minor character, who disappeared after a couple of cameos in season one. Laura and Gus are believed to still be together.
Sheena Small is Mellie, Nettie, Dovie, JoAnn, Kayla and Annie’s first cousin. She shares four girls with Mellie and Nettie’s brother, Henry, named Shakira, Shania, Shirley and Frankie. Sheena was largely irrelevant in the show and was only seen in a couple of episodes of the second season.
Dallas Nichole Williams is Nettie’s oldest daughter, and a mother of six. Her growing brood – Demi, Richard, London, Aaron, Archie and Huey – don’t all share the same father. Despite James, the father of two of her children, marrying her cousin Annie, Dallas reconciled with her ex-lover at Christmas 2016, much to Annie’s chagrin. However, Dallas and James soon broke up again.
Nettie “Nuckie” Williams is – surprise, surprise – another controversial character known for leaving her partner, Pookie, and son, Prince Henry, to travel the world with her boyfriend, who was a heroin addict. In December 2016, Nettie returned to her family thanks to Pookie and his girlfriend Samantha. Two months later, Samantha divorced Pookie, and he gave things a second go with Nuckie. They now share three children: Prince Henry, Ivory and Delilah Lee.
From family birthday parties that turned into fist fights to language that would make a sailor blush, “Gypsy Sisters” was the reality TV equivalent of a car crash: so awful you couldn’t look away. However, it’s said that the real reason the show was cancelled had nothing to do with coupon fraud or bad behavior, but something much more sinister: a deplorable act of animal cruelty.
In July 2015, TMZ reported that Mellie and her then-husband Randall Scott Vuncannon had got into a fight over rent that spiraled out of control, and led to him killing her dog. According to police documents, Mellie was found bruised and battered in the street, and told officers that Randall had gone “crazy, picked up the dog and slung her across the kitchen as hard as he could.”
Cops found the defenseless dog tragically dead in the couple’s living room, so Randall was arrested and charged with felony animal cruelty. The show wasn’t shooting when the incident occurred and it’s unknown where Mellie’s children were at the time or if any further investigations were carried out.
The Romanichal Travelers, also known as English Travelers or English Gypsies, are a Romani subgroup mainly concentrated in the United Kingdom. Almost all the Romani in the UK live in England; most Romanichal people speak Angloromani, which is a mix of Romani vocabulary and English syntax. In the UK, there are smaller Romanichal communities in the Scottish Borders and South and Northeast Wales.
Romanichal Travelers are, surprisingly, very divided in the UK. Southern Romanichal Travelers live in South Wales, East Anglia, the Midlands, the Southwest, and the Southeast; Northern Romanichal Travelers live in Yorkshire, the Northwest, Northeast of Wales, and the Scottish Borders. Their dialects differ, and it’s uncertain if there is any animosity between the two groups as of 2022. It’s interesting to note that many Angloromani words have become part of British slang.
As we can see from shows such as “Gypsy Sisters”, groups of Romanichal people emigrated to other English-speaking parts of the world – and it’s said that there are now more descendants of Romanichal people in the US than in Britain. They can also be found in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and even in Malta, whereas most US-based Romanichal Travelers reside in the New England and Deep South regions.
Romanichal Origins & Lifestyle
So where exactly do the Romani people come from? They originate in Rajasthan and other parts of the Indian subcontinent, and in the 11th century began migrating westwards. By the end of the 16th century, the first groups of Romani had escaped conflicts in Southeastern Europe and arrived in Great Britain.
In 1506, Romani people were recorded in Scotland for the first time, having originated in Spain. They arrived in England six years later, and laws were soon passed to enforce their assimilation but prevent further Romani immigration, banned from entering England by the Egyptians Act of 1530; those already there were given 16 days to leave, and could be deported, imprisoned, or have their property confiscated if they failed to do so.
The Egyptians Act of 1554 was somewhat laxer. If Romanies switched to a sedentary lifestyle and abandoned their “naughty, idle and ungodly life and company”, they wouldn’t be punished: however, if they didn’t comply, they would be sentenced to death.
Eight years later, Romanies born in Wales and England were given the possibility to become English subjects and assimilate with the local population. However, they still led marginal lifestyles, and were discriminated against by the authorities and others. 106 Romani men and women were condemned to death in 1596, with nine actually executed. The first books were written about them by Samuel Rid in the early 17th century, and thankfully, anti-Romani laws were slowly repealed from 1780 onwards – the Romanichal identity was born between 1660 and 1800.
However, there’s still a long way to go: as of 2008, Romanies experienced the highest degree of racism of any minority group in the UK, asylum-seekers included. Polls also indicated that up to a third of UK residents admitted to being prejudiced against them.
— Gypsy Sister Kayla (@kwilliams_gypsy) November 23, 2014
As early as 1544, Romanichal people were deported to Norway by Elizabeth I, then James I, and other rulers. A 1603 Order in Council called for the Romanichal people to be transported to France, Spain, Newfoundland, the West Indies, and the Low Countries. It’s believed that the Romanichals so banished to these countries became slaves, and lost contact with the rest of their ethnic group.
After the American War of Independence, many Romanichal were also deported to Australia with convicts of other ethnicities. James Squire, the founder of Australia’s first commercial brewery, is believed to have been one of the three Romanichal carried by the First Fleet. His grandson, James Farnell, became New South Wales’s first native-born premier in 1877.
There are only fragmentary records that describe the harsh conditions they faced, but these suggest that transportation was physically and psychologically tough for the Romanies. Once exiled, there was little hope of them returning to England. Henry Lavello is the only recorded Romani who was repatriated with a full pardon, and returned after being transported to Australia.
Romanichals were shipped to North American plantations by Oliver Cromwell’s government in the 17th century, where they toiled away as indentured laborers. Later on, English Romanichal people were enslaved in Barbados, Jamaica, Louisiana and Cuba by freed blacks.
Agricultural work was where Romanichals excelled: during the spring, summer, and autumn months they would work on farms – sowing seeds, planting fruit trees and potatoes, weeding, and then harvesting crops. The hop industry is particularly known for employing thousands of Romanichals. During the winter months, they would move to the outskirts of towns, and work doing casual labor or selling their wares to neighbors.
The mass industrialization of agriculture left thousands of Romanichals out of work, as their jobs disappeared. They switched to fortune telling, selling goods, collecting scrap, and hawking. Notable Romanichals include the boxers Billy Joe Saunders and Henry Wharton; the famous footballer Freddy Eastwood is another.
“Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” and other similar shows became hugely popular in the early 2010s, but were particularly criticized by Romanies and Romanichals for portraying their people negatively. The intrigue and popularity surrounding traveler culture began in February 2010, when the one-off documentary “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” won Most Groundbreaking Show in that year’s Cultural Diversity Awards. Episodes of the first series were also slammed for showing young girls wearing full-makeup and dancing inappropriately.