“Murphy Village was the holy grail for us,” said David Herman, the executive producer of the TLC network show that claims to provide viewers a glimpse into the lives of American gypsies.
Almost all of the show’s episodes feature Romani and Romanichal families – those descended from European gypsies, whose origins can be traced to the Indian subcontinent. Sunday’s episode, however, focuses on a North Augusta couple with connections to the Irish Traveler community, a distinctly different culture from the Romani people.
“The Irish Travelers were the ones that were the most difficult,” Herman said. “The men didn’t want to talk to us at all.”
The episode tells the story of Tamara and Bill McKown as they prepare for their wedding, which took place in December at the Kerry Court home of Bill’s mother, Mary Jo McKown.
Tamara, who is originally from Tennessee, is portrayed in the show as an outsider who is intent on marrying into a Traveler clan. Instead of marrying a Traveler girl, her fiance has stepped outside the norm and decided to marry a “country person,” as non-Travelers are called.
Much of the episode is devoted to Tamara’s efforts to adapt to Traveler customs.
“The whole film is about that,” Herman said. “Will she be accepted?”
McKown said that although she did plan an elaborate wedding celebration in the Traveler tradition, the key to her acceptance was the birth of their son, Jackson, in July.
“They understand that he is our son and we intend to raise him as part of this community,” McKown said.
She said there has been mixed support of their involvement in the show. Although some of the Travelers helped with wedding preparations behind the scenes, almost all of them refused to appear on camera.
She said a lot of people in Murphy Village are nervous about how they will be portrayed. The insular community that straddles the Edgefield-Aiken county line rarely invites this type of attention. Members usually get notice from the media only when one of them has a run-in with the law.
McKown said her neighbors are hardworking people and she hopes the episode – which she hasn’t been allowed to see – will treat them fairly.
“I don’t think I can watch it,” she said. “I’ll just record it and watch it later. Then it will be over with and everyone will have already seen it.”
McKown said the next major step for her in becoming part of the Traveler community is to convert to Catholicism.
“That is definitely going to happen,” she said. “We are already working on having Jackson baptized in the church very soon.”
Still the couple doesn’t intend to fully embrace the Traveler lifestyle. Her husband, whose father is a “country person,” moved away from Murphy Village for several years and doesn’t go on the road to work as most of the men in the community do, she said.
“Bill is going to go back to school in the fall,” McKown said. “He has a choice in how he wants to live. Some don’t.”
A central part of each episode is having an expensive wedding dress designed by Boston dressmaker Sondra Celli, McKown said.
“I already had a dress for my wedding, but (the producers) said I had to get another one,” McKown said. “That was part of the deal.”
Herman said Celli plays a key part in the show because she was the person who introduced the show’s producers to most of the families featured.
Herman said they found Celli, who is known for making elaborate and outrageous dresses for gypsy brides, after about three months of unsuccessful attempts to get access to gypsy families in the United States.
“She started making introductions. She trusted me, and they trusted her,” he said.
McKown said when she renews her vows in December it will be in St. Edward Catholic Church, in Murphy Village, and in the gown she bought before getting involved with the TLC show.
“I will finally get to wear my own dress,” she said.