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  • Amy Farrugia

My Meeting With The Fat Bird Mafia

It was 8:30 am on a cold Thursday when Jo Cooke and Alison Law picked me up from Shenfield train station. The Curves & Couture car pulled up sharply to the curb, and I immediately recognised Jo’s platinum blonde buzz cut from my earlier Facebook stalking. I bundled myself in after several failed attempts to successfully open the car door. I had pitched myself to them as a young, intelligent, up-and-coming freelance writer, so you could say I wasn’t exactly off to a flying start! I shared the back seat with boxes, clothes and make up cases. We were off to a photoshoot, and these women had come totally prepared. Television network TLC were bringing their own make-up artists to the set, but nevertheless, both ladies are ready for anything.

“Straightener, in case she hasn’t got one, eyelashes, in case she’s not an eyelash queen like we are,” listed Alison from the passenger seat, “My own lipstick because I love a bright lip, I’ve got my suitcase and shoes in the back…”

This was the first time I’d met the founders of Curves & Couture Bridal Boutique, and I could already see why brides turned to them in the hunt for the perfect dress. Catering to plus-size brides-to-be, Curves & Couture’s designer dresses start at size 14 and go all the way up to size 32. TLC are set to produce a 20 episode series called “Curvy Brides Boutique”, which will revolve around the fuller figured brides who come to Jo and Alison looking for help. But after having spent a day on the set with these two firecrackers, I can confidently say the series will be about so much more than that.

'You Are Completely and Utterly Perfect' One of the many positive affirmations I found adorning the boutique.

Jo sped along the narrow country lanes, deftly drinking coffee and talking non-stop as she did so. “We’ve got this wedding in Portugal coming up, you see” she told me “The producers want us to get off the plane, put our sunglasses on and walk off like ‘Here we are!’. That’s because we’re the Fat Bird Mafia, it’s what we call ourselves”.

[endif]--What I really liked about Jo and Alison was their free and easy usage of the word ‘fat’. Like the Body Positive community, they have reclaimed “the f word” by using it frequently, and in positive ways. It is a universal truth that fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself. By regularly using the term ‘fat’, Jo and Alison are breaking down taboos and robbing ‘fat’ of its power to wound people. They affectionately call Curves & Couture “The Fat Shack”, and they repeatedly refer to themselves as fat girls. When asked what core principles are at the heart of Curves & Couture, they replied “Fat girls deserve better, and we’re giving them better”. It was an empowering statement, and no doubt this sense of emancipation from mainstream beauty standards will be captured on the show.

As soon as we arrived at The Fat Shack in question, it was all systems go. Jo and Alison knew they’d be spending the next few hours in hair and makeup, so had driven to the shoot in their pyjamas. It was clear these two were truly BFFs. Then, we all changed into comfy slippers. Except Jo. Jo changed into her version of comfy slippers, and I spent the next hour ogling them

Look at the size of the heel on these bad boys! In a way, I felt like these shoes represented a lot of what Jo, Alison and Curvy Brides Boutique were about. Screw convention. Wear whatever the hell makes you feel beautiful.

As it turned out, the make-up artist herself was getting married in two months. She was tall, slim and didn’t mind when I inevitably interrogated her about what make-up brushes were best and why. She was pleased with her dress, but mentioned she did want the waist to be more cinched in.

Alison gets glammed up

Alison gets glammed up

“Why?!” exclaimed Alison, as she was having her rollers put in. I’ve seen more fat on a chip!” We all laughed, and the bride-to-be tried to explain “Well, you know –“ she began“No we don’t,” interrupted Jo good-naturedly “We’re fat!”. Next thing I knew, one of Jo’s people came into the room and handed her a phone saying “Jo, Emma just called, she needs to speak to you ASAP. She has a situation with one of the brides”. Jo was up and outside with the phone like a shot, mid make-up session, and was gone for at least half an hour. It was clear that despite all the excitement about the new show, the brides rightfully remain top priority.

Then, at 10:15 am, Pippa arrived.

Pippa was 24, and will be getting married to fiancé Adam in September. She has dark shoulder length hair, electric purple nails and perfectly shaped eyebrows. I picked her brain as the entourage buzzed around us. From Stevenage in Hertfordshire, Pippa was only the 2nd or 3rd bride filmed for the new series when she first came to look for her dress back in January. She told me that she had visited three bridal shops before coming to Curves & Couture, and had had no luck. “The largest sizes they had were size 20, size 18, and they couldn’t do them up properly around me, plus nearly all of them were ball gown style, which wasn’t what I wanted”. After googling ‘plus-sized wedding dresses’, she found Curves & Couture, which would be the first place she could actually find a dress her size. Initially, she didn’t like the dress Jo and Alison suggested to her. But after they insisted she try it on, she fell in love with it.

Left to right: Alison, Pippa and Jo alongside the many bridal gowns Curve & Couture have to offer.

Unlike other brides featured in the series, Pippa didn’t apply to be on the show, she just received an email asking if it was something she would consider doing. It was like the universe was presenting Pippa with an opportunity. “I’m a big believer in whatever is meant to be will be, and look where it’s got me now” she told me.

Stunning bride-to-be Pippa

When I asked Pippa whether she was having a large wedding, or keeping it intimate, she said about eighty-five people would be at the ceremony, and around a hundred people would be attending the reception. She did admit to feeling a bit scared, as any bride would be, and said she normally avoids being the centre of attention. Pippa was definitely not a Bridezilla. However, I wondered if this desire to be out of the spotlight was something Jo and Alison encountered often. Recently they had a client so lacking in confidence that Jo felt compelled to hand her one of the many framed affirmations that feature in the boutique. “I said ‘Read it, take it on board’”. The more time I spent at the shoot, the more I came to understand how daunting it must feel to be a plus size bride-to-be.

'Be Fearless'

Many bridal stores will say they have plus-sized dresses available, but that often means that they are able to order them upon request. They will not necessarily have them in store for customers to try on. So plus size women often have to endure dresses being hung around their neck or simply held up to the front of them, instead of being able to try them on. Even worst, some plus size women have had dresses ‘modelled’ to them by store assistants. Understandably, many plus size brides turn to internet shopping in an attempt to avoid potential humiliation in a store. “It’s the anonymity of buying online,” Jo explains. “You enter three measurements into some boxes and avoid the stress of going into a store”. But buying sight unseen from websites can be very risky, and brides can be left with an ill fitting, cheaply made dress. Or no dress at all! Curves & Couture is clearly filling a huge gap in the market.

Left: Alison smiles for the camera Right: 'The Fat Bird Mafia'

The photo shoot became progressively more glamorous as the day continued. The brief from TLC was to get individual shots of Jo, Alison and Pippa, and group shots as though Pippa was coming into Curves & Couture for the first time. Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ was pumping out of the speakers as Alison posed for her individual shots. In between the flashes of the camera, I heard her happily exclaim “I feel a bit emosh! I’m like what is going on, this isn’t my life!”. It was such a real moment, and I found myself becoming ‘a bit emosh’ as well. It seems that success hasn’t changed these women one iota.

Alison and Jo met when their children started nursery school, and have been firm friends ever since. They started Curves & Couture on a wing and a prayer, and now they both sport matching tattoos on their forearms of their business’s insignia. “People always ask me if they are real?” says Jo incredulously “Of course they bloody are!”.

Maybe that is what viewers will be asking themselves before they settle down to watch Curvy Brides Boutique. Are plus sized brides really being treated so differently from the rest? Are fuller figured ladies deserving of their dream wedding dresses? Are these two women from Essex as bold, unapologetic and caring in real life as they are on television? Once they’ve finished watching Episode One, they’ll have the answer to all three questions. And that answer will be “Of course they bloody are!”