VALENTINA walks to the centre of the stage in a sparkly yellow dress with her hands on hips — in the spotlight, she spins and waves, blowing kisses the panel of judges in front of her.
The two-year-old is a serious contender for silverware in this beauty pageant, but her mother, Lavinia, is worried her daughter has an unfair disadvantage: she’s a Gypsy.
Lavinia with daughter Valentina, who star in the Channel 5 docuseries Here Come The Gypsies
Lavinia and Valentina’s participation in the pageant was filmed as part of the Channel 5 series Here Come The Gypsies, which delves into the ancient traditions and culture of Britain’s Gypsies and Travellers.
Despite being in the UK for the last 400 years, Gypsies still face discrimination — which Lavinia thinks will hurt Valentina’s chances in the pageant.
“I’m worried that the judges on there will see her being a Traveller, and they’ll be like: ‘Don’t let her do well’,” Lavinia says.
“She’s no different from anybody else, so why shouldn’t she do well?”
‘All Gypsies take over!’
Beauty pageants for extremely young children are controversial — but Lavinia thinks it’s important her daughter develops self-confidence.
The mum-of-two, who lives on a council-owned Romani site in Dorset, says the pageant isn’t just about appearances.
Lavinia wants Valentina to be more confident around members of the settled community than she was
“It can be very hard growing up as a Gypsy girl,” Lavinia says.
Referring to the settled community, Lavinia adds: “I did grow up, personally, thinking: ‘What will they think of me?’
“It is quite daunting, so I’m hoping I can get my little ones to be more out there — so they don’t worry about what people think.”
Lavinia explains that she doesn’t want her kids enrolled in school alongside children from the settled community for any longer than necessary.
It can be very hard growing up as a Gypsy girl
Instead, she wants her kids to be raised with values important to their heritage.
“Looking good is very important to Gypsy women,” Lavinia says.
“A lot of Gyspy girls will look their best because they think: ‘Well, I’ll look better than the next girl, she won’t look better than me.’
“So in their own way, they like to out-do each other.”
At the pageant, Valentina is judged alongside around 60 other toddlers on her appearance, performing skills, and personality.
Valentina practices poses and dance moves before taking on the pageant
And despite Lavinia’s fears, Valentina clearly impresses the judges, winning the Best Personality Jackpot as well as coming fifth overall.
After the competition, Lavinia says she’ll recommend the pageant to all her neighbours to see if they want to do it.
“And if they do I can give them a bit of help and show them the right way and stuff and get them all into it,” she says.
“And why not? All Gypsies take over!”
Racist abuse and regulations
It’s not just competitions where Gypsies and Travellers run the risk of being treated differently.
John Doe, one of the few who spends his days constantly roaming, says he faces constant harassment on his endless journey around the UK.
John Doe, left, with his son as they travel Britain’s roads on their vardo
“They hate Gypsies,” John says of the settled community in the programme.
“We’re ‘thieves’. We’re ‘this’, we’re ‘that’, when we’re not.”
He says his brightly-coloured vardo, a horse-drawn wagon in which he lives, also attracts abuse from motorists.
The film crew following him even captures drivers blasting their horns at him as they pass, while other settled people treat him with suspicion.
I can’t travel down the road and stop in the places where my forefathers stopped for hundreds of years in the past
“That’s racist,” John says.
“They’re cowards. They won’t come to your face and say anything.
“It’s always as they drive past very fast.”
John can trace his family history back to the seventeenth century, all of whom lived the same lifestyle as he does.
And while his father and grandfather spoke of extreme discrimination — being ordered to move their vardo as many as 13 times a day — John says current legislation prevents him living the traditional life he wants to lead.
Police speaking to Travellers during a horse race – some in the community feel they’re treated unfairly by authorities
“I can’t travel down the road and stop in the places where my forefathers stopped for hundreds of years in the past,” he says.
“I’m a free person. I’m not in prison.
“So why should I have to live in prison, or like a prisoner, in my own home?”
Horse dentist’s dream
The rules and regulations can be a problem for the Gypsy way of life even in death.
While the size and shape of headstones are very important in Traveller cultures, they’re often not allowed to do as they’d like in certain cemeteries.
That poses something of a problem for Diamond Jackson, another of the few remaining Gypsy rovers.
Diamond Jackson is looking all over the UK for the perfect place to be buried
After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he’s scouring the country to find the perfect final resting place after already spending £200 on his favourite coffin.
“I want, on my grave, a nice headstone, and I want to be in a nice plot,” Diamond says.
“And I’m going to be buried with three bottles of wine just in case I come alive.
“You never know do you!”
Lee Hughes shares Diamond’s struggle to find a place to do as he pleases.
Lee Hughes is a horse dentist who files down the animals’ teeth for £40 a pop
Dad-of-two Lee is living at his in-law’s house in Dorset, which goes against the traditional Romani lifestyle he dreams of.
“I feel claustrophobic in that house, I can’t stick a house,” he says.
He is keeping his unusual family trade alive, however, working as a “horse dentist” for the last eight years.
Lee charges clients £40 a time to file down their horse’s teeth. It’s dangerous work as the horses can rear up and kick – but he needs to keep the money flowing in to make his dream come true.
“I just want a couple of free acres somewhere with a couple of stables on it and for me to do as I please on it,” he says.
“I just want my little wagon or a log cabin and just be left alone.”
For now, he has to rear his horses on rented land, but he says he’d give his own life if it meant his kids could live freely in the fields like his ancestors did.
“I’d do it for them,” he says.
“That’s how much it means to me.”
Here Come the Gypsies airs on Channel 5 tonight at 9pm