I’m always interested in what makes communities tick and find that one successful ingredient is the presence of a number of very special people who generously give of their time and who selflessly dedicate themselves to fund raising for others.
One such lady is warwickshire businesswoman Jenni Fuller. Jenni started her business, ‘Bodies & Co’ 37 years ago. It began as a network of regular fitness and weight management classes held in groups throughout Warwickshire delivered by a team of carefully selected fitness instructors. As part of this, for the first two years, Jenni initially staged an annual ‘Slimmer of the Year’ awards event and then saw a need for something more inclusive of all the ladies attending her classes as some came for fitness and not weight management.
She settled on the idea of an annual fashion show showcasing the designs of local fashion retailers from Warwick, Leamington Spa and Kenilworth with the profits from ticket and raffle sales going to charities nominated by the models she used to stage the show.
“Over the years, we have helped so many different local charities some of which were Air Ambulance, Help for Heroes, Myton Hospice, the local branch of the NSPCC, Steph and Geoff who run the local soup kitchen for the homeless. Also Molly Olly’s Wishes, Young Carers, and many, many more. I honestly couldn’t say how much we’ve raised as I don’t have a record going all the way back over the 35 years that we’ve been doing this.” said Jenni.
The fashion show, which in recent years has been held at the Spa Centre in Leamington Spa, attracts around 1200 people over the course of two evenings in November. In 2013, Molly Olly’s Wishes and Young Carer’s were the beneficiaries of the profits of £14,000 which were shared equally between the two.
There is a loyal following to the shows each year complemented by a regular influx of new fans all of whom report back on having enjoyed a hugely entertaining evening. With a full house every year, it is not hard to contemplate the scale of fundraising that has been achieved over the 35 year period.
The road to November starts much earlier in the year though. “We start planning the show around March time, when we start throwing ideas around for music and scenes, and have 3 or 4 sessions when we just listen to music to make the selection. We start off with 100’s of tracks and then have a short list and then the final cut. It is difficult to assess exactly how many hours the whole thing takes to organise” explained Jenni.
One of the unique features of the fashion show is that all of the models are all also volunteers. They range in age from 6 to 77. “When we started all those years ago, we had about 8 female models and 1 male model and it has slowly developed to what we have today, which is 22 ladies, 9 men, 12 children and 10 teenagers.”
Reflecting on why this group of 53 people give up their time so freely, Jenni puts it down to the pleasure they get from raising money for the charities, the camaraderie of being with like-minded people for 9 weeks of rehearsals and the enjoyment of performing and dancing on stage. She says that the group is very close, are all friends and socialise a lot all of which helps inject that special ingredient into their performance.
The models are mainly non-professional models although there are a couple who model professionally too. Jenni recalled that, “A few years ago we had a model that was tall, beautiful and an excellent model and went on to be a top model doing shows in Paris and Milan. We are still in touch with her but unfortunately she lives too far away to model on our shows now”.
There can be a number of hurdles to overcome along the way. Finding good models, particularly men, can be a problem. In addition, finding good choreographers to write the routines and also the extra 100 people needed to help operate the shows (ie doormen, chaperones for children, raffle ticket sellers etc) is a significant task not to be underestimated.
As the dates for the shows draw closer, Jenni and her great friend and co-organiser Sheila Brown, then turn their attentions to finding advertisers for the programme, organising and running the rehearsals efficiently, finding sponsors, selling tickets and liaising with the retailers providing the clothes for the shows.
It is a way of life for Jenni whose children are all grown up with children of their own although both generations have been active participants in this incredible hive of energy and activity that surrounds Jenni’s approach to life.
“I have a close family of 2 daughters and 1 son and 7 grandchildren ranging in age from 2 to 19 years of age. They have all been involved over the years in helping me with the show.
My son used to model in it as a teenager and my late husband was very involved and called himself ‘the sleeping partner’. He died 19 years ago. He was so tolerant and supportive of my involvement, which took up a lot of time. We always have an after show party at my house on the Friday night with about 50 of the models and partners and friends which goes on till dawn usually, and he was up early clearing everything up moving around the numerous bodies sleeping in all the downstairs room. I miss him so much. 3 of my Grandchildren who live locally have modelled and two of them still do. They came in at a very young age and Louis who is 17 is still there this year which will be his last as he is off to university next year. Lily 14 years old came in at 3 years and is still modelling.”
Undoubtedly a herculean task and one that is very evidently greatly enjoyed, when asked what she considered to be her greatest achievement Jenni has no hesitation, “All the money raised for charity.” Amazingly, this fantastic event has continued for 35 years now and shows no signs of stopping.
For tickets Jenni can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01926 492183. This year tickets will be available for £13 and the show takes place on Thursday and Friday 13th and 14th of November at the Spa Centre. For those unable to attend but who would like to make a donation to this years’ charities – The Royal British Legion – visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/BodiesandCo2 and the Children’s Air Ambulance – visit www.justgiving.com/BodiesandCo1.