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April 28, 2011: It's one sweet dress: RF mom spends six years working on prom outfit

<i>Judy Wiff photo</i> The theme for River Falls High School's prom is "Candy Land," so Tara Frey will fit right in with her dress made of Starburst candy wrappers. Her mother, Kerrin Frey, started work on the project six years ago after watching a friend make chains out of folded gum wrappers. The prom starts at 7 p.m. April 30 in the River Falls High School commons.1 / 2
<i>Photo courtesy of Gina Morrow</i> Last year Tara Frey wore a long black dress to prom. This year the senior is going for a shorter more colorful look. She, her mother and friends have spent countless hours collecting Starburst wrappers, folding them and fashioning chains into dresses, shoes, a purse and jewelry.2 / 2

"Not many can top this," declares a Los Angeles Times headline. A Twin Cities television report proclaims Tara Frey and her date will be "the prom's sweetest couple."

A television network reporter says the River Falls High School senior won't have to worry that another girl will show up in the same dress. And right alongside a story about Britain's royal wedding on the ABC News website is a video about "The Sweetest Prom Dress."

Just Google "Tara Frey Starburst" and you'll see that the story about the teen and her mom's "crazy idea" has gone viral.

Last year Tara wore a long black dress to prom, but this year her dress will be short, colorful and made of Starburst candy wrappers.

So will her shoes, purse, jewelry and headband -- depending on how she does her hair for Saturday's prom. So will the vest worn by her boyfriend, Zane Heinselman.

Tara's outfit was six years in the making as dozens of friends and acquaintances crewed free Starburst candies with strict instructions to save the wrappers and not rip them.

The idea was born in 2005 when Kerrin Frey watched her friend and fellow hockey mom, Joan Doyle of Plymouth, Minn., while away the time between and during games folding gum wrappers and making them into long chains.

"She just does it 'cause she has to stay busy," said Kerrin, who dismissed the gum-wrapper motif as too bland and decided to make a dress out of brightly and many-colored Starburst labels.

Kerrin's only daughter Tara, who turns 18 this week, was in sixth or seventh grade when her mom decided that a Starburst prom dress was in the girl's future.

"I kind of had to sell her on the idea," admitted Kerrin.

That was probably the easiest challenge. Kerrin asked Doyle to teach her to fold the wrappers -- which is not as easy as it might sound.

Consistency and care are vital, said Kerrin as she demonstrated the process she, Tara and Doyle have perfected. Each wrapper is folded eight times. A tweezers is used to make the tiny final three folds.

The family contacted the candy company to see if they would get just wrappers, but were told no.

Bags of candy at a time

So they started buying bags of candy, often 20 at a time, and handing them out to friends and acquaintances, at sporting events and even at Halloween -- asking people to eat the candy and return the unripped and flattened wrappers.

"There were so many people saving wrappers that didn't even know us," said Kerrin.

As the folding progressed, the women produced chains as long as 100 feet, but they didn't keep track of how many bags of candy they used, how many feet of chain they made or even how many clear plastic bags of wrappers they still have in their basement.

They do know, though, that the wrappers from one 14-ounce bag of Starbursts make 12 inches of chain.

"A lot of people helped fold," said Tara, but her mom did by far most of that work.

When it came time to form the chains of wrappers into a dress, the Freys called on their friend, Paula Korbel, an interior designer.

"She just has an eye for stuff like this," said Kerrin. An eye and a lot of patience.

The trio started out buying a simple black dress as a background for the wrapper chains, but the first dress had too much give and sagged with the weight of the wrappers.

The second dress, a greenish-yellow, seemed sturdy enough but lost its shape when hot glue was used to attach the wrappers.

Korbel thought a flapper-style dress might work, but it didn't. A couple more dresses she made by hand fell flat.

In the end, they developed a two-piece outfit with a separate bodice and skirt.

"It took us six dresses before we got it right," said Kerrin. "But after we had the plan, it actually went smooth."

"After about the third dress, Mom was getting kind of nervous," said Tara, who simply went with flow.

'I could take a bullet'

What does the dress feel like on?

"I feel like I could take a bullet," said Tara. "It's a little heavy, but you know..."

She's not worried about the dress falling apart half way through prom. "It's a suit of armor. I got it covered."

With the dress done, Kerrin went shopping for shoes and brought home a gorgeous pair of sparkly gold heels with the intent covering them with papier-mâché.

"They're way too cute, Tara. I can't do it," she told her daughter.

So despite Tara's protests that she doesn't wear stilettos, Kerrin is saving the shoes until the girl changes her mind. Same with the second pair.

Kerrin found the third pair of shoes Starburst-able, but between the hot glue and the papier-mâché, the shoes tightened up.

So although Tara said she could make it through prom night with tight shoes, Kerrin bought and decorated a larger pair.

"You can't have uncomfortable feet," she declared.

The two admit that Tara's dad, Tim, never really got into the paper prom dress thing, though he did offer a couple of suggestions.

His idea to arrange the colors in a pattern by making every tenth link purple fell on the deaf ears of women who'd already made yards of chain.

"He thought we should add a train," laughs Kerrin. Her reply was, "Tim, that's for weddings, not prom."

Then about three weeks ago, after Tara, Kerrin and Korbel worked all afternoon, Kerrin worked on the bodice until 11 p.m. and Korbel added blue ribbon trim, the dress was done.

Then it was on to the hair band, bracelets and several styles of earrings with no end in sight.

"This is so far over the top already, who cares?" said Kerrin.

After Kerrin's former classmate, Boyd Huppert, broke the story on KARE 11, the family was deluged with calls and e-mails from radio stations, website reporters and national news shows asking for interviews or photos.

"It's been crazy in a good way," said Kerrin.

"We'll probably not hear about half of it," said Tara as friends call to say that another news outlet has picked up the story.

She was surprised when the Eau Claire Memorial soccer team captain slipped her a Starburst as the teams shook hands after a recent match.

While her prom date doesn't seem real excited about the attention, he'll be fine, said Tara.

"He knew what he was getting into," she said. "He's just going with the flow right now. I'm just lucky he's willing to do it."

Kerrin's not really sure what she'll do after prom is over. They still have lots of wrappers and some ideas. She plans to make Starburst ties, both straight and bow, for her son Trent, who attends school and plays hockey at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. She'll probably try a few more styles of purses.

"We have the wrappers; we might as well," said Kerrin.

Still, she remembers the warning her friend Korbel offered: "You're going to have to detach yourself from those wrappers."

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.