At 15 I was a snow-white blonde Cinderella. At 16 I was one of the ugly sisters.
The life I expected to have was gone. It was like this other person had been growing inside me and now she surfaced. She was heavier than I was and had dark body hair – not blonde – and this girl grew hair everywhere: on the arms and legs, on the chest and back and it stood out like fence posts on my fair skin.
Like most women of her generation, my mum knew about electrolysis. Though, when I say electrolysis, that meant thermolysis back in those days. Anyway, mum would take me down to Sydney to see this Hungarian woman who did electrolysis and tried to keep the worst of the hair on my face under control but there was always more of it than we had the time or the money to deal with.
At 18 I saw an endocrinologist and was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). At the time it was thought that PCOS could be cured by removing part of the ovaries and I was desperate enough that I had them do it. You then had to take cortisone to suppress the hair growth and the side-effects of that were just awful. I had to give it up. I hadn’t tried to have children at this point so, for me, the hair was by far the worst of the PCOS symptoms. I went back to electrolysis and worked nights to pay for it but by now I was growing thick dark hair on my breasts and abdomen and doing 2 hours a week of treatment as well as shaving. I couldn’t get away with letting it grow even for a day so I’d shave and pray to the gods no one would touch my legs or arms and feel the bristles.
At 20 I moved to New Zealand and by this time the hair on my chest was starting to get a bit out of control. I worked in a restaurant and nearly died when I was told I needed to wear a scooped-neck uniform. Then my worst nightmare came to life. One of the chefs started yelling to his mates in the kitchen, “She’s got hairs on her chest. Hairs on her chest!” The devastation was complete. I wanted to melt into the floor.
I kept on with the thermolysis but it barely kept things in check and there was no end to it. I had heard that electrolysis was supposed to be permanent but, after all this time, I had to admit it was the same hairs growing back all over my body.
In my social life my body hair was always the point of attack for those who saw me as a rival. A lot of guys could deal with it but it was just too easy for other women to focus their spite on it. After all, they were women too and they didn’t have this problem so they thought they had every right to call me out as a freak. In my early 20s I did a cruise from Venice through the Black Sea and around the Greek Islands. This was going to be my dream holiday. I hung out with a group of Australian guys. It was great. They were in their 40s and looked after me like a daughter and I felt safe. Unfortunately, any woman who wanted to get to know the guys thought they had to dispose of the 20 year old first. In the middle of pre-dinner drinks this woman screams, “Oh, my god Noreen. Look at your hairy arms!” I was mortified. I ran off to my cabin and cried all night.
By the time that cruise was over however, it was a different Noreen who got off the ship. The last of the self-pity had burnt away and I had built an impenetrable wall to guard my emotions. Nobody was going to hurt Noreen again. After all, I was now the life of the party! The hilarious, outrageous, in-your-face character who simply had to be top of your invite list. Of course, nobody could get to know a character like that and I always went home alone.
I was 23 years old when I finally gave up the endless travel and came home. The week I got home my brother died in a tragic road accident. It got through my emotional wall and I couldn’t deal with it. I wanted to run away to New Zealand again but I had timed it perfectly to arrive home with absolutely nothing in my purse and had to ask my parents for a loan to get away again. They refused. Instead, they offered to put me through a beauty course. They had been doing some homework and thought even, if I turned out to be a lousy beauty therapist, I could at least deal with my own problem. I suspect they had planned to persuade me to do this anyway. Now it was more arm-twist than gentle persuasion.
So I did the beauty course and it was there that I met my life-long friend Beverly. There was never a more unlikely pair of Beauty Therapists than us. At the end of the course all the girls were offered jobs but us and I had no idea what I was going to do. But then one of the girls decided to open her own salon in Gladesville. None of the other girls must have been interested in taking on this risky job because she asked me to join her. Just two weeks in she’d had enough and left me with a business I didn’t have a clue how to run.
I was working out of a room at the back of a hairdresser which turned out to be a disaster as the staff insisted it was still their lunch room even after I had spent $500 of my parents’ money doing it up. Something had to give and fast. Fortunately the landlord had a room to spare above the shop so I moved up there. Thank god I knew nothing about business. In the first week I grossed $11 but in the second week I turned over $20. I had almost doubled my turnover! I was so excited I rang my parents to celebrate. Heaven knows what they thought but they managed to keep it to themselves.
I took a weekend job as a beauty therapist with Weightwatchers and worked nights pulling beer at the pub all to keep my business going. After 18 months of this, working virtually around the clock, the business was finally able to support me. I was doing single-probe electrolysis back then as well as facials and nails but it was really only hair problems that interested me. Someone would come in with problem skin and I’d be thinking, “Oh please! What’s the big deal?” Someone would come in with a hair problem and they’d get my undivided attention. I could identify with how they felt.
8 years of this and I sold the business but sunk everything I made into opening a bigger salon further out in the suburbs and tried to specialise in hair. I threw all the energy I could muster into it for 13 years but I still had people coming back to me for treatment 7 years after they started. I had one of the busiest clinics around but this caused me no end of frustration and on top of it all the gangs moved in. 50 to 100 kids would be roaming the street at night and breaking in where they pleased. It all came to a head one night with me and my staff locked in the back room in fear of our lives. I couldn’t go back.
By now I had tentatively started a second business in Drummoyne focusing exclusively on hair and this is now where I put all my efforts. Even so, by 1990 I had hit a wall with single-probe electrolysis. I thought, “If this is really permanent hair removal then I’m out of here.” I had always believed that if you tell a client this is a permanent treatment then at some point you have to tick the box and say, “You’re finished. You’ll never need to see me again.”
I decided then and there I was going to get on a plane and travel the world until I found an answer. If it turned out there wasn’t a permanent treatment for hair removal then I’d be finding a new career. I know it’s hard to conceive of today when the Internet has put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips but in those days you had to go and find the source of knowledge. It didn’t come to you.
The first thing I found was a course in Tennessee for teachers of electrology so off I went to Memphis. There I met some of the people who ran the big beauty schools in America and I asked them the questions that clients had asked me.
But most of all I was asking, “How do you make it permanent?”
The answer was short and unequivocal: “Oh, you need galvanic for that.”
“Galvanic? What on earth is that?”
In Australia we had never been taught the difference between galvanic, thermolysis and blend. It was all simply electrolysis. The training here was that poor.
Now I finally had my compass pointed in the right direction. At a conference in Atlantic City I met the guru of multi-probe galvanic electrolysis, Kay Lasker. She is in her 80s now, but Kay had single-handedly revived galvanic electrology, updated the equipment and ensured it didn’t become a lost art. She invited me to Philadelphia to do her course and to see her equipment.
I arrived back home as the all-conquering hero with two galvanic machines in tow and ready to save the hairy girls of Australia. Of course, it’s never that easy. I had a lot of trouble calibrating the machines. I’d have to deal with electrode burns and all sorts of problems. Help, in the end, came from the most unlikely source – my clients. Some of them were engineers and doctors and for them this was a challenge they could put their knowledge to work on. I persisted. My gut instinct told me galvanic multi-probe was the answer. And then, finally, results! Clients are finishing! I’m ticking the box! Wow, I’m over the moon!
Together, I think my helpers and I knew more than the Americans by then and I was invited back to lecture on hair removal methods. This helped me learn too because the amount of research you need to do to write a lecture series is horrendous and each time I would finish a paper I would rope in my friend, Doctor Tish, to vet the paper and make sure my simple explanations weren’t changing the meaning of words and methods. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on this but these papers ended up being the greatest leaning tool for myself and are largely why we now have such a solid electrology teaching base in Australia.
I was on the board of the international educators when it was setting up a standardised curriculum for hair removal and I wrote several chapters of the manuals we published in Japan and America. I was invited to join a research unit for the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic was doing research into hair and this included hair removal. It was so satisfying being able to pass on the knowledge I had fought so hard to learn myself and collaborate with people from such different backgrounds as we set about discovering even more. Back home, I helped organise the first chapter of Clinical and Medical Electrologists in Australia and tried to do all I could to make galvanic electrology happen here.
Then laser hair removal hit the market and it threatened to wipe out galvanic electrology just like thermolyis and blend had in the 1950s. Laser was fast; it was a “trendy” technology; and, on the ideal client, could keep hair at bay for almost a year. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If you had good contrast, that is, dark hair and light skin, a treatment might last longer than thermolysis but it was a lot more expensive and most people don’t fit that “good contrast” category. Plus it still wasn’t permanent when permanent hair removal is what I’d dedicated my life to.
A few years later the “laser refugees” started coming through my door. These were people who had put their faith and money into laser treatment only to find, in the long run, they had more problem hair than when they started. For them, not only had the lasered hair eventually regrown, the laser appeared to have triggered much of their fine peach-fuzz hair to go terminal and grow back as dark, thick hair.
These clients, many of them young women, would often be in tears. They had tasted what it was like to believe they had solved their problem for good only to have their body betray them again. For many in the industry, however, by now it was too late. Many electrology businesses had closed and these clients were left with very few places to turn to.
My dream today remains the same as the day I finally found my answers: that no person with unwanted hair will ever have to walk the road that I walked and that a treatment for permanent hair removal will always be available for anyone who wants it. To that end I continue my research: looking for ways to improve the efficiency of equipment; reduce levels of discomfort; reduce recovery times. They say if you practice hard enough at just one thing you can be perfect at it. For me that “one thing” turned out to be permanent hair removal. What’s yours?