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Hairdresser Helen retiring a cut above the rest after 61 years

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Teasing – that’s the secret to every good up-style, according to 76-year-old hairdresser Helen Tracey. 

And, Helen should know, she’s been creating them since she started the profession more than 61 years ago. 

So, when she hangs up her scissors and packs away her bobby pins for the final time later this month, it’ll be with sadness that she says farewell to an industry that has both blessed her and been blessed by her. 

Helen is retiring in March after selling her salon in Boolaroo to an Adamstown Heights hairdresser who was looking for a change of scenery. 

The timing, she says, is right, her shoulder has been giving her “a bit of grief” of late. 

But, leaving behind six decades of cutting, styling, brushing, washing, teasing and perming, was never going to be easy. 

Helen has pampered thousands of men, women and children during her career, at times she’d cut and style handfuls of clients in one shift. 

Hairdresser Helen Tracey and her daughter Jen, who has also worked at the salon since 1988.

What began as a six-year apprenticeship at Petite Salon in Broadmeadow in 1961 has led to a lifelong joy in an industry she has weathered through many trends. 

A childhood dream

“I always wanted to be a hairdresser, right from when I was a little girl,” says Helen. 

“We lived in a house full of relatives because I was born not long after the war when everyone lived together. Nobody had houses of their own back then.  

“My uncle Alby had this bit of hair left on the top and he used to let me put bobby pins in and anything I could find that I could rake through this bit of hair. 

“By the time I was 15, I had just left school and I desperately wanted a hairdressing job, but there was nothing much about. It was back in the days when apprenticeships were almost non-existent.” 

Luckily for her, Helen’s dad was a bookmaker at the Newcastle Racecourse who had connections. 

She soon began working Saturday mornings under the guidance of salon owner Faye Wallace. 

Petite Salon, Broadmeadow

“The first Saturday morning I worked there I thought I can’t do this, it was shocking because once they opened the chemicals, the smell was horrendous,” recalls Helen. 

“I had to put this slimy cream on somebody’s head, and I thought, ‘oh, I’m going to faint’.” 

She got on with the job, and after impressing the boss with her skills, was asked to stay. 

The job was an eye-opener for the young teen. She’d made the move from the classrooms of Hamilton’s St Aloysius Girls High School to a hairdressing salon with ties to the racing world.  

“I used to think if I went home and told mum and dad the things I heard and saw in that shop I definitely would have been told I couldn’t work there,” says Helen. 

“We used to get a ride home of an afternoon with Faye’s husband, he’d pick us up and there’d be two apprentice jockeys sitting in the back, we were riding with the racing game and I’d just come out of a convent school.” 

As hairstyles changed Helen grew from shy teenager to a ‘chatty’ hairdresser. 

fashion event
An example of a popular hairstyle of the 1950s

Hairdressing trends over the years

Through the smooth curls of the late 1950s to the big bouffants of the 60s, the up styles of the 70s and the perms of the 80s. 

“When I first started, we didn’t even have conditioner, we used egg shampoo,” Helen told the Newcastle Weekly

“It used to take us probably 10 minutes to comb through hair that had been bleached.

“You’d roll up the hair soaking wet in rollers and leave them under the dryer for 40 minutes, some of them could be up to an hour appointment, which was a big deal back then.” 

It was up styling she excelled at. 

“The secret is in the teasing – the high up styles and the bouffant – it’s all in the teasing.” 

By the time she returned to hairdressing in 1976 after having two daughters, Helen’s view of the occupation, from a chair at Darryl Ferguson’s salon, was different. 

“Hairdressing over those years revolutionised,” she says. 

“Everything had changed. 

“The art of hairdressing had changed. Hairstyling had lost its glamour, lost in the coloring.” 

That was until the perm. 

“For me it was all about the perm. I didn’t mind how many perms I did, that was my favorite hair,” she says. “Back when the perms were in, we just permed, that was what we did all day, every day.” 

Boolavarde Hair Design, Boolaroo

A move to Boolaroo in 1988 meant from its Main Road salon, Helen’s clients at Boolavarde Hair Design could catch a bird’s eye view of happenings right from their chair. 

“You could look in the mirror and just watch everything,” says Helen. 

“There’s a lot that goes on out here. I can tell you it’s quite a funny little town. 

“There’s been lots of interesting things take place here over the years.” 

Being a hairdresser for 61 years means Helen has watched many trends come and go.

Generations of loyalty

While generations of families had Helen cut and style their hair at the address over the years, for Helen it became a chance to offer a snippet of love to those she felt needed it. 

“I’ve got family in here that I’ve been cutting hair for, for generations. 

“I’ve got one beautiful boy, he’s 30 now, and I gave him his first haircut.”

Giving back 

“I’ve been on my own for 30 years and this job has kept us alive and I’ve made some beautiful friends. 

“I’ve been able to put a bit into people, too. 

“I’ve lived through a lot of miracles over the years, lots and lots, and I’ve probably also returned those miracles to other people. 

“I had a lady say that to one time ‘I don’t know what I’m paying my psychologist for, I should be just giving you the money. 

“She would come in weekly when I was working at home when the kids were little, I knew she was going through domestic violence. Every two or three weeks her earrings had been ripped out, or she had holes where the hair had gone behind her ears. 

“She used to come and just talk.” 

Hairdressing hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Helen either. 

“There’s been times when I’ve thought I’m gonna have to get out,” she admits.

“During the recession I was being asked to write out a cheque on a Friday afternoon knowing I wouldn’t have the money until Monday. 

“And, then COVID and we worked through the first lockdown, but not the second one. We had to shut down for three months. 

“But, God has kept me here all these years.” 

“Honestly, it’s been the absolute best thing, and I don’t want to give it up, I don’t want to stop, but I’ve got this shoulder. I just can’t keep going.” 

Helen Tracey will work her final shift at Boolavarde Hair Design on 15 March.

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