Half a century of sparkle

Gabrielle BundyCooke knew from an early age she wanted to be a hairdresser

Judith Lacy






It’s the early 1960s. The setting is a Taranaki farmhouse and Gabrielle How knows the routine. Every Saturday night her mother sets her hair for church in the morning. Gabrielle sleeps in the rollers. Hair always had to be done well in the How household. The hair setting started when Gabrielle was 6. She got her first perm when she was 8 for Aunty Margaret’s wedding. Gabrielle’s great-grandfather did barbering on the ship that brought him to New Zealand then set up a barbershop in Waverley. As a little girl, Gabrielle had only one career goal - to become a hairdresser. And so it came to pass with Palmerston North opera singer Kathi Craig last year calling Gabrielle the “leading lady of hairdressing”. Gabrielle Bundy-Cooke is best known for owning elite salon Spectra in Palmerston North. As she reflects on 50 years of hairdressing, she says she still seeks ways of making today better than yesterday. “Hairdressing has been a tool for me to be and do for people what I can.” In January 1972, she started her sixmonth pre-apprenticeship course in Palmerston North at the Modern College of Hairdressing. The course was worth 1000 hours of her 6000-hour apprenticeship. In October 1972, she started working at Antonio Beauty Lounge in Hawera as owner Anne Squires’ first apprentice. “I just loved it, I never thought ‘this is hard’.” She was on $13 a week, an above award wage. There was no Saturday shopping then but there would sometimes be Saturday clients going to a function that night. Bundy-Cooke got paid double as the client paid double. “We always had the ability to earn an extra dollar or two.” She says in 1972 hair salons could be smelt from streets away but to her it was a sweet smell. “I wanted to be in that place. I wanted to make ladies look and feel beautiful.” The second of four children and the eldest girl, Bundy-Cooke grew up on the well-known sheep farm Highlands near Eltham. She went to Catholic girls’ boarding school Erskine College in Wellington for three years. Academically she struggled but excelled in drama and left at the end of the fifth form aged 15. In her final report, the nuns wrote “Gabrielle is best to focus on something that requires no academic ability and hairdressing is maybe just what she will do.” She recalls her mother reading the report and saying “if I could get my hands on those nuns”. “She was so upset but I didn’t even know what it meant, I was going to be a hairdresser.” Bundy-Cooke says her parents, Selwyn and Betty, were great parents who believed in her. “Mum always said ‘whatever Gabrielle sets her mind on doing she will do well’.” Despite the nuns’ assessment, she did well with the theory side of her apprenticeship. She wanted to know what happens to the internal structure of the hair, and why a client doesn’t suit a particular style. Over the years, Bundy-Cooke has told many apprentices they can choose the words that impact their life. She says being a mother of three and a foster mum to two has helped her care for her young staff. So much has changed in hairdressing since the 1970s but Bundy-Cooke says what she learned in her apprenticeship has carried her through her career. Hairdressing has given her friendships and trips overseas. At 66, she plans to continue working until she is close to 70. Until her physical body gives up or she doesn’t remember what to do she will keep going. “It’s what I love to do, it’s where I get my energy.” Hairdressing fills her emotional tank. She relates to the whakataukī that people are the most important thing in the world. In January 2021, she sold Spectra but rents a chair there. In 1976, she moved to Wellington to work at Dawn Atkinson’s salon in Kirkcaldie and Stains department store. Think white shoes and white smocks with her name on. Then came her OE. “My dad always told me ‘with a pair of scissors in your hand my girl you will always have an income’ and really he was so right.” She worked in Amsterdam. It didn’t matter she couldn’t speak Dutch as she would use pictures and body language to communicate. After living in Berkshire with her English husband Jeff Bundy-Cooke, they returned to Palmerston North in 1990 to an economy that was struggling. She set up Gabrielle’s Mobile Haircare visiting clients in her black Honda City. There were no cellphones then so Jeff would take the calls and pass on messages via the radiotelephone in her car. At Easter 2003, Bundy-Cooke received a call from a real estate agent asking if she would be interested in purchasing high-profile George St salon Spectra. Her reaction was “no, I could never run a business like that”. She used to cross the street so as not to walk in front of the salon. “I thought it was out of my league and I just looked at it from afar.” As the weeks went by and with further encouragement, she changed her mind and bought Spectra Hair & Body from Michael and Kate Miers. In 2009, Spectra was named the Hairdressing Industry Training Organisation Training Salon of the Year. Her Christian faith is important to her. She says she knows she is anointed and appointed by God to be a hairdresser. She loves learning, praying, and worshipping and she leans on God. “He’s my strength and my foundation.” God gives her so much and trusts her with much but expects much too. “He’s given me the desires of my heart because I love going to work each day.” This doesn’t mean she only has positive emotions. She stumbles every day and has learned to ask for forgiveness and say sorry. Her faith is Christ-centred not focused on “man-made rules”. Former staff member Sam Su’a wrote when Bundy-Cooke sold Spectra: “You have a special gift to inspire people to be the best version of themselves.” Aimee Bergerson, who also worked at Spectra, wrote: “You sparkle and are one in a million.”