Hair was big when Robyn Te Velde ventured into hairdressing. By big think two-storey beehives and masses of loopy curls piled high like a three-tiered wedding cake.
A 'do' would last a customer an entire week, with each strand glued in place by a fountain of lacquer that alone would be enough to keep a house upright.
Robyn learnt the art from her mother Val Hay, a stay-at-home mum, who - at glamorous luncheons with friends each month - would create a sculpture on top of her head so perfect that it would take her daughter's breath away. Now a world champion hairdresser Robyn still refers to her mum as a master of hair and her biggest inspiration.
"What they did back then with hair was incredible," Robyn says. "I was a hairdressing champion but I got it all from my mother. If she'd been a competitor against me I'd have come second. She was naturally talented and she did it without all the modern cons. What she could do with hair was nothing short of a miracle and all executed with finger curls."
As a young girl Robyn was firm in her vocational choice. After completing her intermediary at Smith's Hill High School she knocked back a scholarship with the Australian Ballet Company and what could have been a promising art career for a life of upsweeps and curls.
It was still very much a man's industry. Few females in the mid-1960s were hairdressers, but the explosion of the inflated bouffant changed that. Before she'd even begun her apprenticeship Robyn was an expert at spinning hair into incredible shapes for her family and friends.
Her first foray into a professional salon did not end well and she left with the owner's condescending words ringing in her ears: "A nice, clean, little girl but she'll never make a hairdresser."
That was the wrong thing to say to a teenager with fire in her belly and a pair of scissors in her hand.
"I guess I had the last laugh in the end," she says. "At the time I couldn't get enough of hair and nothing could have changed my mind."
After a series of jobs in the first two years Robyn, with the financial backing of her father, set up her own salon, hiring hairdressers to guide her through the rest of her apprenticeship.
She would go on to compete nationally and in 1974 became the only woman in Australia's first-ever international hairdressing team. She was 26. They travelled to Vienna for the group event and then on to Paris for the individual challenge.
It was an honour for the girl from Wollongong but one that was marred by sadness with the death of her father.
"He died a few days before the world championships and they waited to tell me so there wasn't enough time for me to fly home for the funeral," she says. "We were in Vienna for the team challenge and they cancelled rehearsals for the day so we could go to the Black Forest, which sounds dark but it was actually quite beautiful. It gave me time to pull myself together before the competition."
Then in Paris prior to the individual event she split her pants in the lobby of the motel.
"I had to find something else to wear and then I had to catch a taxi on my own to the competition. It was pouring rain and the taxi driver dropped me at the wrong location. When I finally walked into the room they were calling the start of the event. I raced like a mad woman out of a gun. I ended up doing an eight-minute day style in five minutes and that was enough to place me eighth in the world. The next part of the competition was turning that day style into cocktail hair, but my tongs went dead, the powerpoint wasn't working. The competitor next to me said I could borrow his, but the tongs were so hot that it burnt my model's hair straight off at the roots. It was pretty traumatic but I just did my best to cover up the tuft of burnt hair on the fringe and when I'd finished I looked down and thought to myself it was pretty damn good, but after what had happened I wasn't expecting a medal. They weren't announcing the winner for a few days so my husband, mum and I decided to leave for London because it was all a bit too much and I really wasn't expecting to win anyway."
When she returned to Australia three weeks later she was told that she had indeed won a gold medal and that someone else had accepted it on her behalf.
Two years later she was chosen to captain and coach the Australian team and managed to back up her win with a silver and bronze in New York.
That year she was named Australia's First Lady of Hairdressing by the magazines and her Wollongong salon, which had 26 hairdressers, became the largest in the country.
On the back of her world championship success came international travel as the fashion co-ordinator for L'Oreal.
"They were just wonderful, exciting years which may never happen again because hair was so important then, so central in everyone's life," she says. "The '80s was my favourite era of hairdressing. It was a time when everything was overdone to the max. It was glamorous. I was at my peak travelling the world and to reach my peak at a time when hairdressing was in itself at its peak was a nice marriage."
During that time she worked at fashion shows doing the hair of many celebrity models, including Elle Macpherson.
"I was so young I didn't realise what was happening to me," she says. "It just became part of my life and it felt normal. There was so much wealth behind the industry at the time. It was incredible to be involved with it all."
After two children and a broken marriage Robyn branched out into fashion design, eventually moving to Sydney to work for another international hair brand.
She remarried and returned to Wollongong 13 years ago at the time of the birth of her first grandchild.
The past year has been a tough one. She lost her mother and her pink poodle Lucy to old age and in April her best friend of 30 years, Carol Juric, passed away from cancer.
The new house she designed and built herself near Kanahooka feels empty without them and there's a sadness as she explains that life has taken on new meaning. As she shows off her home, which is a mixture of plantation and art deco design, she regrets that she'll never be able to share it with her life's greatest supporters.
"Things have lost meaning a bit," she says. "This house has been a double-edged sword. It's been painful not being able to share it with my best friends, but at the same time it's given me and my husband a lot of joy."
The house is calm, serene and functional, but tastefully "over the top" - just like her personality.
Her signature leopard print, or African print as she prefers to call it, covers almost everything from the hair salon in the front room to the dining room chair covers. "African and Mediterranean influences are all elements featured in the art deco period," she says. "I've always loved the '20s look. It was a time when everything was so beautiful."
There are the large statement pieces that featured in her many salons and boutiques - including tall giraffes and a silver palm tree that her clients might recall.
Had she been born in another time she says she may not have chosen hairdressing, which she now says was a sensible choice for a young girl in the 1960s.
"Back then women didn't even think about doing things like architecture," she says. "But I was always going to be creative. My choices were ballet, hairdressing or art. I really have a natural application for those things, but if I had my time over again I think I'd come back as an architect. I really enjoyed designing this house."
The last 10 years Robyn has been hounded by ill health and mishaps, including having a foot reconstruction, a knee replacement, a heart attack and suffering third-degree burns to her leg after tipping over a pot of boiling water.
"I've just got on top of everything now," she says. "Everything's mended really well. But that whole period was a bit of a horror novel really. We all have our low points in life and I guess that was mine."
It was during that time she decided to study art at TAFE, which she has only just completed. At her first exhibition in 2008 she raised funds for the Leukaemia Foundation, including donating a $6000 commission.
Her other major works have been acquired by Wollongong City Council and the Lagoon Restaurant.
Some works she can't bring herself to part with, like the three paintings that hang over her bed.
"I like to be a bit mysterious in my work and build pieces with other mediums, locking the two together," she says. "So what is an oil painting is actually a sculpture of bark. It's a tribute [to] the end of the great drought and the tragedy of bushfires."
Reflecting on her career, she says she probably should have moved to Sydney, but at the time her children were a priority and she relied heavily on her mother's help.
"I didn't understand it at the time, but Wollongong didn't have the glamour of a big Sydney salon," she says. "Staying in Wollongong was a bit of a rope, a bit of an obstacle for me. There was a large share of tall poppy-lopping down here. People perceive you differently. I also trained hundreds of apprentices over that time and they would each toddle off and open up their own salon around the corner from me, taking their trophies with them. It annoyed me of course, but I had to learn to accept that I was creating my own competition. In Sydney I wouldn't have felt that as much."
One day she says she'll write a book about it all.
"I broke lots of records for women," she says. "My story has been my own unique and personal journey. There's a lot I'd like to share about it." ■