Norma, the woman behind the GiGi gel polish colour of the season.
How my stylishly individual, brilliant minded, conversationally outrageous, and ahead of her time mother continues to inspire style.
My mother died 10 years ago – everyday I think her, and at every turn and decision and unfolding of events in my life I consider what Norma would do, or say, or wear.
Mum came from a poverty stricken Irish family living in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria where they struggled through the Great Depression, and she was forced to leave school by age 11 to help at home, and with her siblings. Her mother died when Norma was 12, and her father by the time she was 14; and she and her sister Sylvia were shifted from various aunts and cousins, generally unwanted and considered a burden to all. Her younger brother Allan was intellectually disabled, and in those days was put straight into a home for disabled children.
My Aunt Sylvia had an amazing voice and yearned to be an opera singer, a dream which was never fulfilled. My mother Norma dreamed of becoming an actress, and a dancer, and a world traveller, and a writer, and against all odds she fulfilled these dreams and more.
As soon as she was able, Mum moved out on her own in Melbourne and joined a small independent theatre company, and concurrently began to study ballet at the Edouard Borovansky Company where he was “notorious for his despotic treatment of his dancers” and would strike them across the back of the legs if they did not have their toes pointed to perfection. Norma was also one of the first members of the Communist Party, and through theatre, staged politically thought provoking plays. Mum was often dragged by the police from the back of the truck they performed upon, and this passionate and politically fierce woman never lost her passion for people , animals or the earth. As a primary school kid I’d come home sometimes to see Dad at home, when I asked where Mum was he’d shake his head in gentle exasperation and tell me “your mother has been arrested again for chaining herself to a nuclear warship, or a tree to prevent logging”.
In the 1960’s when women were still expected to run a household and a kitchen, and stand quietly by their husband’s side and share his views; Norma would be hosting amazing dinner parties at home with my dad Jim, serving exotic meals from around the world where they travelled constantly with Dad’s work as a geologist. Norma would be wearing some amazing caftan from Africa with handmade beads from India, with her short hair and huge beaten copper earrings from Tunisia. She would argue politics with the men and go them drink for drink, she was famous for her beauty, her fire and her lack of interest in what people thought of her.
Many men loved her, she was married three times – her first husband at the young age of 19 was a university professor, he took a tenureship at Oxford University in England and pledged to fly her over as soon as there was the money. While she waited, he met a more suitable partner for stuffy university life; a tweed wearing, corgi walking woman who would have been much more palatable at conservative Oxford than an opinionated, fiery eyed actress – so he divorced Norma. Many, many years later on his deathbed, his last words were to speak my Mum’s name.
Her second husband was an actor, a Dylan Thomas look-a-like; passionate, talented, and a drinker. They had a daughter, and during her first couple of years he drank, came home late, (after Mum had put their daughter to bed), and Norma braced herself, while she planned in secret. In those days there were no benefits for single mothers, no support services and little public sympathy; so Norma relied on close friends to help her slip away one night and board a train with her daughter to the furtherest point away – Perth.
Initially, Norma rented a small room in Claremont on the river, from a wonderful woman called Eve who was equally independent, stylish and inspiring; and Eve looked after my sister while mum looked for work. I remember always my Auntie Eve when I was a young girl, and we would go and visit this doyen of style, still in Claremont, and always dressed in layered white outfits with huge dark glasses and often a white turban on her head.
Norma found work after a while in the library of an oil and gas company, and there a young geologist, Jim, saw her and fell completely in love. He constantly asked her out for a date, and she constantly refused, saying she had no time for men, she had a daughter to bring up. Eventually she accepted an invitation to his going away party as he was being transferred to Turkey for six months. They wrote everyday, and within three weeks of his return to Perth, they were married.
They travelled the world, spending many years in Libya in North Africa, where I grew up until I was four. I was born in the British hospital in Malta, and as a young child could speak 6 languages; until we were forced to leave Libya as Gaddafi rose to power. Home in Perth, and quickly bored with the often stifling suburban lifestyle of a housewife in Mt Claremont, Mum went back to school to take up where she had left off at the age of 11. She gained her High School certificate, and entered Murdoch University where she gained a Bachelor of Arts, and learned to speak fluent Italian as a side project, hence her love title of Nonna to her grandchildren – a title I proudly wear myself these days.
She continued to slay it in education, doing a Masters in Foreign Languages, and travelling through Sarawak living with the villagers and learning from them; eventually discovering an ancient form of love poetry never before documented, while learning Malay along the way.
When Dad retired he moved to Yallingup and Mum stayed in Cottesloe, and then Fremantle, because she didn’t want to be too far from all her cultural pursuits and art galleries, coffee shops, bookstores and the occasional protest rally. The distance never changed their love, because for my conservative Dad, son of a bank manager, Norma was the most beautiful, fascinating, headstrong and wonderfully difficult woman he had ever met and loved.They holidayed together, stayed with each other when they were in each others town, co-hosted huge Christmas picnics by the river, and family celebrations around tables ladened with food and wine. Eventually Mum moved down south to live in the house on the hill, declaring ”I’m never coming back, I loooove your father”.
Mum loved a wine, even when eventually she was in aged care; while others drank tea, Mum sipped elegantly on a sippee cup of a good SSB. It was a desperately difficult decision to put Mum into care in her final couple of years; however unfortunately her dementia following a series of small strokes, combined with being wheelchair bound after a fall, meant Dad was unable to sustain 24 hour care. Norma reigned in fabulousness in those final years, with her SSB and a contingent of old blokes at her beck and call; and my Dad in there everyday (unless golf was on) for which Norma always had her hair done and her lipstick perfect. As Sofia Vergara once said “ If I walk outside without lipstick, I feel naked”, Norma felt the same, and so do I.
I loved the style and the scent of Norma, her classic Chanel No. 5 Perfume, exceptional pieces of jewellery, such as the gold bangles that clinked up her arm, bought one at a time each year from Jim on their anniversary. The wonderment of the gold ring Dad had hidden inside a giant chocolate Easter egg, and the multitude of earrings from around the world. She rocked capri pants, hippie pants, caftans, Emilio Pucci dresses, and one particular favourite of mine, a fitted number in a mushroomy colour that I recalled as we created our GiGi colour range.
Everytime I am in Glamour and someone chooses “Norma” as their colour, I tell them a little of the woman behind the name; how she fought for equality, followed her heart desires, captured men’s hearts but loved Big Jim to the end, and brought me up to be fierce and loving and passionate about the world, and people, animals and justice.
Raise your glass of wine and admire your nails and remember the story, and then perhaps raise your glass a little higher to the woman raising hers to you from up above xxx