"I'm not the tiniest bit famous, I'm just an ordinary pensioner from Malfroy Rd who's grabbed life by the throat and thrashed it to bits."

Which, Karen Petley, is exactly the reason you're on Our People's hit list. Fame doesn't come into it, our criteria's to introduce readers to those with a "tell it like it is" life story and yours, Karen, is the type the famous pay spin doctors megabucks to manufacture out of their overactive imaginations.

How many others from these parts have gone from Haupapa St hairdressing academy student to maid in the Belgravia Hotel where, years later, Kate Middleton prepared for her royal marriage, to being surrounded by machine guns at an Israeli diamond merchant's mega plush pad?

Those tantalising parts of Karen's life and times are way down the line from its starting point; she's an Auckland-born import whose dad took over the Mourea store when she was 9.


Rotorua wasn't foreign territory to the Petleys.

"We'd come for holidays, stay at the Grand Hotel where my brother William disgraced himself by spilling ink in the writing room, you don't have those any more, my conversation's going to be peppered with things that aren't there any more."

Another blast from the past is Karen's recollection of her parents' addiction to the Tama dances at Tamatekapua meeting house.

"They'd be insufferable next morning, so full of themselves for being there."

For secondary schooling, Karen was packed off to board at Auckland's St Anne's.

"Another place not there now, my parents chose it because they were friends with the Beatties whose daughter went there."

The Beatties? That's former Governor-General Sir David Beattie, but well before his 'vice-regalness'.

Private school education didn't secure Karen School Certificate.

"The Beatles came along and distracted me."

Nursing was her ambition but she only lasted three months. "Sister Matthews said I was generally hopeless."

There's a slice of local history in Karen's aborted training. "The nurses' home was Arawa House where that oak tree fell in January, killing that poor woman."

Next stop the Hairdressing Academy. "It was upstairs from the taxi office, the days of 6 o'clock closing, we'd come down to all these drunks rolling around fighting."

From the academy, Karen did the rounds of local hair salons.

"Lois Thaires', Marilyn Broscoe's, Max Hyde's.

"I was a senior stylist there, one of 24 and 12 juniors ... a crazy client took a fancy to him, he'd lock himself in his office, we'd ring the cops, just say 'Wild Duck' and they'd whiz in to take her away."

When Hyde sold his Pukuatua St salon, Karen moved to Capalaini "another place long gone. I stayed until hippiedom called me to travel. I was 28."

A three-month Sundowners bus tour took her from Singapore, through Thailand, India, Kathmandu, Afghanistan and Iran. "All those places now in the news, believe me, it was the most amazing experience."

At the tour's end, she moved to Earl's Court, then considered London central for Kiwi travellers of the era.

"I fulfilled my dream of seeing Gerald Durrell's Jersey zoo then thought I'd better get serious."

Being serious meant work, an ad for a Goring Hotel chambermaid fascinated her.

"It was near the Royal Mews, the palace guards marched past, us maids got friendly with the squaddies, drank with them at the Bag of Nails [pub]."

Karen loved the Goring; "lamplighters still lit the lamps outside". But three years on she'd met "a certain someone". He's one of three to feature in her life, Our People's under "no names no pack drill" orders.

"We got jobs at an East Sussex convent, lived in, weren't married, a bit shocking really."

When the relationship petered out, Israel beckoned.

"I wanted to work on a Kibitz, but at 35 was too old, an ad in The Lady [magazine], took my fancy, it said 'Butler-general factotum wanted for a Tel Aviv diamond merchant'. If you think security's tight when you get on a plane now you should have seen his.

"If I forgot to disarm the laser beams when I got out of bed, security guards with Uzis swarmed in."

The Kiwi in her found her employer's lavish lifestyle "disgusting" and worse, he didn't observe Jewish customs.

"Through a meditation group I met a little old lady who did, she had this kosher kitchen, milk one side, meat the other, observed Shabbat [Jewish Sabbath]."

Karen became her companion, remaining until Chernobyl's nuclear blow-out.

"I thought that cloud's heading here, I'd be safer in the South Pacific, came home, everyone sounded like Barry Crump."

She cleaned motels until becoming a Tauranga family's nanny.

"Then I met another certain someone. For the next nine years we picked kiwifruit, weeded pumpkin patches, went to Hastings for the pip fruit season. In 2000 he passed away from prostate cancer."

Grieving, Karen went to Aussie's wop wops as a governess; she hated it.

"It was an hour and a half's drive from the front gate to the house so I couldn't just flounce off."

When she did escape it was to Mt Isa "motel cleaning, that always comes in handy".

Enter 'certain someone' number three.

"He was a caretaker on this property trying to help the Aboriginals. It was rough as guts country. I became a bee in the council's bonnet, went to the Ombudsman because they wouldn't fix our washed-out bridge, I won."

That relationship's ending returned her to Tauranga via Griffith, New South Wales.

"In Tauranga my thyroid blew out, recovering listening to iwi radio I fell in love with the Māori Volcanics showband, whenever they played at the Lake House I'd come over.

"By then [2007] the poor old thing was on a tilt, obviously on its last legs, but I'm so glad they've demolished it slowly, not put the wrecking ball through it, that would have wrecked me. Ohinemutu's one of my favourite places in the world."

She was back in Rotorua fulltime in 2012.

"Then the wings of cancer brushed me, my womanly system was pulled out, it was no use to me anyway. I refused chemo, radiation, look at me now I'm fit, do tai chi.

"I returned because I love gazing out at Te Motu-tapu-a-Tinirau [Mokoia Island] sitting in the waters of Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe [lake], yeah, I've finally come home."

Karen Petley
Born: Auckland, 1948
Education: Kohimaramara, Whangamarino Primaries, Rotorua Intermediate, St Anne's, Auckland
Family: Brother William (Sydney) "He's takatapui, gay as gay, famous for swanning around Boys' High in a cape."
Interests: "My whole life's my interest," tai chi. "The Lake House sports bar, there aren't many character-filled pubs any more," te reo Māori - self-taught. "Classes nearly killed me." Te Paati Māori [Māori Party]. "As a Pākehā, I know what's good for Māori is good for everyone."
On her life: "I'm very grateful to have been on this earth and had the experiences I've had."
Personal philosophy: "Grasp every opportunity because you never know how it's going to turn out."