DENA COHEN: Up from Down Under

The "Tall Poppy Syndrome" is an Australian peculiarity. If someone becomes too successful and self-confident, their "tall poppy," or ego, is chopped down.

"In America," says Dena Cohen, "they put Miracle Gro on tall poppies. They applaud and reward success, and nurture people to fully develop. This attitude appeals to me."

Expanding the analogy from the personal to the national scale, Dena continues: "America thinks it is the center of the universe, whereas Australia realizes it is only one part of the world."

She must not consider this cultural egocentrism a significant drawback, though, because when she came to America in 1995, she wept with joy. "I'm finally home," she thought.

Into the unknown

Born Aug. 26, 1959, in Perth, Australia, Dena is the eldest of three children. Her mother was a "typical '50s housewife"; her father, a successful businessman (apparently immune to the Tall Poppy Syndrome) who eventually amassed one of the largest wholesale and retail outlet chains in Western Australia.

Dena was raised a Conservative Jew (her mother comes from a long line of rabbis). Now her parents, sister and brother have become Orthodox, the most traditional form of Judaism.

Her mother and sister-in-law wear a wig called a shietel. Orthodox Jews consider a woman's hair her most precious and personal asset. Once a woman is married, she must reserve her sensuous side for her husband only.

Dena's brother sometimes dresses in round hats and long coats, and curled sidelocks are tucked behind his ears. Her sister lives in Israel with her family; she dresses like a modern woman but otherwise strictly observes all Jewish traditions.

Some men in Dena's life have not been Jewish, much to the displeasure of her family. Dena no longer practices Judaism, but she does observe Passover.

A great influence in Dena's life was her elementary-school art teacher, who taught her to be creative even if she wasn't "particularly artistic." Dena has been creative with her life, doing things not in the usual sequence and venturing boldly into the unknown when she has needed change.

She left high school after 11th grade and attended secretarial school. Work in several offices in Perth followed before she moved to Melbourne, a distance of almost 2,200 miles.

Dena crossed the Outback in a bus. Most of her journey was "days of red dirt," but around Adelaide the landscape became lush and green.

At age 23 she completed high school, then attended Melbourne College of Advanced Education for three years, earning a Diploma of Teaching/Primary. She taught first and second grades for a year in a poor, state-run school, then taught first grade for three years in a rich, progressive Jewish school.

Tired of teaching full-time, Dena fell back on her secretarial skills. She worked at a small advertising agency for several years, while maintaining a sideline of tutoring children in problem-solving (as opposed to rote learning).

The time was right

In 1994, several misfortunes befell her. She divorced for the second time, the ad agency lost a large account and laid her off, and her final childless friend had a baby, leaving Dena the odd woman out in her social group.

Even her dog and cat died.

It seemed nothing was left for her in Australia. The time was right to move; and with money from her divorce settlement, she could afford to do so.

Dena considered moving to Europe, but she knew she couldn't learn foreign languages easily.

England was a possibility, of course, but it is too cold and gray for her, she said. Plus, she thinks the British are suppressed.

By contrast, she said she finds Americans to be expressive. "I felt I had to censor myself in Australia," she says, "and I had long felt a draw to the U.S."

She put her possessions in storage, flew to Los Angeles and gave herself one year to "see what would happen."

In the early months of 1995, she did "the tourist thing" in L.A., partied at Mardi Gras and took a train with newfound friends up the East Coast. She decided to settle in New York City.

Dena lived in New York four years, working briefly as a waitress, then as an office manager for various businesses. "I loved New York," she says, "but eventually it became too stressful."

She wanted to get to know the West Coast, so in 1999 she moved to San Diego.

There's the rub

Back in Melbourne, Dena had received massages and found them healing, so in San Diego she decided to study massage (which she pronounces MAAssage). She attended the International Professional School of Bodywork and studied skin care at the Poway Academy of Hair.

After five years, San Diego proved unsatisfactory as well. The cost of living is high, the spa industry is saturated and she felt generally out-of-place. Dena decided to move again.

Wanting to stay on the West Coast, she thoroughly researched all its major cities. She had heard that Seattle is a lot like Melbourne, and her research confirmed this. So she moved up here just eight months ago, on a snowy day in January.

Her first job in Seattle was at a laser clinic, but she didn't like it because she couldn't fully utilize her interests and abilities. She applied at Napolitano Day Spa Salon on Queen Anne. As a licensed massage therapist and aesthetician, she qualified. She was a persistent applicant because she really wanted to work there.

"The people there are warm, relaxed and unpretentious," Dena says. "And it's in a wonderful old house."

Her persistence paid off. She was hired in May.


"My real thing is aromatherapy," says Dena. Once she masters it, she wants to incorporate aromatherapy more into her massage and skin care.

"It really takes them to another level," she says. "You are healed and beautified not just by touch but by the essential oils." The purer and more intense their distillation, Dena added, the greater their healing properties.

"I'm developing what I call a vegetable blend of essential oils," she says, "because when I'm done with you, you will be a vegetable!"

At home Dena makes candles, experimenting with fragrance and color. Other hobbies include knitting, gardening and cooking Asian food.

She has had an affinity for things Asian since she was young. Being geographically close to Asia, Australia has a large Asian population, among them several of her father's business associates. Before her family became Orthodox Jews, they often ate at Asian restaurants, and at home her mother prepared excellent Asian dishes.


Dena wants to stay in America and will apply for U.S. citizenship soon. She hasn't been back to Australia since she left almost a decade ago, although her parents visit her here every year. She will finally pay a call to her homeland in April, when her grandmother turns 100.

While there, she hopes to visit Healesville Animal Sanctuary outside Melbourne, one of her favorite places. It's a haven for native Australian animals, none of them caged.

Many are marsupials - mammals with an abdominal pouch in the female to shelter and feed their young - such as koalas, wallabies and wombats. There are also lyre birds, emus and galahs, a pink-and-gray variety of cockatoo.

The sanctuary is a forest of eucalyptus trees with an undergrowth of ferns. It smells of rain; the fecund ground is moist and littered with gumnuts, and the sounds of animals emanate from the greenery.

Spreading her fingers on both hands as she describes it, looking far away, Dena is already there.

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