Satski Gamble is from Ibaraki, near Tokyo in Japan, she left to study at Long Island UniversityStony Brook University in NY after feeling that the status of women in rural Japan was too oppressed for her. Since her studies she has held jobs as a Henna Artist, a cupcake decorator, a keyboard player in a punk band, a translator and now she is the owner of the Japanese Cupcake Academy. I spoke with her to see how she managed to come, in a way, full circle.
AL: Hello Satski! So tell me what your first job was? Did you have a job at home in Japan?
SG: No, so when I was growing up women didn’t work so much, they were really meant to stay at home and be good housewives rather than work. It’s part of the reason why I left Japan. The women were just so oppressed and I was just curious about what else there was. I actually bought this book that had a bunch of American universities in – we didn’t have internet - and I just chose one which I knew was in a place that had seasons, I like the seasons so California didn’t appeal to me. My parents let me go on the condition that I would come back after graduation and weren’t happy but they were like “Go get a good a job in Japan and then come back and find a nice husband.”
AL: But you didn’t go back and instead you moved into Greenwich Village yes?
SG: Yea, I used to go to NYC every weekend and I was totally fascinated by it, so by the time I graduated, all I want to do is move to Manhattan, definitely not going back to Japan! I was in Long Island, it was really easy to get to Manhattan so when I finished I was just like well I don’t want to go back, so I decided to try and find work in New York. Obviously my parents weren’t happy at all, they didn’t speak to me for a while because they just didn’t know what I was doing.
AL: What did you end up doing in New York then?
SG: Well I started doing Henna on the street for people, I learnt this art while travelling Morocco and also I had quite a steady hand so it was easy for me to do, so I just hustled. I did it for about a month making probably around $100 dollars a day, until I saw an ad in a free newspaper Greenwich’s “ Village Voice” that was asking for Henna Artists, I applied to the job and the next day I suddenly get this call being like “We have a client who needs some Henna done, here are all the passwords you need to get into her Penthouse.”. I went into this penthouse after putting in so many passcodes and passwords, and then I arrived and it was Brooke Shields. It was crazy, I was on the street hustling one day and then I’m in Brooke Shields penthouse.
AL: That’s quite funny, you were quite lucky there, because I assume you were an unlicensed vendor on the street, and then you have this new job where you are in Brooke Shields penthouse. Did you never get caught on the street?
SG: I was lucky, I never did get caught, I could have so easily.
AL: Did you end up doing the henna full-time then? It must have been okay money?
SG: I didn’t, it was okay money, but it was only really an evening thing so I wanted a day job. I knew this bakery near me that every time I walked by smelt so good, so I went in and asked them if they would hire me. They needed cupcake decorators and the henna already meant I did have a steady hand that was good with design so I knew I could do it easily. They hired me that day.
AL: Now, the bakery is quite a famous bakery now isn’t it?
SG: Yes, so one day I’m at work and the manager says do you want to design this pink cupcake for these TV stars who were filming outside. I was broke and didn’t have cable, so I had no idea who these people were, but I said yes. It turns out that, the show was called Sex and the City, and I was designing cupcakes for Carrie Bradshaw. I didn’t realise how big a deal it was until a few days later when I got to work and there was this queue for blocks lined up outside the bakery – everyone was there to have a pink cupcake. That day was wild, it was honestly like a riot these people were banging on the windows saying “We want cupcakes!”. I remember we only made pink cupcakes that day, and we had to close midway through to catch-up.
AL: It must have been pretty hectic from then on, did it make you want to do more cupcakes?
SG: Well I didn’t mind doing the cupcakes, but at the time I was also in a punk band that started doing pretty well in New York. It was around the time of LCD Soundsystem and The Strokes, so the scene was doing really well. We actually toured around America and The Strokes opened for us. We wanted to get signed, but we then got this offer from a record label in London asking us if we wanted to come over. We googled them and they looked legit so we thought why not.
AL: It sounds like you loved New York though, so you must have been sad to leave?
SG: Well, living in New York could be a gift or curse. you get to party in New York, but everyone kind of keeps the same job but gets older. It was so common to walk into stores and to see 60 year olds who had, had that job for decades because you can easily get stuck in the bubble. I didn’t want to be a 60 year old cake decorator so it was time to try something new. It was `now or never` moment for me. `We were being recognised on the street now, but the lead singer of my band really believed she was going to be so famous, so she thought this was our break.
AL: So you moved to London with your band, which area did you move to?
SG: Just my lead singer actually, it was only really her and I. She was crazy, very ambitious, but people didn’t like working with her. We didn’t have a place to stay so we would just ask people after our gigs if we could come and crash with them. It was pretty wild thinking back now, but it was easy, and I quite liked talking to people about what they did.
AL: Was your bandmate okay with this?
SG: She liked talking about herself, and the fans would listen so it worked for her.
AL: How long did you couch-surf for?
SG: About six months, at one point we crashed in a graveyard, that was weird and again pretty crazy thinking back to it. Eventually though we found out that the label didn’t want to sign us, instead they were going to sign The Editors.
AL: What did you do then?
SG: I literally knew nobody in London at this point, and we had raised money back in NY to help us get over here to London, so we couldn’t go back. I started giving out Doilys to people on the bus to see if I could basically find friends. It was hard because the English obviously aren’t the most open, and back then they really were pretty quiet and not very friendly. I think they thought who is this crazy Japanese girl trying to sell me stuff when really all I was trying to do was find was some friends.
AL: Is a Doily one of those contact cards?
SG: Yes. It’s like a little business card which people use to always give out.
AL: Okay, I can imagine people must have been a little wary of you. I think even now if I saw someone at the bus stop giving out cards people would keep their heads down, not the friendliest but its usually just the British not wanting the awkwardness of “No” , or “Yes let me take all your flyers and secretly dump them in approximately 30 seconds.”. You clearly found friends eventually though – was it via doily?
SG: No, it was pretty scary giving out the doilys. Eventually however I bumped into this girl who I knew from New York. She had worked for American Vogue and knew my band from there – she had just been moved to British vogue when she bumped into me. She recognised me and invited me to this art exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery. I ended up sitting next to my husband. I gave him a doily and told him to call, he did, and we eventually got married.
AL: That’s a fantastic love story, at least one of you doilys clearly worked! Were you still in the band that whole time then? Were you even still trying to get signed?
SG: I was and we were. We kept going, my bandmate was still convinced she was going to be famous, but we weren’t getting too many gigs so I got a job as a Translator in the City. It was a good job that paid well, but I was made redundant one day.I walked out from my bandmate after I met my husband actually. I had enough…I wanted less drama in my life. Chasing your dream was priceless but at that point I was 32 and That was the time to give up. I got a super square banking job in the city and worked really hard but I was made redundant after a while.
AL: At this point had you moved out of London?
SG: We had, and now it looked like I was just going to be a suburban housewife, which like in Japan, I didn’t want to be. Cupcakes were now huge in the UK, it had taken a few years for people to catch on over here, but now people loved them so I thought I would do a Cupcake recipe book. I did it, but I still felt like “Oh, this is it.”. I had one child at this point but I still wanted to do more, so we decided to move to Japan for a few years.
AL: What happened in Japan then?
SG: In Japan you can turn a skill into a sort of graded system with levels, and you can call it ‘X’ method. People do these and it’s sort of a thing where people collect these skills and methods.
AL: Is it like yoga were they have Iyengar Yoga for instance?
SG: Kind of I think. An example is like the Ikebana flower arranging method, it’s trained in levels. I decided to do this with my cupcake & icing method. I wanted to teach Japanese housewives to take responsibility, so when we moved back to England after a few years I started delegating a lot of the work to see If I could help build individual confidence. Japanese women are so humble, so I really have to push them. I now work with agencies who call every so often and see if I have someone who can ice some cupcakes in a department store for example. I make sure I choose someone who might have kids so I can help them get out of the house. It’s exciting for them to do, and confidence building.
AL: It’s really interesting how you kind of came full circle. You didn’t want to be a Japanese housewife but here you are working with them now. Are you going to grow the business? Is there a way you could help more?
SG: I think now it’s good, I will see how it goes though. People always say I should do a shop, but I don’t want to have the pressure of running a shop – maybe if I find a good partner I would.
AL: It’s incredible how you have hustled so much, I think now, in all honesty, if someone did a lot of what you have done people might roll their eyes a little and question what you are doing - would you have any advice for similar hustlers?
SG: Be charming. You really need to win people over, my bandmate really didn’t have that and I think that’s why she hasn’t been as successful as she might have been.
AL: But how do you keep the charm whilst you are struggling so much? Charm can be hard to develop, even more so when you are under such pressure.
SG: Well, being in NYC and in music business etc., I have seen a lot of Diva behaviours which taught me to be complete opposite of that. If you treat others unkindly, you will be treated the same way and if you are kind to others, they will like you! It’s so simple and also it boosts your confidence.
AL: Thank you Satski, a pretty amazing series of jobs to hear about.
**This interview has been paraphrased in order to condense it**