If we’re having better love lives, Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold deserves a lot of credit. Judith Woods meets the high street dynamo who’s powered a bedroom revolution – and battled cancer and a plot to poison her with.
Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of Ann Summers, is the woman who brought the rabbit vibrator into bedrooms throughout Britain. The sex toy’s famous appearance on Sex and the City came in 1998, and when Ann Summers went online a year later, sales of its very own Rampant Rabbit exceeded one million within 12 months, outstripping those of washing machines and tumble driers combined and giving social historians plenty of food for thought, never mind husbands and partners.
Millennials probably can’t envisage a time when sex was not freely talked about; when gender was regarded as binary and sexual preferences fixed from birth. But for the women who came of age last century, the seismic shift is undeniable. For us the earth really has moved, and how.
‘Things have changed a lot since I first did work experience at Ann Summers,’ admits Jacqueline. ‘I was 19, the daughter of the owner, but completely embarrassed to walk through the door because it was just me and the dirty-mac brigade.’ Her father, David, had acquired the fledgling business in 1971, a year after the first branch opened in London’s Marble Arch. By 1980 it was a chain of six shops. At first, Jacqueline had no intention of joining the family business, but she found herself drawn to the challenges it presented, and went on to run the burgeoning empire.
‘Even though Ann Summers was deemed “the respectable face” of the sex industry compared to Soho’s strip clubs, that sex was still exclusively about male pleasure,’ she says. ‘We sold sexy nurse uniforms and the sort of scratchy red lace underwear that wasn’t comfortable to wear; the aim was to turn men on. The idea of stimulating a woman – never mind a woman stimulating herself – was completely alien. I’ve made it my goal to absolutely change that; these days 80 per cent of the customers in our stores are women, and that’s as it should be. The under-35s mostly buy lingerie, the over-35s, who tend to be married or in relationships, are more likely to buy the sex toys.’
Focused, driven and wearing a beautifully tailored suit, Jacqueline is pretty and petite. She claims to be 5ft 1in but that’s in heels and I think she has sized herself up (we both agree that knickers are also best that way), but only a (male) fool would not recognise her as a force to be reckoned with. ‘Just because I look feminine it doesn’t mean I’m weak, and just because I’m successful it doesn’t mean I’m a hard bitch,’ she says. She’s so right that I want to punch my fist in the air. Instead I just nod. ‘It’s high time men jettisoned those lazy, retrograde stereotypes. I’m a woman’s woman,’ she adds, superfluously.
Coming from the 16th richest woman in the country, Jacqueline’s opinions have real clout. Married to Dan, a mortgage broker, they have a daughter, Scarlett, aged nine. ‘I took her along to a business event I was speaking at when she was five years old,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I thought it was important for her to see Mummy taking the lead and speaking in front of an audience to understand that this is normal and not something that only men do. She wouldn’t have understood all of it but she was very proud at the time.’
Meanwhile, Jacqueline actively promotes the sisterhood by mentoring female business leaders and supporting grass-roots enterprise; it was in recognition of those services that she was made a CBE two years ago, which she describes as the pinnacle of her career. And, of course, Scarlett accompanied her to the palace. In her downtime Jacqueline and Scarlett enjoy outings to the cinema, baking or spending time outdoors on bike rides.
‘Right now, Scarlett wants to be a pilot,’ smiles Jacqueline. ‘But that could change at any time. What’s most important is that she finds something that she loves doing and is happy.’ Over the past three decades Jacqueline has done just that, single-handedly – and single-mindedly – steering the family business towards a new dawn of female empowerment. It was she who introduced women-only Ann Summers parties in the early 1980s, which were affectionately portrayed a couple of years ago in the ITV comedy drama Brief Encounters, the tale of four women gaining financial independence by hostessing events in their own homes.
As a direct result of the TV series, demand for Ann Summers party plans has soared. It’s no revelation that sex sells, but here in the 21st century it’s all about girl power. It’s a strategy that has paid off; as retail behemoths from Marks & Spencer to House of Fraser close stores, Ann Summers has very much bucked that trend. Last year three new shops were opened in Britain and another in Ireland, bringing the number of stores up to 140, making the brand a rare success story in today’s harsh trading climate. ‘People can buy anything they want online,’ says Jacqueline. ‘So to get them to walk through the door retailers need to grasp that the relationship with customers is no longer purely transactional; stores need to offer an enjoyable experience and take them on a journey that feels authentic as well as aspirational.’
To that end, Jacqueline is focusing on a sophisticated modern makeover across Ann Summers, featuring glossy advertising shots by female photographers and ‘relatable’ models with bona fide curves. A lot of emphasis is being placed on the store’s underwear range, available in sizes eight to 24. Having cast my eye over it online, I am impressed by the various collections, which look both pretty and wearable. Until, that is, I scroll down to the wet-look crotchless body and the fetish-wear Xena dress, which serves as a salutary reminder that, being over 35, my premium fetish years are behind me. For Jacqueline, her modus operandi is all about the ‘c’ word. You heard. ‘We want our shops to reflect our ethos,’ she says. ‘And that is confidence, confidence, confidence. I want every customer to put on Ann Summers underwear and see a powerful, attractive woman looking back at her in the mirror. I wear matching underwear every day. Men might not understand, but women will know what I mean when I say it sets me up for a really good day.’
Of course we know what she means! As one who tends to grab random underwear from various drawers I envy that put-together feeling. Who knows what I might have achieved these past decades if I’d invested in more match and less mix? Jacqueline smiles. Any boardroom battles are as nought compared to the travails in her personal life. Two years ago she underwent treatment for breast cancer. ‘I learned from my oncologist that only one percent of patients with my type of tumour have it completely disappear after treatment,’ she says. ‘I had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a lumpectomy and had every side-effect going, especially nausea, but my hair falling out was the worst bit,’ she says. ‘It was the only time I cried, but then I set about getting some really great wigs. My hair has grown back now, but I have extensions to add volume.’ Jacqueline insisted on secrecy, with very few people knowing about her diagnosis.
‘I didn’t tell anyone apart from my immediate family and my PA,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to affect morale, so every day my PA would drive my car into work and park it outside, slip into my office, switch on the computer, turn on Sky TV and leave my coat over the chair, so it looked like I had just popped out to a meeting – I wanted it to be business as usual. The day of my diagnosis I wrote a plan of what I needed to do in order to survive; I gave up alcohol, sugar and stopped eating meat, and I took up exercise. It all seemed to help because I was one of that one per cent whose cancer disappears.’
Husband Dan, whom she describes as ‘very charming and smart with a great sense of humour’, was a rock, taking a year off work to ensure Scarlett’s routine could be as normal as possible. ‘Dan was astonished by my calmness because he felt so angry that I had cancer, but as far as I was concerned, nothing could ever be as bad as coping with the death of Alfie, Scarlett’s twin, who was born with an incurable brain condition,’ says Jacqueline. It was discovered in utero and she was told he probably wouldn’t survive the birth, but somehow he clung on to life.
‘Alfie died eight months later,’ she says quietly. ‘We spent as much time with him as we could but he was never well enough to bring home. We’ve made sure he is still part of our family.’ She and Dan speak about him openly; there are photographs in the house and Scarlett has always known she had a twin and at times keenly feels the loss of him. Given that trauma, and her cancer, Jacqueline’s inner strength can only be guessed at.
In her 1995 autobiography Good Vibrations Jacqueline chronicled the vicissitudes of her career. It wasn’t for another 13 years that she published the harrowing Please Let It Stop, a courageous account of how her childhood ended aged 12 when her parents divorced. Her mother, who was remote towards her daughter, remarried and the man who came into Jacqueline’s life as a stepfather went on to abuse her. Although an instinctively private person, she wrote the book as part of her evangelical mission to help other women. ‘Young women have no idea how hard it can be for older women to discuss sensitive subjects,’ says Jacqueline.
‘Back in the 80s our Ann Summers party plans weren’t just about selling lingerie and toys, they were women-only spaces where they had conversations – often for the first time – about their own sex lives and the issues and concerns they had.’ She has also faced other – extraordinary – challenges. There was the time she was set to open a much-publicised branch in Dublin and was sent a bullet in the post warning her off. To no avail – the Dublin outlet is now one of the best-performing shops. Then there was the time Scarlett’s nanny, Allison Cox, variously poisoned Jacqueline’s food with screenwash, salt and sugar in a bid to get the family’s cook, whom she disliked, into trouble. Cox was jailed for a year in 2011. ‘I was in total shock,’ Jacqueline says. ‘The trauma you experience when you discover the person that you trust implicitly has betrayed you is very difficult to come to terms with.’
It almost beggars belief that so much can have happened to this tiny powerhouse of a woman, but she’s not one for self-pity. Certainly not when there’s the gender pay gap to discuss (iniquitous), the Me Too movement (a great way of giving women a voice) and, of course, the next generation of Rampant Rabbits, although the original is still on sale and rather ominously labelled ‘perfect for beginners’. For those who presumably know their way
round a bit more, there’s a waterproof one, a rotating one, a thrusting one and a ‘magnetised’ version to increase blood flow and heighten sensation; if you think your eyes are wide now, just wait until you press its ‘intensity boost button’.
‘Our sex toys are big sellers; they are curved and stylised in beautiful silicone that comes in bright colours. Some of our range looks like futuristic works of art,’ she beams. ‘Women are very knowledgeable about what they want and the first two questions are always about power – they want lots of it; and volume – so as not to disturb the children, neighbours or visiting in-laws. Customer demand is high for high-tech toys that can be controlled remotely, which is great for long-distance relationships: she puts the device in her underwear and he controls it remotely.’
Ann Summers still sells the silly paraphernalia beloved of hen parties: frisky French maid, nurse and policewomen outfits. And why not? Fun, like sex, is not a one-size-fits-all commodity. ‘The other day I was explaining to someone the concept of babydolls, those frilly short negligees with matching knickers, and they asked me if my husband knew what they were,’ says Jacqueline. ‘“Of course he knows,” I said, then I called him up on speakerphone and asked him, “What is a babydoll?” He replied, “It’s a small round cheese with a red cover.” I was very disappointed.’ Sisters may be striding ahead and doing it for themselves, but we need to remember that men sometimes need a little help catching up.
Going for gold
Reading: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
Watching: Love Island, of course!
Beauty essential: A Nars lip-gloss, aptly named Orgasm.
Describe yourself in three words: Courageous, resilient and warm.
On a day off, we’d find you… Girlie shopping with my sister, followed by lunch and a massage.
What do you wish you had more time for? My daughter – no matter what you do, it never feels enough.