“They call me the Queen of Sex,” says Jacqueline Gold, mock-coyly, as she bites into a designer macaroon. “But I prefer the Princess of Pleasure. And tea… tea is a pleasure.” Tea is not the sort of hot stuff with which Gold is usually linked. She’s chief executive of Ann Summers, the sex shop chain, and, effectively, its founder. It has existed since the 1970s, but not as we know it now. For those that don’t know the story, it was her father David’s company, run by a man, for men. Only 10% of its customers were women, the staff almost exclusively male. And Jacqueline, a 19-year-old work experience girl, didn’t like it at all. By chance, she went to a Tupperware party and mentioned that she’d been working at Ann Summers. “The women there told me they’d love to spice up their sex life,” says Gold, “but were too scared to go into a sex shop. They said we should hold Ann Summers parties.”
Those parties have now become part of the national fabric. They were enormously successful then – and remain so – perhaps because of their unthreatening, almost Carry On image. But the Ann Summers greybeards weren’t laughing. “It was very difficult,” she recalls, “especially with the board. One man turned round to me and said, ‘this is not going to work because women aren’t even interested in sex’, which said more about his sex life than it did about my idea.” Then a glint of steel: “He’s not with Ann Summers anymore.”
Gold pushed her idea through, and she pushed on, driving her mustard-coloured mini up to London to hold a recruitment day and show her products in front of some wide-eyed potential employees. “Some just left,” she recalls, then that steel again: “Some I asked to leave.” But, eventually, she found her first party planners and the first of thousands of wine-fuelled, women-only evenings of laughter and lace were born. She closed down her father’s sex shops and the process of removing of any trace of the old business began.
I think people take life too seriously – and because of that they are missing lots of opportunities
The complete overhaul of staff management and development was crucial, she says. “It was an era where people didn’t communicate with their staff,” she says. “I’m not saying is was discouraging – but it wasn’t encouraging. My ethos is about bring the team with you.”
She made her goal easier by recruiting only people with whom she clicked. “I only ever recruit people I like,” she says.
“Yes, experience and aptitude are important – but so are passion and enthusiasm. You can teach people skills. But you can’t teach them attitudes.”
In her determination to crystalise those attitudes, Gold appealed to staff to tell her what they perceived to be Ann Summers’ key values. “You have a mission but you need to work out how you are going to get there,” she says. “There was a lot of brainstorming.” The result of the discussions was the firm’s mantra P.R.I.D.E. – it wants its people to be Passionate Respectful Inclusive Daring Experts. Few enlightened managers would disagree with most of that. But, says Gold, one value stands out. “The most important is daring,” she says. “I don’t think you’d see many companies including that. Maybe it’s because I have been very daring. The very nature of what we do is that boundaries have to be pushed – everybody is doing sexy these days. When I started, nobody was.”
Daring she has been. She was arrested, she reveals, when only 22, for running a sex shop without a licence at the Women’s World exhibition. “I had a few toys discreetly positioned on my stand,” she says. “The police came over, interviewed me and told me he’d they’d let me go provided I shut up shop. I thought ‘I’m not going to do that’ and of course they never came back. When I have felt bullied it’s like a red rag – because it’s wrong.”
Bullies be warned – even governments have been beaten. Gold took the Department for Work and Pensions to court in 2003 when it stopped advertising her vacancies in Jobcentre Plus, claiming that some benefit claimants might be uncomfortable with the prospect of selling erotic merchandise. Gold, rather than hiding behind the Ann Summers corporate facade, wilfully became the face of the case, masterfully playing David to the government’s Goliath despite her being one of the richest women in the UK. “Job Centre Plus shouldn’t have been deciding where people could and could not work,” she says. “None of the workers had complained. We had very strong arguments.” She won – not just the case, but priceless column inches of publicity and public goodwill.
The dares haven’t always worked out for her: Mickey-takes of the marketing campaigns of Marks & Spencer – she is forbidden from speaking to journalists about it (but it was Your S&M) – and Apple, the iGasm, saw her again brushing with the law. She seems let down by the corporates’ lack of humour. “Why not embrace it?” she asks. “Why not think, ‘we could do something together’? We could have done the ten sexiest tracks on iTunes.” Does she think people take life too seriously? “Yes, I think they do actually – and because of that they are missing lots of opportunities.”
Gold’s unapologetic injection of fun and laughter works because it is heartfelt. It has been enormously effective: there are few better examples of one person changing a major business so fundamentally. “You know I’ve never thought about it like that, but that’s a relevant point,” says Gold. “Because normally businesses are very scared of changing their image because they don’t want to ignore their heritage. Heritage is important. But – you are right – Ann Summers is unrecognisable from what it was.”
The stores returned as a high street presence in the 1990s, but entirely rebranded and heavily feminised: 80% of its retail customers and 50% of online customers are now women. “It’s come to the point,” admits Gold, “where I’m thinking I want to get some of the guys back in.”
Yet, despite its lack of male customers, Ann Summers retains a strong financial position post-recession. Gold now talks ambitiously of expansion, to the US, to Australia – and mainland Europe. “The French, the Spanish, they are tactile people,” she says. “But there is nothing like Ann Summers there.”
The prospect of an Englishwoman selling sex to France is faintly ironic, given the contrasting carnal images of the two countries. But Gold has the experience of new markets, even if the move was in another direction, both geographically and metaphorically. When she tried to open a store in Dublin, she faced enormous opposition from city councillors – so much so that she invited two of them to the UK show them that Ann Summers was not evil incarnate. “It was bizarre,” she says. “One only wanted to talk to me about his sex life, the other wouldn’t look at me. I said, ‘I am not interested in your sex life. I’m interested in telling you what Ann Summers is about. But I have the impression that whatever I say to you, you are going to go back to Dublin and say you don’t want me to open a store’. They said, ‘that’s true’.”
She saw them again – they were in the audience when she appeared as guest on The Late, Late Show. One stood up and said his bit. At that time, Gold wasn’t the polished media performer she is now, but she battled back. “Women in the audience started putting their hands up and saying, ‘how dare the council tell us where we can and cannot shop’.” You may know the rest: Gold was served with a writ and was sent a bullet through the post. Then that steely, anti-bullying zeal again: she opened the shop, won the case and now Dublin is one of Ann Summers’ best-trading stores. She giggles: “It’s even on the bus tour of Dublin.”
Her record of taking the public with her feeds into her latest wheeze – the People’s Panel, in which a focus group of “real” women will join forces to design the ultimate sex toy. The project will be screened as a reality TV show. She wants, she says, a cross-section of womanhood: Every age, race, walk of life. “A lesbian; a pensioner; a woman who has been married for 40 years; a vibrator virgin; a thrill-seeker.” She’s already begun her research, starting at Mecca Bingo. ” It’s amazing how people start off coy then they open up,” she says. “I met one lady, she was 81. She said, ‘I did have a sex toy because my husband was in the Navy and I had no choice’. I thought, ‘well a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do’.”
That might be a mantra for her whole career. She is rarely pushed off course. Amateur psychology might suggest her toughness, her daring, come from overcoming a series of horrors in her personal life – she accuses her stepfather of abusing her; she tragically lost a son; her nanny tried to poison her. They may well be factors, but this twinkle-eyed revolutionary gives an overwhelming feeling of fighting for something, rather than against something. “We are lucky,” she says. “It’s a business that you can have a bit of fun with.”