Jacqueline Gold has just told me to freeze my eggs.
‘Get your eggs frozen!’ she said, as if they’re a bit of leftover stew I can save for an evening when I can’t be bothered to cook. ‘Tell your mum, it’s alright, they’re in a freezer. They’ll just be there, waiting.’
Admittedly, this has come after a prolonged session of agonising by me: to give up the career and procreate, or to keep soldiering on and hope aforementioned eggs can hang in there? Gold – the woman responsible for transforming Ann Summers from ‘raincoat-brigade’ sex shop to housewives’ favourite – did the latter.
Despite first getting married at the tender age of 20, she waited, got divorced, waited a little longer, got remarried, waited a bit more and eventually, at 48, she had twins. Tragically, her son Alfie was born with severe brain damage and died at eight months old. But her daughter Scarlett is, she says, all the better for the fact she has an older mum: ‘I’m a much better mother than I would have been at 20. I’m calmer.’
Gold is certain that women can have it all, but there is a caveat: ‘I refused to let the time clock dictate how my life was going to go. You can have your cake and eat it – but not necessarily all at once.’
Gold joined Ann Summers as an intern at 21, with no real interest in business and no particular plans to stay beyond the internship. Her father David and his brother Ralph had bought it as a chain of sex shops in 1972, and she saw it as ‘a male-dominated environment, where your core customers are the ‘raincoat brigade’.
But she decided to stay on, and persuaded the board to switch its focus to female customers. These days, it has a turnover of more than £150m, with 144 stores. It has 7,000 party-planners working for it, and owns another high street brand, Knickerbox. It is, Gold says, ‘almost a female institution’.
That’s an interesting choice of phrase, I say: some current feminist rhetoric would point out that a few of the products it sells (to wit: its ‘Peekaboo’ Pole Dance Kit) is promoting the idea that slutty equals empowered. That’s not the sort of message Natasha Walters, Naomi Wolf, Kat Banyard and the rest of modern feminism’s leading lights would approve of. Would Gold call herself a feminist?
‘Not in the popular sense, which is where I think we’re going with this particular conversation.
‘I know exactly who my customer is, what she wants, where we are as a business – and that’s about pleasing our customers, it’s not necessarily about pleasing people like feminists.’
And yet, it’s arguable that Ann Summers has, if not transformed women’s attitudes to sex, then certainly spotted the zeitgeist during the 1980s and run with it. As Gold puts it, ’30 years ago… it was the man who went into a sex shop and chose the sexy babydoll that no woman would ever want to wear… but that’s changed. There’s been a complete role reversal’. And with sex paraphernalia focused entirely at women, no UK retailer has been a part of that role reversal more than Ann Summers.
An Ann Summers branch in central London. Image credit: Flickr/Bibi
Actually, you couldn’t ask for a more lady-friendly business. Beside the obvious (Gold’s favourite product? ‘It’s got to be the Rabbit’), it also focuses heavily on the women in its employ. The company has just reshuffled its party business to take account of the changing way women treat it.
‘They’re not just looking to supplement the family income – some women make careers out of it,’ she says. ‘We’ve changed it so there’s various levels you can get within the structure. Commission, company car – the sky’s the limit.’
It’s a strategy that’s been fantastically successful. If the Sunday Times Rich List is to be believed, Gold is the joint-40th-richest woman in the UK, worth £250m.
From her beginnings convincing Ann Summers’ board to change its allegiance from the ‘raincoat brigade’, Gold says she’s used to being one of very few women at the top – but she worries that one of the reasons there are so few women in the boardroom is because they lack the confidence to work their way up the ranks.
‘Women are so used to putting themselves down. In my experience, women often need their ideas validated: if they’re going to be promoted, they check with 100 people before they accept the role, asking "am I going to be good enough?"
‘I don’t think women realise how powerful they are. I know that’s a word most women associate with men, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in a positive way.’
She attributes her own ‘power’ – or self-confidence – to her father, David, who is now chairman of West Ham football club.
‘A lot of it comes from your parents. Often, it’s almost like they don’t want girls to take risks.
‘My dad was disappointed I was a girl. In fact, he admits to crying when I was born... we didn’t have the closest of relationships when I was younger: I don’t think he realised I was going to get into business. But I guess I’m an opportunist and I saw this opportunity. I think he was quietly very proud.’
Although David has taken a step back from the business in order to concentrate on his football commitments, Gold and her sister, Vanessa, the business’ managing director, go to dinner with him (‘no partners’) every week.
‘There’s nothing better than sitting there talking about sex and football,’ she says.
With all that family history, would Gold consider selling up? She pulls a face.
‘I love what I do. I can’t think of doing anything else. I’d like to think my daughter will go into the business one day.’
Selling sex toys: it’s a pretty progressive ambition for a parent to have for their child – but then maybe it’s all part of the changing attitudes to sex that Ann Summers helped to bring about.
‘We’re in a new era now: there’s that equality… which wasn’t there 30 years ago. For me, Ann Summers is about female empowerment, liberating women’ – between the sheets, and in the board room.