It’s unusual, at the Charing Cross Road branch of Ann Summers, to see people lingering on the threshold. Either they amble innocently past – or else they nip briskly inside for a peep round the shop’s extensive range of titilating products.
If you’ve never visited the shop, be warned: the first thing you’ll see is rather tame. But step beyond the lacy bras and silky knickers and you’ll find something fancier – corsets, basques and thongs in black PVC or leopardskin prints – and if you dare to forage further inside you’ll be confronted with items such as an inflatable sheep, toffee-apple flavoured sweets shaped like penises, and a selection of animal-shaped posing pouches and musical G-strings.
Amid these delights, it’s easy to miss the Sperm Bank (£6.25), but do spend a moment to consider this white, wriggle-shaped ceramic money box, because – uniquely among the products on display – the Sperm Bank itself embodies the three-way relationship between sex, jokiness and cash upon which Ann Summers has based its phenomenal growth.
So much for the front of the store. But Charing Cross Road, one of two licensed sex shops in the Ann Summers chain, has more to offer than that. We’ve come this far – let’s take a look in the back.
The first thing that hits you is the central display, arranged to resemble the inside of a men’s public lavatory. Two full-sized mannequins stand with trousers round their ankles, and the walls are daubed with that most unlikely thing, fake grafitti: “Man to man” promises one red slogan on a cubicle door. Another, partly concealed by one of the mannequins, gives somebody’s telephone number.
When you’ve come to terms with that, a stroll round the room will give you a chance to familiarise youself with the comprehensive selection of sex-aids. There are edible bras, and knickers, and flavoured condoms in mint or lager-and-lime. Blow up dolls promise to bear your body weight so long as it’s no more than 225lbs. Vibrators in several sizes and colours – not excluding a floral pattern – can be purchased for between £6.99 and £19.99 (the price depends on whether you want it to light up in the dark, be waterproof, or talk to you). Black bondage gear, latex outfits, and uniforms for French maids and nurses line the walls. At the back, an encyclopaedic range of what are politely styled top-shelf magazines turns out to have colonised the middle-shelves and the bottom-shelves too. But that’s not all. Before you leave, don’t forget to take a look at the video collection, including the title currently playing on a wall-mounted monitor. For just £9.99, you too could own a copy of the 60-minute classic, Wet Knicker Games.
Ann Summers’ redbrick HQ is in Whyteleafe, a conurbation near Croydon otherwise notable only for its BP petrol station and the green-painted gasometer directly opposite the first-floor office of the chief exectutive, Jacqueline Gold. Stepping into that office, and shaking hands with the shortish, dark-haired woman dressed in lilac, I knew what kind of person I was dealing with. I’d taken the precaution of reading Gold’s autobiography, Good Vibrations, a book crammed with bold assertions and exclamation marks. “I am simply not the hard-faced, brassy bitch that many people automatically expect me to be,” she explained in the memoir. “In many ways I am much more devious than that. I deliberately seek to manipulate situations to my advantage by using my persuasive guile.”
I had been warned.
Gold joined the company at the start of the 80s after stints in hairdressing, waitressing and department-store sales. Ann Summers had been founded in the 70s and was taken over soon afterwards by Gold’s father, David, and her uncle Ralph, who’d already made themselves rich as publishers of soft porn. Young Jackie worked, initially, as a clerk, but that didn’t last long because in the spring of 1981 she had a brilliant idea.
This great insight occurred at a girls-only party in Essex. Somebody discovered that she worked at Ann Summers, and suddenly she was flooded with requests. “We want to buy sexy underwear for ourselves, but we wouldn’t be seen dead in any of your shops,” one woman told her. (At the time, Gold explains, sexy underwear was not so easy to come by as it is now.) Driving home to Kent that night in her mustard coloured Mini, she came up with a scheme to present to the board: a kind of tupperware party, but with sexy products.
It’s easy to forget, sitting before this well groomed 39-year-old, quite how big a challenge she faced. She had little education. She worked in the accounts department earning just £45 a week. And, crucially, she was a young woman – just 20 – working in a company where young women were most usefully employed in taking their clothes off. “Before that board meeting, I think my father and everyone else thought I was just an office girl,” she recalls. (As somebody who has risen within the ranks of a family company, and stands to take over the £300m Gold Group when her 62-year-old father eventually retires, she takes a strong line on nepotism. That is to say, she’s against it. Indeed, before appointing her sister to a job, she sent her for psychometric testing.)
Presented with her idea, the board proved less than enthusiastic. One director, a man called Ron Coleman, told her the idea wouldn’t work because, “women aren’t interested in sex”. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t reflect particularly well on his own accomplishments in that department. But a couple of days after the meeting her father told her to go ahead and advertise for party organisers.
The first official Ann Summers party took place at Thamesmead, generating sales of £83.21. Since then, Gold has transformed Ann Summers from a seedy shop catering largely for men into an woman-friendly empire turning over £43m a year. Three-quarters of that income derives from the parties, so it’s not surprising that the biggest difficulty Gold has faced in the last 17 years has been fighting attempts by rival companies to poach from her 7,500-strong force of party organisers. There have been other problems too. In the early 90s Gold spent two years and a lot of money on the launch of a sexy magazine for women which eventually had to be closed down. And there’s the on-going battle to overcome people’s prejudices about the company. “The biggest difficulty is getting people to understand what we are. We have something like two million customers a year. Ordinary people. They can’t all be wrong. It’s dealing with certain institutions that’s difficult. And men. They can’t go to the parties, they don’t like to imagine what’s going on, and I think they feel uncomfortable going into the shops.”
Nevertheless, retail operations are doing well. Last week the company opened a new store in Norwich. Not long before that, branches opened in Dublin and Sydney. All being well, there’ll soon be a franchise in Japan and even Saudi Arabia. “We have a branch in Queensway which has a lot of Arab customers,” Gold explains, “and we’ve heard that Muslim women wear the best underwear in the world. We won’t be selling vibrators.”
When Gold says the word “vibrator”, her eyes sparkle, and a smile plays round her lips. These signs of amusement, I strongly suspect, are put on for my benefit. Vibrators do, it’s true, have the capacity to inspire laughter – as has been demonstrated, this week, with the arrival of the Ann Summers catalogue in the offices of the Financial Times magazine. Did we laugh, exclamation mark. But the joke must eventually wear thin. After 17 years, doesn’t Gold find it all a bit tedious? Isn’t it rather telling that can’t remember the last time she went to a party? “I don’t go because it would be too intimidating for the organisers,” she insists. “And I don’t get bored with the products. You could get immune to it, but I don’t. I’ll always have an input with product development. There are always some ideas that make me laugh.”
These ideas – supplied by customers and staff alike – are not always intended to be humorous. One man wrote to Gold to suggest the manufacture of a harness, or Love Seat, in which a woman could recline while her consort performed standing up. Another advocated the production of a mechanism which would establish for certain whether women have faked orgasm. Those suggestions were not taken up – but many more commercially practical suggestions have been produced, assessed against British electrical standards, and passed on to a group of product testers who, not unreasonably, prefer to remain anonymous.
Eight out of ten of the best selling products, disappointingly, are lingerie. Some years ago, in a fit of managerial ruthlessness, Gold decided to terminate product lines which were not selling well. But this, she learned, was a mistake. The point of some items is not to separate punters from their money, but to procure shocked giggles from them. Without the naughty items there would be little to distinguish Ann Summers from, say, the lingerie department at British Home Stores. There would be little to giggle about at parties – and a giggle, Gold more or less agrees, is Ann Summers’ Unique Selling Point.
Not all overseas markets will prove susceptible to the charms of a giggle. Take Germany, where Ann Summers opened in the mid-80s: “The Germans are very businesslike,” Gold concedes, “and look upon a party as a shopping opportunity rather than a fun night out.” But even if the overseas operations don’t take off, there’s still room for expansion in the UK. Ann Summers currently has 24 stores here – including Norwich – and Gold reckons the number could rise as high as 75 before the market is saturated.
Contrary to expectations, our chat has been largely devoid of awkwardness. When blushing does occur, it has nothing to do with vibrators, or any other sex aid. It’s when I ask about money. Gold giggles, and performs a brief squirming motion in her seat. But this unease is surprising, because she recently decided to go public on this matter. Her annual income, she revealed, is £700,000.
For a woman of such means, she has terrifically modest tastes. The jacket she wears today, designed by Paddy Campbell, is by no means the priciest of its sort. In her book, she revealed that she has bought “quite a few” pictures. But Charles Saatchi has little to fear. Gold’s art collection includes “a parchment picture from Egypt”, another work from Thailand and three prints of woodland scenes which she possessed as a child (“I had added a few extra animals in pencil but I was able to erase them before I framed and hung them in the spare bedroom”). So where does the money go? One major expense is protective: “I have top-of-the-range locks and security,” she claims. And after a puzzled pause, she mentions the silvery Mercedes parked downstairs – convertible, and fitted with a pricey sound system and personalised plates (A5 LTD). The price, £80,000, is not bad – but Gold, stung by my accusation of thrift, adds in her defense: “I never go short. I travel first class. I do things that single girls do – I socialise, I go on fabulous holidays.”
Thanks in part to her relatively modest spending habits – and despite her manicured nails – it would be hard to imagine a more impressive example of the type condescendingly described as “girl next-door”. Aged 20, Gold married the son of one of her school dinner ladies. Before him, she’d been out with a lathe operator and a petrol pump attendant, and after the marriage broke up she commenced a relationship with a dancer in one Ann Summers’ Chippendale-style dance troupes. It’s to her credit, I think, that nobody could accuse Gold of being a social climber.
But if it’s not the money, and it’s not social standing, what is it that motivates her? “I’m motivated by the success of the company, not particularly by how much I’m earning. Women are motivated by achievement and men are motivated by money. That’s my experience. My ex- works for Canon, he’s one of their top sales people, and he’s fundamentally motivated by money.”
Arguably the most important man in Gold’s life, her father, left home when she was 12. Her mother, otherwise extremely protective of her daughters (“I was not allowed to go out and play with friends in case I got run over or kidnapped”), seems to have had no strong opinions about the seedy milieu in which he operated. “Mum isn’t interested in the business.” And anyway, Gold argues, “Some people are repelled by a vibrator, some people find homosexuality repelling. What’s right for one person might not be right for another. I do believe in freedom of choice.” I see. But when I ask if this means she’d like to remove all legal restrictions on the sex industry, she abandons her free-market ethic in favour of the line you’d expect from those critics who have never seen the things they criticise: “You have to have boundaries,” Gold says gravely. And after a perplexing conversational detour, touching principally on animals, children, and the dodgy material readily available in Amsterdam, she admits, “I’m not familiar with what is sold in Amsterdam.” If this is her persuasive guile, I fear it’s no longer the power it once was.
Gold is not, one suspects, a person who looks deeply into these ethical questions. But she did once go on record as a pro-family Conservative. She’s too late to stand for Kensington and Chelsea, alas, but will she, one day, do the Tories a favour and stand? “No. I used to be more political than I am now, but there are other things that I enjoy more. My work with the Breast Cancer Campaign” – she’s a trustee – “allows me to use my business abilities. It’s nice to feel you are making a contribution apart from making money.” Is she religious? “No.” But that denial sounds rather flat, so she sets out her theological position more fully. “I do believe in God, and I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church.”
One place she does go to religiously is Birmingham City Football Club, in which the Gold Group, through its stake in Sport Newspapers, is a major shareholder. (David and Ralph Gold set up the Sport in 1987, in a surprising joint venture with their greatest rival in soft-porn, David Sullivan.) One day the Blues will be hers, and – as with other parts of the Gold group which did not always seem alluring to her, such as the distribution business, the airline and the porn mags – she’s devoted considerable attention, in the last two years, to the beautiful game. Her open-minded approach offers a model to would-be customers loitering outside a branch of Ann Summers. “My father asked me to come along. I really expected to hate it. But it felt so exhilarating.”