Jacqueline Gold, who has died aged 62, became one of the richest women in Britain by removing the seediness from sex shops and encouraging women to talk about and enjoy sex. Public acceptance of her Ann Summers brand was often hard won, however, and she once received a bullet in the mail when trying to open a store in Dublin.
he first Ann Summers shop had been opened near Marble Arch in 1970 by Annice Summers and her sometime lover Michael ‘Dandy Kim’ Caborn-Waterfield, a playboy who was also involved with the actress Diana Dors. A year later, Annice walked out after a row and Caborn-Waterfield sold the business to Jacqueline’s father, David Gold, and his brother, Ralph, by then established as purveyors of top-shelf pornography. They expanded the company to four stores, mainly serving what his daughter called the “dirty-mac brigade”.
Jacqueline Gold, who became known as the “queen of sex”, was 21 and doing work experience with her father’s company as a wages clerk when in 1981 she was invited to a Tupperware-style party in East London. This gave her the idea of selling sex toys and lingerie to women from the privacy of their own homes.
Petite and pretty, with long sleek hair and manicured nails, she held several parties of her own before proposing the idea to the company’s all-male directors. They were doubtful. “One board member actually said to me, ‘Well, women aren’t even interested in sex, so why would this idea work?’,” she told the BBC.
With her father’s casting vote, she started the Ann Summers Party Plan, discreet but titillating parties open only to women. As well as affording customers a man-free space in which to discuss their sexual needs and desires, the party concept also circumvented regulations restricting the public display of sex toys.
They were an immediate success, Jacqueline explaining that the business model revolved around “not what you buy, but how you buy it”. Husbands, boyfriends and sons were banished to their study or shed while their wives, girlfriends and older daughters poured themselves a drink, took part in risqué games and examined lacy tops, crotchless underwear and willy warmers or other novelty sex toys.
Before long, Jacqueline became chief executive of Ann Summers, expanding its presence on the high street with welcoming window displays rather than the shuttered fronts and glaring neon lights of traditional sex shops. “Our customers are 70pc ABC1s, and that’s the image they like,” she told The Times. Male customers dithering among the red-and-black frillies were gently advised that “if you don’t know exactly, flatter the lady by buying the smaller size, she can always change it”.
In 2000, the company acquired Knickerbox, a 1980s success story that had fallen on hard times. By 2002, there were 7,500 home-party planners, while Ann Summers stores were selling a million vibrators a year to a customer base that, unlike licensed hard-core sex shops, was 75pc female.
Today, the company’s website lists almost 90 shops around the UK and has annual sales of £113.8m (€130m). For those too bashful to venture through its doors, or who fear being seen emerging clutching a Sex and the City-style Rampant Rabbit, there is a vigorous online business.
Jacqueline appeared to relish the publicity generated by her critics. A disgusted vicar in Tunbridge Wells complained the town’s branch of Ann Summers contributed to the “degradation” of marriage; the company went to court to overturn a ban on its vacancies being advertised in job centres; and a saucy poster showing a woman posing provocatively astride a rocking horse was deemed by the Advertising Standards Authority to have breached its decency code.
Sociologists variously described the Ann Summers phenomenon as contributing to a “pornification” of the country, or as representing a liberation from prudishness. Customers venturing farther inside the shops could find role-playing costumes such as a frilly maid’s outfit or a policewoman’s uniform, as well as items taking literary inspiration from the Black Lace books of female sexual fantasies, and even “bondage starter kits”.
Despite its role in bringing sex into the mainstream, the company had its own moments of tastelessness. An ad featuring Queen Elizabeth II reading a sex manual, accompanied by a speech bubble saying, “Phwoar, one must get one”, elicited a rare complaint from Buckingham Palace.
Jacqueline Gold was born in Bromley, Kent, on July 16, 1960, the daughter of David Gold, a bricklayer- turned-publisher who became joint chairman of Birmingham City FC and later West Ham United, where he had once been a promising junior, and his wife, Beryl (née Hunt). Her father reportedly wept when she was born because he wanted a son.
They divorced when Jacqueline and her sister Vanessa, who became a buying director for Ann Summers, were approaching their teens. Her father had returned early one day to their detached home at Biggin Hill in Kent, walked into his study and “stood looking out of the window down on to the swimming pool, and there in the water was my wife and my best friend, John, having sex”.
Jacqueline’s mother became involved with a new partner, who abused Jacqueline. As a result, sex became the source of many unpleasant memories, she recalled. Through Ann Summers, she said, she “deliberately set out to reclaim the most painful part of my life”.
Leaving school in the middle of her A-level year, she joined Royal Doulton, the ceramics manufacturer, but decided not to go into management. In 1979, she asked her father for work experience. “It wasn’t a very nice atmosphere to work in,” she recalled. “It was all men, it was the sex industry as we all perceive it to be.”
Having transformed the Ann Summers brand, Jacqueline was held up as a role model for women in business. In 2019, she and her family were No 287 on The Sunday Times rich list with a fortune estimated to be worth £470m and a private Learjet with GOLD emblazoned on the side. Her own tastes in the chain’s products were not for discussion, however. “I wear lots of Ann Summers lingerie, and that’s all I’m saying,” she declared.
Although shy in person, she was no stranger to the media, and was described by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of Britain’s Top 10 most powerful women. She appeared with Kirstie Allsopp, Clare Balding, Louise Redknapp and Lisa Snowdon in the “girls” team for a celebrity edition of The Apprentice in 2008, and was the subject of several television documentaries, including Ann Summers Uncovered. She also published two memoirs, Good Vibrations (1995) and A Woman’s Courage (2007), though the latter was withdrawn after a former employee sued for libel.
In 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment appeared to have been successful, but in 2019 the cancer returned. She underwent chemotherapy and was praised for her fund-raising and talking about the illness.
Jacqueline married Tony D’Silva, an underwear manufacturer, in 1980. The marriage was dissolved 10 years later and she is survived by her second husband, Daniel Cunningham, a City broker, and by her daughter, Scarlett, whose twin brother died at the age of eight months.
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