It hasn’t exactly been a sheltered life. But I’ve managed to stumble through seven decades without getting a handle – if that’s the right expression – on sex toys. Of course, for a public schoolboy growing up in middle England after the war, sex itself was just a distant rumour. Even now, having caught up after a late and shaky start, the precise purpose of these devices is mercifully hazy. And the idea of women-only parties where they are demonstrated and traded is a vision of hell; at least to those of us who try to fathom the female mind from the safety of the Garrick Club bar.
Men lost their grip on erotica about the time they lost their grip on 10 Downing Street, though it’s surely one thing Margaret Thatcher can’t be blamed for. It was another woman who took its dirty raincoat off, shifted it out of the back streets into the suburban lounge and rebranded sleaze as sensuality. For women, not men.
Jacqueline Gold, 55, built one of the fastest-growing empires in retail history out of naughty nighties and daffy dildos. She’s one of the richest women in the country. Some reports say she’s wealthier than the Queen; a fortune running into hundreds of millions, anyway. It’s Jacqueline Gold CBE these days. She has respect, if not quite the respectability she craves.
And now she’s getting the ultimate accolade, not to mention marketing tool. An ITV drama, Brief Encounters, inspired by the early days of her business and the parties that swapped Tupperware for sex wear.
Sex is the family business. Her father is David Gold, whose fortune was largely made out of what were once called “dirty magazines”.
He cried when she was born because she wasn’t a boy who could inherit the business. She didn’t see much of him after her parents divorced when she was 12. Her father had come home one day and found her mother having sex with the cleaner’s son in the swimming pool, according to one of her autobiographies.
Meeting Jacqueline now, glossy and groomed, guardedly charming in the steely sort of way that comes from being the boss of 10,000 people, it’s difficult to imagine her as what she describes as an “incredibly shy” teenager, a year behind the others at school.
Her mother was extremely protective. Jacqueline wasn’t even allowed into the front garden at home and, when they went to the beach, her mother drew a circle around Jacqueline, literally a line in the sand, which she was forbidden to cross. But her mum was not protective when it mattered. Jacqueline says her mother’s lover sexually abused her for three years. Her mother did nothing to stop it and, she says, slapped her across the face when it became too obvious to be ignored.
It might have ruined her life, at least warped her attitude to sex but, she says, she didn’t let it. “I’ve always been a survivor, and what happened to me I saw as cruelty, not sex. It was a matter of control, somebody else’s control over me. I wasn’t going to be a victim. It made me want to take control myself, to be successful. All through my life, I’ve been determined not to allow what’s happened to me to shape my future.”
Her first job was work experience – “getting paid less than the tea lady” – in her dad’s business. He’d bought some sex shops that had gone bust. They were called Ann Summers after the former owner’s girlfriend.
Jacqueline was skivvying in the mail order section when she had a flash of insight that made her fortune. One night she went along to a Tupperware-type party. “Some of the girls there knew I was working at Ann Summers.
They said to me: ‘We want to buy sexy underwear and sex toys to spice up our marriages, but we don’t want to have to go into a sex shop.’ I saw an opportunity to empower women, the exact opposite to what had happened to me as a child.”
At 21, she found herself pitching the idea to her father’s board of directors, half a dozen men, running a business completely targeted at men. It was a hard sell. “One of the directors threw his glasses onto the table in exasperation and said: ‘This is never going to work. Women just aren’t interested in sex.’ I thought, ‘That says more about your sex life than the real world.’ ”
The directors eventually agreed to let her start on a small scale, and the rest is history. From a handful of organisers she built up to 500 in a few months: housewives earning money on commission and “having a good time”. The parties propelled a business that grew 20 per cent a year. Now there are 7,000 party organisers, 140 high-street stores and a thriving internet business.
She reckons the nighties, knickers and sex novelties have so far been worth £1.5 billion to the British economy. Most profitable of all is a vibrator coyly called the Rampant Rabbit, which went stellar after a hop-on part in Sex in the City, and is reportedly selling two million a year. That’s rabbits for you.
She has, she says, feminised the world of sexual pleasure. Where once the customers were all men, buying whips and masks and maids’ outfits in large sizes, 80 per cent are now women. Sex is clearly an area of mutual incomprehension. Men apparently like women in red underwear; women think men like them best in black but actually prefer white or pink. There – news you can use for Valentine’s Day.
But she’s had her battles. Some local councils haven’t seen the dividing line she defends between her “good clean fun” stores and seedy Soho sex shops. When she opened a store in Dublin she got a bullet in the post (it’s now one of her most profitable shops). For a long time Jobcentres refused to take her advertisements for staff. There was sniffiness over her CBE.
She’s won nearly every time. “I’m tenacious. I’m relentless. I will not be bullied.” She’s definitely not someone to cross. Though she claims not to be hard-nosed, her attitude to those who’ve “done wrong by me” is “concrete shoes and the nearest river.
“I’m really not very good at forgiving.”
Her not-so-private life has been a struggle, too. The abuse, a failed marriage, depression, affairs with unsuitable men and finally, in an off-on relationship with a man 17 years her junior, several rounds of IVF, all detailed in her bestselling books.
If she’s ever had doubts about the business she’s in, she doesn’t admit it; she sees herself as a role model and her life story as an inspiration.
And, she says, times have changed; people are harder to shock. The stores have changed, too. Edible nipple tassles and the Orgasmatron (don’t ask) are at the back now; the lingerie is almost mainstream. In her eyes, she’s redefined the business of sex, which is probably true.
There are occupational hazards about her business. I doubt the boss of BP goes around with a bagful of “stallion pouches”, for instance. For the uninitiated, it’s a man’s G-string with the business end moulded into the shape of a horse’s muzzle. Plus there’s a button on the end, which, when pressed, neighs. British innovation at its best, of course, but an embarrassment in business class when someone throws their laptop on top of them and they all go off at once.
Not that it threw Jacqueline Gold for a moment. If all you need is a toy rabbit to change the world, you take these things in your stride.
Brief Encounters starts on Monday 4th July at 9pm on ITV