Jaqueline Gold: the woman who brought sex toys to the high street

Enigmatic Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold is the 'acceptable face' of the sex industry.

Last month a sizeable crowd packed into the Science Museum to hear a team of technicians from Ann Summers give an illustrated lecture on the history of sex toys. Prehistoric, Roman, Greek, Medieval, Chinese and Victorian "toys" were all discussed, says The Daily Telegraph. Proof, were it needed, that the sex industry has entered mainstream culture. "The pursuit of pleasure is no longer taboo. Prudes be damned." For much of this revolution in consumers' psyches, we can thank Jacqueline Gold.

Gold is "the acceptable face of the sex industry", says the Daily Mail.And you might say she was born for the role: her father David and uncle Ralph are the East End brothers who built the porn-to-property empire Gold Group International. Thanks to Jacqueline, the tiny Ann Summers offshoot has become "by far their biggest earner", turning over some £145m annually.

The image she's keen to present is one of good, clean fun. Ann Summers' goods are certainly arranged as artfully as the shops themselves (see below), says The Daily Telegraph. The latest store is in London's new Westfield shopping centre, where "couples come to spice up their sex lives and not to go to some seedy backwater store", says Gold. The product she is proudest of is the Rampant Rabbit vibrator, which sells two million annually. She describes it as "almost iconic".

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The Golds are a family more prone than most to baring their souls, says The Times. A chapter in David Gold's autobiography begins: "Several months after the trauma of seeing my best friend John and my wife Beryl having sex in my swimming pool..." And her own memoir, Please Let it Stop, is full of depression, divorce, failed IVF attempts, unfaithful partners and more, says The Daily Telegraph. Yet Gold, the apparent victim, is the same person "regularly voted businesswoman of the year", who "faced down threats from the IRA" to open a store in Dublin.

Having joined Ann Summers (acquired by the family as a four-store chain in 1972) as a teenager, Gold's masterstroke involved "feminising the brand", initially by holding Tupperware-style parties for women in their own homes. The Ann Summers Party Plan proved so successful that, from 1987 onwards, she started adding stores cementing the march onto the high street with the 2000 acquisition of Knickerbox. The privately held chain, which employs 10,000 staff and has now mushroomed to 134 stores, is routinely declared one of the great retail successes.

Described as "smart, dedicated and funny", Gold has shown the same grittiness in her private life as she has in business. At 49, she's just become the mother of Scarlett, conceived after a series of IVF treatments, during which she kept a hands-on grip on her empire.

Yet Gold remains an enigmatic figure, says The Observer. Softly spoken and elegant, you just can't imagine her sitting in meetings "giving the nod to the ejaculating Santa". But she does, and unapologetically. "I don't feel I need to emulate men or be a certain way. Success and figures speak for themselves."

'Phwoar, one must get one'

"Ann Summers shops are like a classroom full of kids," says The Daily Telegraph: "they get naughtier at the back." The entrance display features the kind of underwear you might find in Marks & Spencer. Mid-store are sexier lines and "dress up" costumes: nurses, prison wardens, school girls. At the back of the store, behind a discrete screen, are the sex toys. Despite suffering the same lack of footfall as the rest of the high street, Ann Summers has had a good recession, with sales during "events" such as Valentine's Day and Halloween spiking sharply. The simple truth, says Gold, is that people have more sex in a downturn. "Staying in is the new going out. People like to cheer themselves up."

The chain's continuing expansion speaks volumes for the theory: Ann Summers will open in the mammoth Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent in December. But Gold's niche business could be threatened as the market becomes more crowded. Alliance Boots has famously followed her lead into sex toys; and Victoria's Secret, the American lingerie chain, is planning a big push in Britain. Gold also faces challenges from more upmarket brands, such as Coco de Mer and Agent Provocateur.

But the competition will be hard pushed to beat Gold's marketing prowess. In 2007, as the Daily Mail notes, she was feted at Buckingham Palace as one of Britain's great female entrepreneurs. The Queen, she said later, had "a twinkle in her eye". History doesn't relate whether Her Majesty recalled that, a few years earlier, Gold had used her image to sell a Wild Guide to Sex, with the speech bubble: "Phwoar, one must get one."