The rise and fall of Ivan Massow

Profile of the 'no-hoper' who left school with one O-level and went on to make millions from the pink pound. We look at how he brought colour to the grey world of pensions and insurance - and why he's being 'tormented' by Zurich Life.

"Having decided to kill myself, I went about it in an extremely efficient manner," writes Ivan Massow in the Daily Mail. He put his affairs in order and returned to his Mayfair flat where he took a huge overdose. "I didn't lie on my bed and wait to die like some pre-Raphaelite romantic... I continued sorting my affairs until I dropped to the floor." Fortunately the attempt failed, as did a later "half-hearted" attempt to cut his wrists. "Then the realisation hit me: the tormentor driving to me to such depths of despair by destroying my business and trashing my reputation would only have its pleasure further enhanced."

Massow's "tormentor" is Zurich Life: the insurance giant with whom he went into partnership in 2003. At the time, it was seen as an extraordinary move, says The Daily Telegraph. Massow, often credited for kick-starting the "pink pound" personal finance market, was accused of jumping into bed with the enemy: in an earlier ad campaign, he had lambasted Zurich's subsidiary, Allied Dunbar, for its homophobia. Why the U-turn? Massow claims Zurich told him it had seen the error of its ways and wanted to create a "super-gay" insurance firm. He found too late he'd been "tricked", alleging that Zurich reneged on its promises and all his clients abandoned him. Within 13 months of signing the deal, Ivan Massow Consulting went bust, owing Zurich £330,000: Zurich has since pursued him through the courts for the cash.

It's a compelling saga but, over the course of a roller-coaster career, we've come to expect nothing less from Massow. He is, says The Times, the ultimate "Vicar of Bray" (the cleric notorious for constantly switching sides during the Reformation). Having built his fortune, he combined a drug-fuelled gay lifestyle in Soho and Ibiza with the role of fox-hunting squire at his estate in Somerset: hobnobbing at Highgrove and patronising the arts (he has commissioned seven portraits of himself, including a well-endowed nude diptych by Jonathan Yeo).

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Then there has been his putative political career. Having come out as a Tory under William Hague, he famously acted as walker to Margaret Thatcher during the 1999 party conference, later claiming he escorted the "bonkers old bird" merely as an act of grand campery. Abandoning the Tories in disgust over Section 28, he joined Labour, but quit again after being sidelined. A parallel career in the arts proved equally short-lived. Elected chairman of the ICA at 30, he was ousted after describing its contemporary art as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat".

Massow is a classic "insider's outsider or, perhaps, outsider's insider" with "an almost familial need to belong", regardless of what to, notes the Evening Standard. Yet, given his background, his craving for identity is unsurprising. Born in Brighton in 1967, he started life as Ivan Field. After surviving an abusive father and a nasty stepfather, he was adopted by a middle-aged bachelor, John Massow, at 12. For all the vagaries of his later career, his meteoric rise from a dyslexic no-hoper who left school with just one O-level in metalwork to multi-millionaire is a textbook case of entrepreneurial daring. As he faces up to ruin, Massow is hoping the drive hasn't left him. "Failing is cathartic," he writes, "and maybe I'll do it all again. As Chris Evans said to me recently at a party thrown by George Michael I'm name-dropping here just to lighten the mood Life is an act in two parts. It's whether you survive the interval'."

A colourful pioneer in a grey and dreary world

Ivan Massow was a pioneer "in the grey and dreary world of pensions and insurance", says Patrick Collinson in The Guardian. He began his crusade as a teenage insurance salesman with National Provident in Bristol. It was the height of the mid-80s Aids panic and he was appalled by attitudes that meant gay men were forced to pay through the nose for insurance, regardless of their circumstances. Spotting his opportunity, he moved to London in 1990, founding the grandly named Bowater Massow from a squat in Kentish Town and drumming up business by mobile phone. "Months later," says Collinson, "I was invited to a party at his new home [in] one of Islington's smartest addresses. From a glance around the room, it was clear that young Mr Massow had become one of the brightest attractions for the capital's faggerati'."

Business boomed for the "pink millionaire" (at the height of his career, his company was worth £22m), fuelled by Massow's talent for publicity. "He flogged himself as much as his business," using a photograph of himself embracing his then boyfriend James Knight, to front a campaign that appeared on the streets days after Knight committed suicide. But Massow is somewhat disingenuous in claiming that he entered into the 2003 partnership with Zurich at the head of a solid and thriving firm, says The Daily Telegraph: at the time, his firm Felix Financial was four months late filing its accounts. An earlier merger with the Oxford-based gay IFA Rainbow also ended in disaster when the firm went bust, with both sides blaming the other. Massow is undoubtedly a gifted entrepreneur, but staying power may not be his forte.