interview: Ivan Massow; Mr Pink goes to work
Gay Pride is now so mainstream that big business is falling over itself to provide sponsorship. Back in 1990, gay men couldn't even get life assurance. Enter Mr Pink Pound, the multi-millionaire broker (and ex-model) who taught the industry a lesson in tolerance
Sunday 23 November 1997
He set up his own company, Massow's, formerly Ivan Massow Associates, seven years ago. Astutely, he was the first to recognise the potential of what has become known as the "pink pound". "In 1990 the prejudice towards people with Aids and HIV was at its absolute worst," he recalls. "People were in a dire situation. We had banks foreclosing on people's mortgages and loans, cancelling their credit cards. And so, what I decided to do was set up this company to try and help these people."
He started up in a squat in Kentish Town, north London. He had no capital, the recession was in full swing, and everyone predicted that he would be hounded out of business by the big insurance companies. Massow, however, is nothing if not tenacious. "My dream was to create this little brokerage that would one day teach the insurance industry a lesson. It was almost a crusade. The companies behaved outrageously and I wanted to teach them something by being successful, by proving that they'd missed out by not being more sympathetic."
Seven years later, he has one of the largest brokerage turnovers in the country, offices in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, and he is planning a major expansion, with the backing of the City that wouldn't touch him when he started. Although his clientele these days is by no means exclusively gay ("sorting out a good pension has got nothing to do with sexuality"), he likes to think, he says, that Massow's "in its own little way, has challenged the views of institutions that would never before have accepted the rights of anyone who wasn't white, heterosexual and living in suburbia".
And where Massow led, others have followed, in droves, lured by a market that boasts a high proportion of affluent professionals. The tourism and building industry are among the highest-profile milkers of the "pink pound", while the Gay Pride Trust is currently in disarray following internal squabbles over the commercialisation of the festival, as big-business investors fall over each other to offer sponsorship. "I've sponsored Pride every year since I started; my first year I only turned over pounds 36,000 and the sponsorship budget was pounds 3,000, so you can imagine how difficult that was," says Massow. "As Pride grew and became more commercial it became more and more difficult for businesses like us to make an impact. We could still spend our pounds 3,000 or pounds 5,000 or pounds 10,000, but the big businesses would be able to spend significantly more and have such large brand recognition that it would dwarf us. I'm quite flattered that these companies feel that we're a valuable market, but on the downside, as a small businessman, it's bloody inconvenient because we can't make any impact."
Corporate impact or no at Pride, his influence in other spheres has not gone unnoticed. He was voted "Man of the Year" last year by the Pink Paper. But the rise and rise of Ivan Massow has not always been plain sailing. He was adopted at the age of 12. "My life up to then is a bit of a blur. I had four different families, my name changed from Field to Mitchell to Massow, I was moved around for various reasons." He grew up in the Sussex suburbs, and left his Brighton comprehensive with no qualifications to speak of. Although he is confident, smiling and full of easy charm, he says that, internally, he is a worrier. "I had sleepless nights, ulcers and all sorts." His nerves were not helped by the fact that he bravely decided the best way to deal with the threat of the big insurance companies deciding to squash him was to opt for the highest profile he could drum up in the press. "I wanted to be too difficult to stand on. I wanted to be seen as a public relations liability, so the insurance companies would be too frightened to move against me." This meant coming out himself - very publicly. "My adopted father didn't know about my sexuality and wrote me a terrible letter about bringing his name into disrepute."
At the same time, not knowing if his business would succeed or fail he was working as a model, for agencies in London and New York. "That industry is terribly homophobic. If you're doing an ad for a men's product, you're meant to be a man! They don't want publicity following you about that you're actually a wuss! So, the model agencies were very upset about the publicity I was getting. But I knew I had to do it if the business was going to survive."
And survive it did - not just because of its initial exclusive client base. Massow's pays no commission to its salespeople, and they are not allowed to visit out of the office or cold-call. The office, in the middle of Soho, is small and friendly, with trendy lime-green woodwork and young staff. "Our clients trust us a great deal, they like our reputation, there is no time-wasting and we are a nice, clean business. And we are cool; different to all the other financial outlets, which people associate with grey suits and laptops." This cool image has led to many television appearances, including a stint on the Big Breakfast back when it was hip.
Despite this trendy image, Ivan Massow does not think of himself as a man-about-town. He has a Soho pied-a-terre, but lives mainly in Sussex, on a farm, with his three horses and his springer spaniel Freddie, who doubles as a friendly unofficial receptionist in the office. "The countryside is where I feel at home," he says. "I'll go to a glam party as long as it's Monday to Wednesday, but the rest of the time I'll be in my cottage cooking a roast."
Earlier this year, his partner James committed suicide; although he is now in a happy new relationship, the wound is still raw. "Shock is an understatement to describe how I felt," he says. "The grief of suicide is a combination of the loss of someone, but when you lose someone to suicide you also suffer because they left you - it's a rejection, a partner literally walking out of your life. It made me quite suicidal myself for a while and I've always been relatively strong.
"My closest friend died of Aids the year before, yet while it was terribly, terribly sad, the fact that you were able to say goodbye and the fact that they didn't leave you voluntarily sort of helps. But the rejection of being left by suicide is so... magnificent. Afterwards, I thought of all sorts of crazy things, like joining the church or giving up my business to work for charities."
What he has done because of James's suicide is become an active supporter of the Samaritans. His other pet causes include Gay Pride, Stonewall, Crusaid, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Body Positive, movements for people with disabilities, and local country causes. "I want the business to be even more successful, but that's for my ego, not for financial reasons," he says. "It sounds quite naff but the success of the business means I have everything materially I could ever want, and the nicest thing is to have the cash to be able to support these things, to say 'Yes!' and write a cheque."
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