Today the menopause. Tomorrow ethical mousse: She showers with mango butter. She hired ex-cons as security guards. She has been 'impregnated by the forest'. Her lastest projest is skin care for 80-year-olds. Is Anita Roddick now completely bonkers?

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It is lunchtime at Anita Roddick's London town house - roast beef sandwiches and garlicky cheese - and the founder of the Body Shop is talking about growing old. Roddick, 52, believes she faces her menopause 'any minute'. Her skin is like parchment, she says. At present she is drawing spiritual nourishment from the Dogon people of Mali, 'whose concept of beauty is women who have droopy breasts'.

It's not all gloom: there is a new Body Shop product to revive her. 'Before I go into the shower I slap on this thick butter and oil and scrub it into my skin.' Any old butter? 'I use mango body butter.'

After the shower, she must confront other problems. One of these is the aftershock left by Jon Entine, the American journalist who trailed her for months in an attempt to expose her company as a sham.

One must proceed with caution, ease her into the impact this has had on her. There is her own self-image to consider, and the question of whether one of Britain's most successful businesswomen - who has revolutionised ethical commerce with the troubles of the world on her shoulders - has now gone completely bonkers.

She must be crazy, you think as you roam the Oxford Street shop in search of the nuttiest product. What an easy target: liquorice bubble bath, tangerine beer shampoo, ylang-ylang oil . . .

Once the Body Shop was simply jojoba and aloe and you could just about leave the shop without ridiculing it, but now it's all ritual scarification and wisdom from the Chipewyan Indians, and everywhere you look there's Anita the tribal founder (born: Littlehampton) telling us to save that sea turtle, trade nuts with that Kayapo.

Most of the truly wacky products are to be found in the bathroom of Roddick's house. There are some products with white labels - concoctions yet to be unleashed on the public.

This home is a pied-a-terre, Conran meets mud hut, with ornaments purchased worldwide on her Amex card. On the kitchen table lies her new Body Shop Book, a manual of beauty without cruelty and trade-not-aid, all the honourable tenets on which she has built her reputation and her fortune.

There are many useful tips in the book, for men as well as women, and these include her way of avoiding total baldness. Castration. A tad extreme, perhaps.

The book carries a social and political zeal not normally found in, say, the Estee Lauder catalogue. But cosmetics is a strange tool with which to change the world, and of late Roddick's campaigns have all but eclipsed the potency of the lotions in her shops. She mounted a vigorous poster campaign to uphold sanctions during the Gulf war; she is collecting millions of signatures to stop the trade in endangered species; she speaks on the US lecture circuit about placing human rights on everyone's business agenda; she has become such a valuable visitor at so many small Indian reservations that she can't keep up with all the offers for new trading possibilities. And yet people remain suspicious of her and distrust her relentless enthusiasms. Perhaps it's because of the relentlessness that they distrust her.

'Maybe the company would now be more successful without me,' she says. 'I'm no doubt a problem for a lot of people, certainly a lot of the press. If you're passive and you're sexy you could just drive around in great-looking cars and keep quiet. I'd have a much easier time. But if you stand up for things that people are uncomfortable with, especially if you're a woman, then you'll always be in for it. 'Hang on,' people say, men say, 'you're selling skin and hair care. What makes you think you can take on Shell?' '

Perhaps people find you humourless?

'That's so ridiculous. That's because I don't do much public speaking here. Last week in Washington I was getting this award, and I told them about an award I got in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I went to talk to a great feminist meeting, and they were obviously delighted with what I said and I got three little ceramic vaginas. One with a head in it, one with a flower in it, and one with nothing in it. The last one was mine, because of my upcoming menopause.'

Soon she will deliver another speech, to her employees. This will be about ageing, her topic of the moment. 'I don't want to die,' she says at one point. 'I want to see poets in cabinets.' Beg pardon? 'It would be great to get a poet in the cabinet - change the whole notion of political leadership.'

So that she may look good when this happens she is developing a new strategy: skin and hair care for the older community. Do 80-year-olds care about this as much as she does? 'I don't think they do now, but there is a market. Women are reinventing themselves. Hirsuteness is a real problem. Facial hair.'

Also for the future are fruit materials: 'We take fruit and vegetables and pulp them up and put them into products.' And hair mousse without aerosol and aluminium cans: 'We've found a packaging guy in Germany who can do it.' People are demanding mousse, she says, and not having it in the shop at the moment is a 'tension'.

Not all Roddick's ideas have turned out well. There was her involvement with the expensive television series Millennium, based on the idea of imparting tribal wisdom, which was judged so weak that it was buried in the afternoon schedules. And then there was this wheeze with prisoners, a plan to employ ex-convicts in her shops. 'We did it,' she says, plucking grapes from a bowl. 'But it didn't work. We trained them as security guards in the warehouse. Absolutely no discipline. No work ethic.'

It was just this sort of practice which aroused the suspicions of Jon Entine. Was the Body Shop all window display? Did as many of its product ingredients come from the trade-not-aid policy as it claimed? What about animal testing? The promise of a bombshell prompted a dip in the company's share value and, says Roddick, 'more headlines than Rwanda. Seventeen years of reputation doesn't really matter to a media that sniffs blood.'

When the story appeared, in the US Business Ethics magazine, it was rather disappointing. It was mostly old stuff, Roddick claims, riddled with inaccuracies and covering the same ground as the Body Shop's successful High Court libel case against a Dispatches programme on Channel 4. The article 'was peanuts compared to what we went through there'.

The Body Shop published an expensively produced defence, 50 pages longer than the offending article. 'You can't not feel wounded,' Roddick says. 'Especially when they compare you with people you hate - Procter & Gamble, Union Carbide.'

The share tumble 'was all speculators, and I don't give

a toss for them'. This does

not marry exactly with the

vigorous damage-limitation mounted by her husband, Gordon, who was company chairman at the time.

Her daughter Justine walks in. She is 25, and expecting

a baby before Christmas. We get a bit of Absolutely Fabulous.

'Hello hunnybunny]' her mother says.

'Is this your book?'

'Would you like to take it, hunnybunny?'

Her other daughter, Samantha, 22, is a 'consumer vigilante' who 'will not buy anything until she knows exactly where it comes from'. She lives in a small community in Vancouver, where she works with the homeless.

We have now been talking

for an hour, but there is still no sign of Roddick's menopause. The conversation is back on tribal ground and she talks about being 'impregnated by the forest' and bound around the waist with exotic leaves. I wonder how the painted natives see her. They love her, of course, but they have also joined the ranks of those who believe she may be slightly mad.

'They probably think I'm a complete buffoon . . . I usually arrive with lots of music. I come with my Sony Walkman with two speakers.'

What sort of music?

'Grace Jones.'

So this is the new mercantilism: they give her Brazil nuts, she gives them Grace Jones. Just think what she could have got for Paul McCartney.