Anita Roddick: The grapefruit gladiator

She's the do-gooding natural beauty mogul, but now the cosmetics giants are after her business
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The Independent Online

For the public needs Roddick just the way she is. At 63, the country's highest profile businesswoman is still there championing the green cause whenever we get bored and slope off to Starbucks for a latte, flashing her pubic hair to tribes in exchange for the secret recipes for their potions. And there's a certain comfort from knowing that, whenever she stops raging against the multinationals or poverty for a moment, she will direct her never-ending outrage to yet another injustice. Only last week she turned her fire on Beyoncé and Britney Spears for apparently celebrating the sex industry and pedalling "pimp and whore" culture: "The reality is sexual trafficking, young women being forced into rooms to have sex however many times a day so the pimp can take all the money," she said. And we thought they were just singers.

Certainly Roddick doesn't need - may not even want - the £120m she and her husband, Gordon, could receive from a take-over. For the Dame doesn't do dosh, announcing her intention to give away her £51m fortune. "Money doesn't mean anything for me. The worst thing is greed - the accumulation of money," said the woman whose kitchen has four sinks and two dishwashers. The happy recipients will be those who "show leadership in the areas of global justice, human rights, environmental action and grassroots organising", which rules out many of the chancers who have been writing to her hoping to get a bit of the action.

Roddick was born in a bomb shelter in Littlehampton, West Sussex, to an immigrant Italian family. Her mother, Gilda, brought up her four children alone after divorcing her first husband, Donny, and marrying his cousin, Henry, who died two years later. The family ran a café where the children were required to work at weekends and after school. It wasn't until Roddick was 18 that she learned that Henry was her real father, and that she was the result of an affair. Roddick was relieved, for Donny was irascible. Gilda inspired in her children a work ethic and a respect for natural remedies: they soaked smelly socks in crushed ivy, learned that olive oil was good for the hair.

Roddick trained as a teacher of history and English. Work on a kibbutz turned into a worldwide working tour, on which she absorbed the natural beauty tips that were to make her fortune. On her return to Britain in 1965 she met Gordon, a poet. Four days later they moved in together. They opened a restaurant, then a hotel, and married in 1971 when their first child, Justine, was one, and their second, Samantha, was conceived.

In 1976, while Gordon was on a lengthy solo horse-riding trip across North and South America, Roddick took a £4,000 bank loan, put her first natural beauty products into refillable containers (she had no money to buy more, so customers would have to return them) and rented a shop in Brighton, to support herself and her daughters. Gordon became the financial brains behind the venture.

Eventually the company's natural image and hard stand against animal testing won a over a new generation of politically-correct consumers. The pair collected five million signatures to protest against animal testing and 12 million calling for action on human rights. The venture that started on a kitchen table developed into what is today a chain of more than 2,000 stores in 52 countries.

Roddick stepped down as chief executive in 1998 after profits collapsed by 90 cent following dramatic over-expansion. In 2002 she resigned as co-chairman, along with her husband, and set up the communications firm Anita Roddick Publications, specialising in global rights. Since she stood down from the full-time role, the retail chain's fortunes have blossomed. She currently owns a 9.3 per cent stake in the company, and Gordon 8.7.

A non-executive director, Roddick still travels the world (often in first class) in search of new products, even some might argue that if she really wanted to save the planet she would stop plundering its resources to give the world yet more bubblebath. She believes that the company has become hierarchical and patriarchal, unlike the old days when mothers breast-fed their babies in the office.

The anti-capitalist bitterly regrets floating The Body Shop on the London stock market. She claimed it turned the company into a "dysfunctional coffin" beholden to the financial bottom line. Another regret was bringing in management consultants, because they are "all arseholes", and failing to persuade other companies such as Avon and Procter & Gamble to trade directly with the developing world. She admits that had she still been running the company, her very public stance against the Iraq war would have caused mayhem in the US.

Home is a reproduction Georgian-style house in the Sussex countryside near to where she grew up. She has designed the bedrooms in bordello, Chinese, Shaker, African and Caribbean themes. There is also a vineyard in the back garden which produces home grown pinot noir. But one wonders how comfortable she is to live with. Not only is she "frightened of leisure", she has three rules in the kitchen - no bottled water, no wasted food and no going to bed without clearing up. The four sinks enable her guests to help wash up.

She says, however, that she doesn't really need friends. The only time she feels truly happy is when she's being nomadic. "Nomads do not create restrictive, reliant relationships with others." She admits that she is a better grandmother than she was mother. She was so busy with work there wasn't much time for the children, which she refuses to feel guilty about it. Justine was once so unhappy and desperate for attention that she faked an illness while at boarding school and underwent an operation to have her appendix removed. She now works for the Body Shop in America. Samantha runs the erotic emporium, Coco de Mer, in London.

Nor have things always run smoothly with Gordon, who, in 2000, had an affair. At the time Roddick declared that they had an open marriage. Later she qualified it by explaining that she meant that they had different and separate interests, rather than it being open in the sexual sense. While Gordon loves polo and golf, his wife would rather spend six months travelling with a vagrant in America to highlight the causes of poverty.

She once told the psychiatrist Anthony Clare that she was tired of being so strong and wanted someone to hold her and make decisions for her. One presumes, however, that doesn't stretch as far as embracing the suits at L'Oréal.