Jacqueline Gold: Good vibrations

She has transformed the once-seedy sex shop into a respectable, female-friendly high street presence. Now the woman who brought Britain the Rampant Rabbit is to be a TV star. Liz Hoggard meets her
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She has devoted her career to the family firm - Ann Summers. In the process, Jacqueline Gold has overseen a revolution in sex shops. Once the preserve of dodgy men in macs, her pine-clad shops, offering "lingerie pleasure products" - sex toys, saucy underwear - today nestle between Next and the Body Shop on the high street. Three-quarters of customers are female; most fall into the ABC1 category.

When Gold inherits her father David Gold's business empire on his retirement (apart from the Ann Summers chain, it includes an airline and co-ownership of Birmingham City football club), she will be one of Britain's richest women. Last week, she started giving some of that fortune away. Along with four other benefactors, Gold has donated £200,000 to the TV series Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway, which gives members of the public the chance to convince a panel to fund their fantasies and charitable schemes. "If people have a dream, I think it's really important they have the chance to put it into practice," she says. She is coming across well: sane, caring and no fool.

Gold, 46, is the second most powerful woman in retailing after WH Smith's Kate Swann. Although she wouldn't call herself a feminist "in the popular sense", she has, she says, always wanted to empower women. "Unlike 20 years ago, women are now exploring their sexuality and who they want to be," she says. "Most are making choices that make them feel confident."

But is it really empowering, I ask her, for women to dress up in a naughty nurse's outfit? "If a woman wants to wear PVC clubbing then that should be her decision. Only she knows what she is comfortable with. But yes, in public, women should consider factors such as their environment and safety. I think the problem occurs when the woman is doing it through low self-esteem in an attempt solely to please men."

When she first started working for her father's firm, back in 1979, she was puzzled by the sleazy ambience surrounding sex shops. Especially since she knew that women were interested in improving their love lives. So she hit upon the idea of holding Tupperware-style parties with a strict "no men" policy, to sell lingerie and sex toys to women in their own homes.

The board at Ann Summers was not convinced. One man told her: "I don't care what you say but women aren't interested in sex." But Gold was undeterred. She persuaded the board to give her a £150,000 loan and within a year was turning over £83,000. In 1993, her father put her in charge of all the stores.

Today she is chief executive. As well as 150 stores in the UK and Ireland, she employs 7,500 party planners. Respectability really arrived when Zara Phillips hosted an Ann Summers party at Gatcombe Park.

My interview with Gold takes place in the stylish new Ann Summers HQ in Whyteleafe, Surrey (the company is the town's biggest employer). Looking up at the £12m smoked grey and blue glass building, with the discreet logo "A business doing pleasure", you'd never guess that upstairs they're debating the merits of "Pussy Rub" over "Slide and Ride". But then people are always surprised that Gold doesn't look - or sound - like a Footballers' Wife. She exudes professionalism, dressed in a fitted brown dress, with immaculate nails and make-up. Only the balcony-style cleavage hints at passions within.

She made vibrators respectable. Ann Summers sells 2.5 million a year (the Rampant Rabbit, which featured in Sex and the City, is still one of their hottest in-store properties). In the late 1970s, Ann Summers sold one vibrator (a white plastic number called the Hummingbird); these days customers are more "product aware". "After all, you wouldn't buy a phone or iPod without checking all the features."

She describes herself as "ruthless", but the company is ranked in the top 100 UK companies to work for. Gold's new-look "boudoir" shops (all draped voile curtains and crystal chandeliers) may give Agent Provocateur and Coco de Mer a run for their money. The difference is that the lingerie goes up to size 24. "I hate all this size zero business," she says. "It's hideous."

She enjoys all the trappings of success: private jet, silver Mercedes convertible, Surrey mansion. But life hasn't always been easy for her and her sister Vanessa (now buying director at Ann Summers). Her father wept when she was born because he wanted a son. Her parents separated when she was 12 and she had a lonely adolescence, growing up in 1960s Kent. "I missed out on a lot of my childhood." Freckly and skinny, she never felt beautiful. When she had her first kiss, she pinned her top to her trousers to prevent any hanky-panky.

She left school before taking A-levels and, after a series of casual jobs, decided to do work experience at Ann Summers for £50 a week. Her father, an East End bricklayer turned businessman, bought the chain in 1972 and ran it alongside his main business of property deals and top-shelf magazines. At the time father and daughter were virtually estranged, but she gradually won him over.

Gold is currently single. An early marriage at 21 failed, she says, because her career changed her. She dated one of Ann Summer's erotic dancers, then settled down with a money marketer nearly 20 years younger (the relationship ended last year).

Her privacy is hugely important to her. She never talks about her sex life, and is never photographed holding a sex toy. She also turned down the chance to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. "I don't want to do things that will trivialise what I've achieved," she says. She has one regret about saying no, though. "It was the year Germaine Greer was on and I did think I would have got on with her. I found her really intelligent and stimulating. I think we would have had interesting debates." TV producers, take note.

'Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway' is on ITV1 on Tuesdays at 8pm

A life in sex: From mail order to boardroom

1960: Born in Biggin Hill.

1979: Works at Royal Doulton, then takes a work experience job at Gold Group, working her way from mail order to finance.

1981: Launches the Ann Summers Party Plan - home marketing for sex toys.

1987: Made company director of Ann Summers. (The chain was named after Annice Summers, secretary of the chain's founder.)

1993: Becomes managing director.

1995: Publishes autobiography, Good Vibrations. A new edition is due later this year.

2000: Acquires Knickerbox. 2003: Opens flagship store at Marble Arch.

2004: Voted Business Communicator of the Year. Listed in Debrett's People of Today.

2005: Opens first Spanish Ann Summers store in Valencia.