Jo Malone: The sweet smell of success

Those with money to burn can't get enough of her £260 candles - and if she had her way, the whole world would be scented with nutmeg and ginger. Deborah Ross meets Jo Malone, the nose de nos jours

As someone who doesn't keep a diary because I'm not even organised enough to write things down in it, this sort of stuff really frightens me. Still, I have bought her a lovely gift, in the entirely craven hope of getting her to like me that way. Plus, I have showered and everything I'm wearing has been freshly laundered, even my underwear. Jo is said to have one of the best "noses" ever. Her husband, Gary, once tried to surprise her by turning up unexpectedly at a hotel she was staying in, "but I could smell he was there in the lobby".

She has a particular kind of synaesthesia and even sees in fragrance. The idea for her latest scent, Pomegranate Noir, came to her "when I saw Anya Hindmarch in a red dress at a party. I didn't see the finished fragrance, but I saw part of it."

So I shower and shower and shower and shower and wear clean pants because I don't want her to go away thinking: Underwear Gris. I don't think I've ever been so showered, or freshly knickered, not even when sex is in the offing, but then I have rather reached that "take it or leave it" age.

We meet in the café at the General Trading Company, a kind of Sloane's bazaar in Chelsea, just round the corner from one of her stores. She is pretty and smart, wearing a delicious Louise Kennedy multicoloured shirt teamed with an exquisite, sparkling diamond "thong" of the kind that goes round your neck rather than up your bum (which, I'm thinking, would be a complete waste of diamonds and not comfortable).

Malone is 42, started out as a facialist, as her mother was, and she has beautiful skin. I say I have a gift for her. "Oh?" she says, a little worriedly. Yes, I say. My gift is a bottle of Peter Andre's signature fragrance, Insania, purchased at no great personal expense as it's readily available in bargain bins everywhere.

The bottle is a frosted-glass torso with a six pack on one side and a demi-wodge of Andre buttock on the other. And you, Jo Malone, with your cream boxes and black grosgrain ribbons, think you've got sophisticated packaging sussed. Look and learn! She laughs happily, warmly, which is a result. "Shall I spray a little?" I ask. "Not," she replies, flintily now, "on me."

I spray a little on myself. Even though I am not especially scent-literate I can tell it's somewhere between Toilet Duck and Kerry from the Iceland ads. The waiter gags and says: "You could have warned me." Jo flinches and moves a little further down the banquette. So much for all that showering. My pants still feel good, though.

We order tea. Then I say, OK, Jo, if you were suddenly put in charge of all the smells that exist in the world, what would you ban, aside from Peter Andre's Insania, which goes without saying? She would ban, she says, the stale smell you get on aeroplanes, cigarette smoke, towels that have been washed but haven't been dried properly - "horrible!" - and apples. Apples? All the world loves an apple, Jo.

"I like to eat them," she says. "I just don't like that cheap, appley smell." She then says she would enjoy being in charge of the world's fragrances. "I'd be happy with that, being such a control-freaky person."

I say she sounds like the most amazing control freak. Is it true you always take your own linen sheets on holiday? She says she used to "when I was first married" but not any more. "The villas I used to rent are very different from the ones I rent now."

Can you ever, ever let go? "I try, but it doesn't come easily to me. Sometimes you do have to because what does it matter if Gary is outside in the garden and he's got odd Wellington boots on, although that sort of thing really does annoy me. I couldn't, though, leave my house without my bed being made. And I can't get into an unmade bed. Even if I'm sick and I get up, I have to have it all made properly before I can get back into it again.

"I like my surroundings to be just so, I suppose. I don't like mess. But I'm not such a creep that on Christmas morning I have to clear it all up. No, I don't care about that. I tell you another thing I do: I always read the end chapter of a book. I think that way I can control it. That's a terrible thing but you know what? I know who I am."

This is true. She is certainly no phoney. I'm still somewhat disturbed about making an appointment to see your own child, but this may be why Jo Malone is a global brand that turns over millions a year while Deborah Ross is not.

It's hard to think of Jo Malone not surrounded by lovely things. (Tidied away, but lovely all the same.) However, she was actually brought up in a two-up two-down council house on an estate in Bexleyheath, possibly the least picturesque corner of Kent.

Jo, I ask, if I say the words "council" and "estate" to you, what scents come to mind? Eau de Hoodie? Joy (riders)? No, she says, "because estates were very different 40 years ago. It was all very family. Lovely people. If you had a side of roast beef your neighbours came in and shared Sunday lunch with you.

"The smells are of Sunday lunch cooking, petrol from cars, and the two ladies who kept beautiful gardens, full of dahlias, either side of us." Could you go back and live on an estate now? "I wouldn't want to but I could, yes. I could happily go back and I would fit in and make the most of my life."

Her father, Andy, was a struggling artist who smelled of Eau Sauvage and crisp linen shirts while her mother, Eileen ("Je Reviens by Worth") worked for Countess Lubatti, a London skincare specialist who mixed her own potions and treated the complexions of ladies in the highest circles.

Neither Eileen nor Andy bought home a substantial wage, though, and often money was scarce. (Couldn't they have worn Impulse?) Did you hunger, as a child, for the things that money can buy? "Yes," she says. "But then I did go to bed hungry because we didn't have enough money. There was a spirit in me that was determined not to live my life like that. I do love beautiful things but I'm prepared to work for them. No one has ever handed anything to me on a plate." As it happens, she has nothing against Impulse. "There is one that they do that Gary absolutely loves on me."

School was difficult. She is dyslexic, which was little recognised then. "It was tough. Everyone thought I was lazy, which I wasn't at all. I wouldn't say school was the happiest time. I was bullied as well.

"There was one girl...it was in secondary school and I was coming home and this group of girls waited for me and they beat me up and I remember this girl sitting astride me and beating seven bells out of me. I remember going home - I had my keys in my hand and held them so tightly they nearly broke through the skin - and thinking: 'No one will ever bully me like that again.'"

Years later, when Jo was first becoming successful, she got a call from that girl - "I recognised her voice straight away" - asking for a job. "I referred her to human resources." That was good of you, I say. Forgiving. "We didn't have a human resources department at that time," she says. I don't think you mess with Jo Malone.

She says, later, "cross me and it's over". I bet it is. She's a kind of Eve Lom on testosterone. I'm glad that I bought her such a lovely present.

Seriously, nothing messes with Jo Malone. If I, say, were in charge of all the cancer in the world, I would say to it: "Don't bother with that Jo Malone. She'll beat the shit out of you." But cancer did, stupidly, bother Jo Malone early in the summer of 2003, when she noticed that there was a lump in her breast.

"I don't," she says, "think anything can prepare you for hearing: 'You've got cancer.' I don't care how strong you are. My immediate thought was: my son. Then it was: I'll go to the edge but I'm not going to die. Cancer's not a person but I wasn't going to let it bully me. Having said that, if you want to live you do have to get the best treatment. And you do have to just grin and bear it because it is hard - and I can't say I went though it with the greatest dignity. I sobbed my heart out many times and I lost the plot several times."

She had chemotherapy. Not a lot of laughs in chemotherapy. "Image is very important to me. I'm not going to lie about that. It's the bane of my life sometimes. But there I was, my hair missing, my eyebrows gone...."

This brought out the best in some people - "I saw my friends rally for me in a way that was unbelievable" - and the worst in others. One woman moved tables in a restaurant so as not to have to sit near her. "That crippled me, then I thought: 'No, I'm not going to let her do that,' so I just got up, walked over to her, and said: 'You can't catch breast cancer from sitting next to me, you know?'"

Malone had a mastectomy because she had to, and then chose to have a prophylactic mastectomy. After the reconstructive surgery, notices went out: "Gary and Jo are pleased to announce the arrival of two bouncing girls." She does have a sense of humour. She is fine now, she says. "All done, all put back together. just a check every three months."

When she left school she worked in a florist's, but when her mother became ill, Jo took over her clientele, building up the list from 12 to 2,000. She was amazing facialist, by all accounts, and it's said that the very grand would send private jets to whisk her abroad and back, just for the touch of her fingers.

Her first fragrance was Nutmeg & Ginger (still a bestseller), which she combined in a bath-oil as a thank-you gift to her clients. I'm so dumb about scents that I ask how you get the smell out of a nutmeg, imagining there is a big machine that squeezes it really hard.

She kindly takes me through the chemical replication of "living" fragrances, which is how it is all done. I ask whether there are any delicious smells that are impossible to reproduce. "Bluebells," she says, "and sweet peas. I love the smell of sweet peas and I've tried for years and years and years...." She just has a knack for scent. "I know I have ability and a gift. I don't know how I do it. If I were to sit and study it maybe it would disappear, so I just do it."

Her Nutmeg & Ginger wowed all the people who are wowed by such things. Many returned, begging for more. By this time she was married to Gary, a surveyor, who encouraged her to rent premises in Chelsea, develop more fragrances, open her first little shop. They initially manufactured enough stock for two years. They were sold out in six weeks. And the rest is pretty much history, including, in 1999, a buy-out from Estée Lauder said to be worth between £5m and £10m.

Jo is still chairman, though, and Gary is MD. It's still theirs, she says. And as for their small son, Josh, she talks about him with the right measure of love and tenderness, but wishes to protect him, and so requests I not discuss him here. I say fine, but only if we do it next Tuesday at 3pm instead. (Only joking, Jo!)

Anyway, our hour is up, and Jo is not the kind to overrun, as her diary would have something to say, but I do get to walk with her to the nearby Jo Malone store. Yes, she has done all her Christmas shopping (why am I not surprised?). And, yes, she does love Christmas.

"It's: 'Come in, everybody, have a drink' although, come Boxing Day, I can't wait to get it all cleared up," she says. She'll watch The Royle Family, as she always does. It reminds her of her Christmases as a kid. "That was us, with the chocolate éclairs sold cheap because they were squidged at one end, and a glass of pomagne."

She is a control freak, but she is warm, too. She knows who she is. The shop is throbbing and smells amazing, of nutmeg, ginger, lime blossom, Pomegranate Noir and now Insania (sorry). She gives me a small box - cream, tied with black grosgrain ribbon - full of goodies.

"I couldn't possibly," I protest, hotly, while stuffing it in my bag. Fair's fair. I did give her her own bottle of Insania, although I note, after we part, that she's failed to take it with her. And she thinks she's so organised! Well, I'd better send it on.

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