Lynne Franks: 'I am larger than life - I really do hug trees'

The woman supposed to be the inspiration behind Edina in 'Ab Fab' is still pushing the boundaries for women in business. Matthew Bell meets Lynne Franks

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The Independent Online

They're back. Patsy, Edina and the fridgefuls of Bolly will soon be hogging our screens once again, as three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous are scheduled for Christmas, with a film on the way. Already the hysteria is building. But in a fragrant Covent Garden basement, it never went away. Meet Lynne Franks, the bangled PR guru who kicked it all off – the "real-life Eddy" on whom Jennifer Saunders's Buddhist-chanting fashion monster is supposedly based.

"Jen never said it was based on me," she booms in a north London foghorn, not at all the sweetie-darling whinny I was expecting. "I mean, it is and it isn't." Well, let's look at the facts, I say. There's the successful fashion PR firm – Lynne Franks PR – that you set up in the late Sixties, when you were 21, with clients such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Katharine Hamnett. Tick. There's the hippy spiritualism you follow, and the Buddhist chanting. Tick. The large house you used to own in Maida Vale, complete with chanting room and a basement kitchen. Tick! Tick! Tick! You were friends with Saunders and Dawn French in the Nineties; you even have an embarrassed child and June Whitfield for a mother. "It's freaky," Franks laughs. "My mother does look exactly like June. And she would come out with these slightly ironic comments, exactly the same way June would."

Eddy's work style involves a lot of flapping and barking orders at blonde assistants, but Franks is relaxed and Zen the day I arrive at B.Hive, her latest business venture. It's a chain of serviced offices for women only, where entrepreneurs can work or hold meetings, and has been a success since it launched last year, with branches opening in London, Bristol and Manchester. The walls are a soothing off-white, the French country furniture is distressed, and the words "Respect for others, responsibility for all my actions" are stencilled in gothic gold letters on a wall.

"Now, I want you to be very honest. You're not planning to write a piss-take?" Franks asks, midway through a guided tour. We're standing beneath an elaborate chandelier in the ladies' loos – there are no men's loos – and I think she caught me smirking. My visit is a rare exception to the no-men policy. But there's no point parodying her. It's been done too well already.

And for all the Ab Fab larks, Franks is a successful one-woman industry. She's probably the most famous name in PR, and has just been appointed director of communications for Fashion Rocks, an annual charity fundraising event. Her past clients include the Labour Party, Live Aid, Swatch and Next; and she tells me all about her latest accolades, such as being named one of the six best-connected women by Director magazine. But what I really want to know is: is it true, when you're parking the car, you chant to Buddha for a space?

"Mm, yeah. I do believe that you can attract things in. I know lots of people who put positive traction out to get a parking space." Her son, the stand-up comedian Josh Howie, once described life growing up as Saffy. "You'd chant for whatever you want. It was all very materialistic. All the people at the company were chanting for promotions. Mum would chant for her clients to win work. I'd chant for a bike, and if I didn't get a bike, I'd say, 'Mum, I don't think this chanting thing works', and the next day I'd get a bike."

He also claims that, aged 16, he was made to live with North American Indians and was renamed "Blackhawk". During his mother's hip-hop phase, she persuaded him he was black, but later treated him to a "psychic therapist" to rid him of the misconception. She also underwent a spiritual rebirth, and made Josh join her and a "midwife" naked in a spa bath for the ritual.

Bonkers, but she has calmed down now. "I was undergoing a spiritual journey at the time," she says. The Buddhism ended in 1992, when her life changed radically: in the space of a few weeks, she finally left her PR business, having sold it four years before, divorced her husband of 24 years, Paul Howie, and moved to Los Angeles. But she still chants and dresses like an earth mother, all long flowing hair and wafty fabrics.

Howie has spoken of his hedonistic childhood, when his mum and sister would go to Grateful Dead concerts and hippies would make music in their home. "I'd open the door and there'd be 20 hippies with bongo drums and I'd slam the door in their faces." Those days are behind Franks now, though she is still on the London fashion scene, and I run into her – hug, mwah, mwah – at a Notting Hill party a few days after we meet.

Today, she looks happy and healthy, and at 63, her drive is still there. "Achieving more for women is my passion, and I will continue to work towards that till the day I die," she says.

She created the British Fashion Awards in 1984; sold her PR firm for £6m in 1988; chaired the first women's radio station in 1994; and in 1995 launched the first women's conference – "What Women Want", which was a sell-out – timed to coincide with the UN Women's Conference in Beijing. She brought The Big Issue to Los Angeles, and in 2005 launched the Seed handbook, a guide to "the feminine way to do business".

No wonder Eddie was portrayed as manic. "I do get out of balance sometimes," Franks says. Was it hurtful, I ask, to have a successful career publicly savaged by an old friend? "It was hurtful at the time," she says. "They don't take the piss out of the women's stuff. They take the piss out of the fashion stuff and the spiritual thing. But there are no hard feelings. God no. I mean, if it has added to my general story, then so be it. It's more annoying that when the press do anything about me, they always put a bigger picture of Ab Fab. But I know how it works – that's what's going to grab attention."

According to Josh, the idea for Ab Fab came to Saunders after she stayed with Franks at her villa in Deia, the hippy writers' retreat in Majorca. This was another hub of frantic social activity, where Franks held wild house parties. Has Saunders ever apologised?

"No, as she never accepted that it was based on me. And I know for a fact that it was an amalgamation of different people. It was a parody of a time. I don't want her to apologise."

Franks says she was even asked to be on the first series, but she was "all hoity-toity about it" and wouldn't. "They asked me to be part of the joke, but I was being too stupid. I wish I hadn't been so huffy about it. I was going through a huge change, and I couldn't laugh. I was more like, oh my friends are stabbing me in the back, rather than taking it as it was. You know I am larger than life, and I do do eccentric things, like hug trees, and there's loads of stuff in Absolutely Fabulous that I think is hysterically funny. I would love to be on the show now."

It's rumoured that the new episodes will see Edina trying to become a celebrity herself, and that Patsy is running a private members' club. Proof, if any were needed, that Franks is still a source of inspiration: in 2008 she appeared in the jungle on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, and B.Hive is for members only.

She doesn't see Saunders much these days, and in some ways, like the voice, she's not at all like Edina. She says she eats too much – "food is my drug" – and would choose a plate of bangers and mash over a bottle of Bolly. And only once does she answer her white iPhone to bark instructions to an assistant, whom she calls "darling", but not "sweetie".

The Ab Fab connection hasn't been all bad though: her autobiography, published in 1997, was called Absolutely Now! and shot to fourth place in the US book sales charts, even though it made no mention of the sitcom.

Franks still works full time, partly because she loves it, partly because she needs to. Half the £6m she made from selling her business went to Howie when they divorced. Three years ago, she put the Deia villa on the market for £4.6m, but has yet to find a buyer. She has a flat in Notting Hill, a cottage in the grounds of the Brahma Kumaris Retreat Centre in Oxfordshire, and a boyfriend in Sussex. She travels between them in a Toyota Prius – of course! – with her Labrador, Noodle, though Buddha wasn't on side this morning: it took an hour to find a space.

On the way out, a stencil exhorts me to "Be all I was born to be". The grammar is muddled and the sentiment vague, but I think that, with everything she has achieved, with her endless bouncebackability, and the fact that people still thank her for giving the world Ab Fab, Lynne Franks probably is everything she was born to be. And then some.

Curriculum vitae

1948 Born on 16 April in north London, the daughter of a Jewish butcher.

1964 Leaves Minchenden Grammar School, has various secretarial jobs before joining teen magazine Petticoat as a journalist under Eve Pollard.

1970 Launches her eponymous PR company, aged 21, from her kitchen.

1974 Opens avant-garde menswear store Howie, with husband, Australian fashion buyer and designer Paul Howie.

1988 Sells Lynne Franks PR for approximately £6m.

1992 Leaves the agency. BBC broadcasts First series of Absolutely Fabulous, written by her friend Jennifer Saunders.

1997 Publishes her autobiography, Absolutely Now!, with a launch in Deia 2008 Appears on I'm a Celebrity....

2010 Founds B.Hive offices for women.