The woman who is Ann Summers bites back

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S latest women's magazine is not quite the sum of its parts, many of which are measured in inches. Bite is being heavily publicised with emphasis on its coverage of matters sexual; no surprise as it is published by Ann Summers Ltd, founder of the chain of sex shops.

The first issue's print-run was 50,000. W H Smith has agreed to display it on its middle shelves. Safeway is selling it. Tesco is contemplating doing so. This despite the penises, chocolate-flavoured condoms - and the diverse uses to which these items may be put - which spring from its pages. But the publisher does not quite add up: a rather serious young woman who did O-levels at an all-girls private school in Kent and learned to keep her passions under control.

Jacqueline Gold, alias Ann Summers, seems a nice person; demure, rather than prim. In her boardroom in Whyteleaf, Surrey, where she pours tea from a china teapot, she implies that tea-drinking is among the few practices that can excite her. No hint of salaciousness dampens her cheek as she puts down her cup and, picking up Bite, turns to page 38 and 'Fellatio: the Definitive User's Guide'. Exuding business efficiency, Ms Gold exhibits a curious detachment from the glossy genitalia and fleshy allsorts. She declares herself to be against promiscuity, avoids casual affairs and seems cautious about her commitment to a current boyfriend. She evokes Empedocles.

Like Ms Gold, Empedocles was caught up with the wherewithal for procreation without doing much about it personally. The 5th-century BC philosopher/prophet/charlatan had a theory that humankind evolved out of creatures 'endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold' - heads without necks, eyes without foreheads, breasts wobbling in every direction, solitary limbs seeking for union and survival.

In the end, the theory being too much for him, Empedocles jumped into a volcano, a poet recording later: 'Great Empedocles, that ardent soul, / Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole'.

Jacqueline Gold has had a roasting of sorts. The London Evening Standard photographed her recently, using a lens which distorted her face, reddened her nose and made her look like a witch. Consequently, she refuses to pose for newspapers again (The accompanying photograph was supplied by Sandra, a press relations assistant who used to work for Sky Television). Her sensitivity may seem surprising considering her gritty origins.

She was born 32 years ago, the elder of Mr and Mrs David Gold's two daughters. David Gold, a former professional footballer, and his brother Ralph, a former professional boxer, run the 20 Gold International companies, nice little earners (annual turnover pounds 150m), of which Ann Summers Ltd is a not-so-little earner (turnover pounds 43m).

Ann Summers achieved household-name status in the 1970s, its sexual equipment throbbing and vibrating across the land, making the adult population hot under either the collar or the belt. It was founded by Michael Caborn-Waterfield (now 63) who, thinking his own name a trifle bleak, decided on 'Ann Summers' as quintessentially English and persuaded his secretary to change her name to Ann Summers by deed poll. However, the company went bust and the Gold brothers moved in. Nowhere could they find a finer Ann Summers replacement than in Jacqueline.

'The magazine was always something I wanted to do since I took over 12 years ago,' she says. But until 18 months ago she and her sister Vanessa (25) were preoccupied with the company's 'Party Plan', the lingerie equivalent of Tupperware, but offering also such stimulants as 'erotic sponges', 'fruity condoms' and 'mini vibro massagers'. Ms Gold held weekly sessions at the Strand Palace Hotel in London to recruit 'organisers', of whom there are now 7,500. The 'Party Plan', in which women meet to select items of comfort, without male interference, has been a great success. 'I think my dad is very proud of me,' Ms Gold says.

She chose Bite as the magazine's name 'because the Ann Summers logo is a red apple with a bite out of it, representing the bite Adam took of Eve's apple'. Bite's rivals - among them, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and New Woman - recognise the challenge. 'Look at this,' Ms Gold says, pointing to the spine of Cosmo's current issue, on which the words 'There is more to it than sex' are printed in green ink. Ms Gold thinks this is a bite at Bite. 'I would guess we're appealing to a lot of their readers. It's very flattering. And yet, they're going all out to promote sex.' She holds up the opposition's covers which bark: 'Sex, Sex, Sex,' and 'Should You Have Sex With Your Ex-lover?' and 'Why Women Should Adopt the Missionary Position.'

'But unlike us, they don't actually deliver inside what they promise on the cover,' Ms Gold claims. 'The article on why women should adopt the missionary position is about voluntary work overseas.'

What does Bite deliver? The editor getting to grips with this question is Catherine Handcock. In her letter to readers, she says: 'Unlike other women's magazines you may have read, we don't treat sex as a gimmick.' A female writer 'tests out the alternatives' to Durex condoms. Photographs suggest the tests are restricted to candles.

'We're tongue-in-cheek,' Ms Gold says. 'The story on fellatio is the one people tend to read first. It's written by a man, and has been enjoyed the most because it's witty.' She emphasises neither the magazine nor Ann Summers advocate unsafe sex. An article on sex 'at 20, 30, 40' contains a quote from a 20-year-old male: 'Sometimes I use a condom, but not always. After all, you've got to die somehow.'

'I thought at first: I don't support this, it's got to come out. But then I thought, it is the way some people think.' She allowed the quote to stay.

Ms Gold's detachment is as clinical as that of an obstetrician or testicular surgeon. But a wary look enters her eye when responding to spiritual things. 'I'm not a religious person,' she says. 'I'm C of E and have high standards morally, but . . . part of my nature is I'm a very charitable kind of person.' With that, she gave me some Ann Summers lingerie catalogues to take home with me.

(Photographs omitted)