Jacqueline Gold obituary: Ann Summers chief who changed public attitudes

Appointed chief executive in 1987, Gold fought hard in courts and tribunals for company respectability

Born: July 16th, 1960

Died: March 16th, 2023

David Gold said he wept at the birth of his first child, because the baby was a girl, Jacqueline. He had wanted a boy to go to football with, who might grow up to run a family business – he and his brother Ralph were early entrepreneurs in soft porn, starting with stocking spicy mags in a station kiosk in the 1950s, then producing their own publications and selling sex accessories.

Jacqueline Gold, who has died of breast cancer aged 62, did go into the family business, but not as inheritor. She scrounged temporary work from her father at 19 and was paid £45 a week to handle the payroll for a few semi-respectable sex shops that he had bought out of receivership. Their original founder had called them “Ann Summers” after his secretary, as he intended them to attract women, but what clientele they had were, said Gold, the “seedy raincoat brigade”.


Any woman who might walk in among the gussetless fantasywear in scratchy red nylon made a statement about herself, not so much “fast girl” as naff lass; fashion in the 70s had revived sensual retro lingerie right down to suspender belts and silk stockings, and any woman buying to please herself rather than titillate a man had a wide choice of good undies in any store.

Gold, then married at 20, and at 21 not wanting to dwindle into a bored, unemployed wife, came up with an idea to shift sexy stock direct to women. The Pippa Dee company sold clothes, including underwear, in domestic gatherings – tea, cake, fancy knickers – imitating popular Tupperware parties. Gold went with a Dee agent friend to a couple of dos, bringing sex toys from the family firm’s stock, and was suddenly aware of a potential market if women were to sell such goods to each other in a non-judgmental, good-humoured environment; talking about sex had to be a bit of a laugh.

She asked the all-male Gold company board for £40,000 to set up a network of 7,500 self-employed agents, undaunted by the member who told her women were not interested in sex. Her father gave his casting vote to her proposal. The first party made £85, the first year’s profit was £81,000, and sales turnover peaked at an annual £150 million, currently £113 million.

Women coming of age in the 90s no longer needed reassurance from tea and cake. In this new generation, they bought purple bras at boozy hen parties, shopped in the ever-expanding Summers chain for maid, schoolgirl or nurse outfits to wear in public as jokes, and regarded a vibrator as commonplace a household item as a toaster. Though vibrators are technically much more complex to design and manufacture than kitchen equipment, Ann Summers sales hit 2.5 million a year, including many subspecies of the Rampant Rabbit, made famous, and a best-seller, by an episode of the HBO TV series Sex and the City.

Gold, appointed chief executive in 1987, fought hard in courts and tribunals for company respectability, winning entry to the new mega-shopping centres such as Bluewater and Westfield, and forcing job centres to accept her staff vacancy notifications.

Changing public attitudes made a Summers shop first a high-street norm (at maximum 150 branches, at present 80), and now almost quaint: the Carry On styling of the outfits has rigidified into folk costumes for sex, while Marks & Spencer now carries mighty augmented bras, and Accessorize fishnet tights. She was early to understand, and capitalise on, the mix of privacy and whim, plus a fast response to sexual fashions such as the Fifty Shades of Grey fad, that could generate online sales. These buoyed recent profits and she was worth about £460 million at the time of her death.

Gold’s enterprise remained part of the family, and of its history. Her father had struggled out of extreme East End poverty before marrying Beryl Hunt in Bromley, Kent; they divorced when Jacqueline was 12 and her sister, Vanessa, six. Beryl’s new husband sexually abused Jacqueline until at 15 she found the nerve to stand up to him.

After attending Surbiton high school, she left home for a brief menial job with Royal Doulton, that work experience with her father, and her 1980 marriage to the lingerie manufacturer Tony D’Silva, which ended in divorce 10 years later.

In her public life, she was soon accepted as a successful entrepreneur, whatever her business, writing on retail, later appearing on new business-entertainment television shows, and as a quietly confident celebrity. She was appointed CBE in 2016 and was given an even greater accolade by being invited on to Desert Island Discs in 2018.

In her book Good Vibrations (1995), she stressed her slog for financial and emotional independence. In A Woman’s Courage (2007, reissued in 2008 as Please Let It Stop, with deletions after a libel case related to a company employee), she was unflinching about the abuse of her and her sister.

Gold had had a relationship with a City broker, Dan Cunningham, 17 years her junior, which came apart because of her depression, the death of her mother, and the failure of their rounds of IVF in pursuit of having a child. They reunited in 2009, and married after the arrival of twins Alfie, born with a brain disability, who died after eight months, and Scarlett, brought up to attend work meetings as a norm.

She and her father, long work partners, grew closer after he found out about the abuse through her book; he had suffered similarly in childhood. They went to West Ham United football matches – the team had been the joy of his grim youth, and, funded by the family profits, he became its co-chairman.

Jacqueline Gold was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. Dan, a West Ham director, Scarlett, and Vanessa, now chief executive and managing director of Ann Summers, survive her. Her father died in January. – Guardian