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Jacqueline Gold: The woman who brought sex to the storefront

Jacqueline Gold, who made a name for herself as the founder of popular British high street retailer Ann Summers, has died after seven years of undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

The businesswoman was surrounded by her husband Dan Cunningham, daughter Scarlett, sister Vanessa and brother-in-law Nick when she passed away on Thursday evening (16 March) at the age of 62, a family statement said.

The statement confirmed her death “with unspeakable sadness”, while Vanessa added that Gold had “courageously battled stage four breast cancer for seven years and was an absolute warrior throughout her cancer journey”. She described her older sister as a “trailblazer, a visionary and the most incredible woman” in life.

Gold was born on 16 July 1960 to renowned businessman David Gold and Beryl Hunt. According to the BBC, her father cried when she was born because he wanted a son. She went on to transform the Ann Summers business into a high street staple, in the UK and beyond.

David owned Gold Group International (GGI), the parent company of Ann Summers and lingerie chain Knickerbox. He also co-owned an adult magazine company with his brother Ralph Gold, Gold Star Publication (GSP), which printed titles like Rustler and Raider.

Until his death in January this year, he oversaw a veritable business empire and was valued by the Sunday Times Rich List at £500 million. But his vast wealth didn’t mean doing his daughters any favours – he gave Gold, then 19, summer work experience in 1979 at an Ann Summers store for just £45 a week, less than the tea lady.

At the time, Ann Summers only comprised of four stores, which Gold described as having a “seedy, raincoat brigade image” with a largely male clientele. “It wasn’t a very nice atmosphere to work in. It was all men, it was the sex industry as we all perceive it to be,” she told the BBC in 2006.

But Gold became inspired after attending a Tupperware-style fashion party in east London in 1981. Tupperware parties began in the 1950s as a way to gather women together to try products in a social setting. But what if Gold replaced Tupperwares with sexy lingerie and the latest sex toys, so that women could try the garments on and get a closer look at vibrators?

David Gold and daughters Jacqueline (right) and Vanessa arriving at the National Reality TV awards at Porchester Hall in West London in August 2012 (PA)
David Gold and daughters Jacqueline (right) and Vanessa arriving at the National Reality TV awards at Porchester Hall in West London in August 2012 (PA)

She struck gold after launching the famous Ann Summers parties. But, despite the parties being a huge success, the Ann Summers’ all-male board were sceptical of the idea when she pitched it to them.

Speaking to The Independent in 2007, Gold recalled one board member saying: “I don’t care what you say but women aren’t interested in sex.” Nevertheless, she persisted and managed to persuade the board to give her a £150,000 loan. Within a year, she was turning over £83,000. In 1993, David put her in charge of all the stores.

Gold has largely been credited with making vibrators a part of everyday life. The brand’s iconic Rampant Rabbit vibrator first hit the shelves in 1991, and has never looked back. It reached its peak of fame when it featured in an episode of Sex and The City in 1998, which showed Kristin Davis’ character Charlotte becoming so obsessed with her Rabbit that she starts cancelling plans to stay at home and masturbate.

Ann Summers sells an estimated two million Rampant Rabbit vibrators every year, not to mention the hundreds of other varieties of sex toys, accessories, lingerie and swimwear the stores offer. Under Gold’s eye, the chain exploded from four stores to 140 stores in the UK, Spain and Ireland, with more than 10,000 staff and an annual turnover of £100 million.

Models Jo Hicks (left) and Holly McGuire, with Jacqueline Gold (centre) at the opening of the Ann Summers store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre in 2001 (PA)
Models Jo Hicks (left) and Holly McGuire, with Jacqueline Gold (centre) at the opening of the Ann Summers store in Manchester’s Trafford Centre in 2001 (PA)

It was under her watch that Ann Summers also became known as one of the most inclusive retailers around, stocking up to size 24 long before the conversation around body diversity forced other brands to change their approach. She told The Independent: “I hate all this size zero business. It’s hideous.”

She acknowledged how her father’s position in the company made others view her career differently. But Gold insisted that David’s role – both as her father and her boss – did make things more difficult for her, telling the BBC: “He made it a lot harder, because he equally didn’t want to compromise his integrity. And I think it’s also more difficult being a girl, because if you’re a guy, there’s almost this feeling of ‘Follow in the father’s footsteps’, whereas with a girl I think there’s more negative attitude – ‘born with a silver spoon in her mouth’ or something like that.”

Gold was a fierce advocate for women in business and founded the #WOW Championing Working Women to represent the interests of working women in the UK. She used the platform to celebrate women’s successes and created an extensive network to help “drive change in the workplace”. In 2016, she honoured with a CBE for her services to entrepreneurship, women in business and social enterprise. She told Retail Weekin 2019: “The last 10, 15 years has been very much about empowering women in the boardroom, in business, in the workplace, and it’s not job done. There’s still much more to do… We need to give women the freedom to pursue their dreams, but also the confidence to realise them.”

A breast cancer diagnosis arrived in 2016, but it wasn’t until December 2017 that Gold went public with her illness on ITV’s Lorraine. She was told by her oncologist that “only one per cent of patients with my type of tumour have it completely disappear, so I then started thinking about what I had perhaps done that might help other women going through the same thing”. She added that she was “very sick” but was “fortunate to have a complete response to treatment” at the time. But the cancer returned in 2019 and Gold had a mastectomy. In another appearance on the ITV show, she told host Lorraine Kelly that it was an “awful year”.

Gold is survived by her husband and 13-year-old daughter. She gave birth to twins in 2009, but Scarlett’s twin brother Alfie was born with a severe brain disability and died when he was eight months old. Speaking of her daughter in in an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2019, Gold said: “I desperately want my daughter to grow up believing she can be whatever she wants to be.”