The Hippie Chick Who Became One of the Richest Women in England

THERE SHE WAS, SPLAYED OUT ON THE COUCH, STARK NAKED, wearing only a sly smile, her bulging curves displayed for everyone to see. It was an affront. An assault, actually. It was, well, so un-Barbie like. And the beauty industry did not know what to make of her.

In fact, Ruby, as The Body Shop dubbed their generously proportioned poster doll which came with the tagline “There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do,” freaked just about everyone out. Including Mattel – Barbie’s creator and distributor – who sent through a cease and desist order, demanding Ruby posters be removed from American Body Shop windows almost as fast as they went up. The doll, they said, was mocking their best selling, twig-like toy. In Hong Kong, posters of Ruby were banned.

Meanwhile, Ruby’s shock tactics yanked a cord in the collective souls of women from Asia to the Americas. Anita Roddick was thrilled. “I was ecstatic that Mattel thought Ruby was insulting to Barbie,” Roddick reminisced on her website about the 1998 campaign that shifted the international beauty industry’s dialogue forever. “The idea of one inanimate piece of molded plastic hurting another’s feelings was absolutely mind-blowing.”

But for the woman who revolutionized the beauty business with her natural products range and recycle-your-bottle environmental ethics, it really was just another day at the office, mocking the very industry that made her one of the richest women in England just so she could change the world.

“I hate the beauty business,” she wrote in her 1991 autobiography Body and Soul. “It is a monster industry selling unattainable dreams. It lies. It cheats. It exploits women.” What her industry engaged in, she believed, ran much deeper than savvy, underhanded, marketing tactics. “It is immoral to trade on fear. It is immoral constantly to make women feel dissatisfied with their bodies. It is immoral to deceive a customer by making miracle claims for a product. It is immoral to use a photograph of a glowing 16 year old to sell a cream aimed at preventing wrinkles in a 40 year old.

And so, for much of her life, the anti-beauty beauty mogul used her well-stocked arsenal – she used to call her shops “billboards” that would reach consumers through lipstick and lotions in order to alert them to higher social causes – to mow down every immoral act on the planet in one of the greatest global marketing campaigns ever. While her husband Gordon looked after the business of the business, Roddick championed every good cause from recycling and sustainable business practices to fair trade. She railed behind the Ogani people in Nigeria to fight against Shell Oil and the Angola Three, American inmates she said had been unfairly imprisoned. Roddick reportedly donated $6 million to charity every year, backing every good cause from the renegade investigative journal Mother Jones to Greenpeace and Amnesty International. She shunned her wealth, saying the worst thing in the world was “the accumulation of money.” In fact, Roddick was penniless when she died of a brain hemorrhage in 2007, making good on her promise to donate everything she owned to charity.

“She made shopping a political act,” her friend Josephine Fairley, cofounder of organic chocolate company Green & Blacks, told Time magazine after Roddick died. “She was the first person to do that. She made cosmetics fun, sexy and affordable, and there was always a message. But instead of ‘Buy this mascara it will change your life,’ her message was ‘Buy this mascara, it could change someone else’s life.’”

Anita Roddick was born Anita Lucia Perella on 23 October 1942 in a terraced house in the English seaside town of Littlehampton in West Sussex. Her mother, Gilda, came to England from Italy as a teenager. When Anita was 18, her mother told her that the man who she believed was her real father, Donny, was actually her stepfather. Gilda confessed then that she had a passionate affair with Donny’s cousin, Henry. She finally divorced Donny in 1950, marrying Henry shortly thereafter. Henry ended up buying out Donny in his share of the family café, changing it into an American-style diner serving up ice cream sundaes and Coca-Cola on a long aluminum bar with high stools, pinball machines and a jukebox. But the couple’s happiness was short-lived. Eighteen months later, Henry died of a heart attack.

Gilda was left to raise four children alone – all of the kids working at the café when they weren’t in school, all five of them sleeping in the same room at night so they could rent out the other rooms of the house in order to bring in some money.

“My mother was the most eccentric and extraordinarily beautiful woman and a young widow at 39 so she had this dramatic aura around her,” Roddick recalled in an interview with the British holistic health magazine Share Guide. “I remember her hating the priest because she didn’t want to give my father a Catholic burial. The was an atheist and she was annoyed at sending the kids to church so she spread garlic all over our coats so it would stink up half the church. We were pushed into exercises of bravery. You couldn’t be a meek and mild person with my Mum around.”

Her mother would remain a huge influence on Roddick throughout her life – she absorbed everything from Gilda’s Depression-era recycling habits to her use of natural products for washing up, along with her mother’s fierce, independent spirit. Roddick outlived her mother, who lived well into her nineties, but just by four months. In an interview with The Independent in March 2006, Roddick got a kick out of telling the reporter how her mother had just been bust at the old age home she stayed in for putting chili into other resident’s tea; at the time Roddick was searching for a way to meet her mother’s request to have her ashes placed into a firework and exploded into the sky after she died.

When Roddick finished high school, she wanted to go on to become an actress but ended up going to teaching school. While she was away, Gilda sold the family café and opened El Cubana, a nightclub nearby. Not long after finishing her degree, Roddick went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz, then headed to Greece; later traveling to Tahiti, Australia, Reunion and South Africa where, she writes, she went to a jazz club on a “black night.” “Of course I was picked up almost immediately by the police and given twenty four hours to get out of the country,” she reminisced in her autobiography, constantly reveling in her own rebellion.

When Anita finally returned to England, her mother introduced her to Gordon Roddick, who by then was a regular at El Cubana. She fell for him immediately. He had all the hippie requisites: Gordon had traveled through Africa, sailed down the Amazon in a canoe and sheep farmed in Australia. Just the sort of things that would make him Roddick’s ideal partner.

Before they were married, their first daughter, Justine, arrived. Gordon supported the family by writing children’s stories, and later as a laborer, while Anita worked as a teacher at a local school. Roddick was pregnant with their next child 15 months later, and the two married in Reno – she wore tattered corduroys and red rain slicker, a borrowed ring on her finger – while on a trip to San Francisco to check out the hippies of the Haight.

“It was as much as lark as anything else,” she wrote. “We didn’t particularly approve of the institution of marriage so we thought if we were going to do it we might as well do it in as ridiculous a place as possible.”

When they returned, the newlyweds opened a bed and breakfast in Littlehampton and later, Paddington’s Restaurant – a health food café with an Italian menu. It flopped. Instead of crying in their minestrone, they turned the place into an American-style hamburger joint. The restaurant business didn’t last long for them – it was supporting the family, but just barely. And they were exhausted.

Roddick then hatched her grand plan, which centered on the fact that she could never find a small bottle of cream or lotion just to try the stuff out. Why did you always have to buy a big bottle and get stuck it whether you liked it or not? She discussed it with Gordon.

“It made perfect sense to him,” she recalled in Body and Soul. “I always think it is odd when I look back on it. The idea for the shop was so simple that it hardly merits being described as an ‘idea’ at all….If we couldn’t sell creams and shampoos, we would chuck them out and sell something else. The other ‘half of the equation’ was that I wanted to try to find products made from natural ingredients. At the time, no one was talking much about the advantages or potential of natural products – the green movement had yet to get started – but I knew that for centuries women in underdeveloped areas of the world had been using organic potions to care for their skin with extraordinary success.”

Roddick recalled asking women in Tahiti what they were rubbing on their bodies – what looked like “lump of cold lard” was cocoa butter, extracted right from the pods. She saw women using natural shampoos that looked like green mud and women eating pineapple with their hands, and then rubbing the inside of the skin onto their faces.

So, there she went, all excited, in her Bob Dylan T-shirt with one child on her hip and another holding onto her pant leg, and told the bank manager all about her natural products shop and by they way, wouldn’t the bank like to give her money to start it up? The bank manager said, well, actually, no. So Roddick came back with Gordon, both of them in suits this time, with an “impressive business plan” drawn up by an accountant friend with projected profit and loss and “a lot of gobbleyegook” and went back to the same manager. She got her £4000 pounds, using their bed and breakfast as collateral.

Roddick says she got the name for her store from panel beaters in the US – body shops they are called there – though there was an existing store at the time with the same name in Berkeley which opened in 1970 and sold lotions out of recycled containers and soap by the chunk, with emphasis on natural ingredients. In fact, when Roddick wanted to enter the US market in 1987, she had to pay out those owners $3.5 million for naming rights.

Roddick had always hated packaging, so she found the cheapest containers, gave someone 25 pounds to come up with the logo and hand wrote the labels because couldn’t afford to have any printed. She found a shop in the neighboring, upmarket town of Brighton, and paid six months rent in advance for the premises at 22 Kensington Gardens. At nine o’clock on Saturday 27 March 1976 her first Body Shop opened its doors. “By lunchtime I was so busy that I had to telephone Gordon to ask him to come and help,” she wrote. At six o’clock they closed, and found they had taken in a whopping £130.

Not long after the first store opened, Gordon left on a horseback trek from Buenos Aires to New York – a lifelong ambition which the hippie child fully endorsed, leaving Roddick to start up her little business and raise the two girls on her own. Gordon gave the venture six months. If it didn’t work, he told his wife, “then pack it in and meet me with the kids in Peru.”

Six months later, Roddick opened her second shop. And when Gordon got back, he structured a franchise scheme that allowed the business to spread at breakneck speed on a global platform. In 1984, the company went public.

“Nobody talks of entrepreneurship as survival,” Roddick wrote on her website, “but that’s exactly what it is and what nurtures creative thinking. Running that first shop taught me business is not financial science, it’s about trading: buying and selling. It’s about creating a product or service so good that people will pay for it.”

In fact The Body Shop was so damn good that when the company when public the shares started at .60 in the morning and closed the day at £1.40 – and this was way before the world was tainted with dot com bubbles.

“I remember asking Gordon as we drove home that day in our broken down van how we were going to deal with this,” Roddick told Share Guide. “We made a list of all the things we didn’t want to be. We did not want to be these captains of industry. That didn’t make our blood sing. I didn’t want to be a cosmetic diva wearing high heels and make-up, prancing around at the celebrity functions.” What she did want to do was continue to travel and work directly with the native people and set up fair community trade. “This work stopped us from being like these muggy schemers and arty farty types. We kept our sense of humanity, especially with me traveling in Third World countries. That has been my saving grace.”

But it was going public that almost killed them. By the late nineties, the company’s image was suffering. There were trading problems in the US and questions about the company’s ethics that slammed into the group’s share price. In 1998, Roddick stepped down as chief executive after an overly aggressive expansion which led to a massive profit collapse of nearly 90 percent. Roddick and her husband resigned as cochairs of the company – retaining just under a 20 percent stake– and set up the communications firm Anita Roddick Publications, which specialized in global rights. After they stepped down, the chain’s fortunes exploded.

Roddick continued her involvement with the company throughout. But later, bitterly regret allowing the company to go public at all. According to a February 2006 article in The Independent, she regretted bringing in management consultants because they are “all arseholes,” believed floating the company on the London stock exchange was what turned it into a “dysfunctional coffin” obliged only to balance sheets, thought the financiers that ran it were a bunch of “pin-striped dinosaurs.”

With all of her disdain for the suits, the beauty industry and any flavour of multinational corporation, it came as a shock to many that, thirty years after she opened her first store, in March 2006, Anita Roddick had agreed to a £652m takeover by French cosmetics giant L’Oréal. Prior to the sale, Ethical Consumer magazine had given L’Oréal its lowest rating because of the company’s record on animal testing, which was against everything Roddick had campaigned for much of her life – The Body Shop stance against animal testing had been part and parcel of their brand almost from the start.

But Roddick brushed back the accusations hurled at her from every corner. She said she was protecting the business for the thousands of staff around the world and if that was a compromise, then too bad. “At my age, I am grateful for an approximate solution,” she told The Independent at the time. “I feel very comfortable. We protected the company from the corporate wankers who would just come along and strip the assets. L’Oreal is willing to change. Their bigness doesn’t bother me.”

“I’m not an apologist for them,” she continued. “I’m just excited that I can be like a Trojan horse and go into that huge business and talk about how we can buy ingredients like cocoa butter from Ghana and sesame oil from Nicaraguan farmers and how we can do that in a kindly, joyful way and that is happening.”

But, then, perhaps the sale to L’Oreal had more to do with her personal circumstances than she let on at the time. In 2004, Roddick found out she had hepatitis C, which she apparently contracted through a blood transfusion when she gave birth to her second daughter, Sam, in 1971; she only publicly announced her status after the sale.

Reports at the time of her death said Roddick had cirrhosis of the liver and needed a transplant, but appeared to be fighting the disease. Her collapse, at her home in West Sussex, came as a shock to many.
But Roddick must have known it was coming. According to The Times, Roddick gave £51 million to her charitable foundation before she died, leaving an estate of £655,747, which went go to the taxman. She was worth nothing upon her death.

Roddick had declared the idea of leaving her fortune to her children as an obscene gesture. “I told my kids that they would not inherit one penny,” she said, though there were reportedly cash gifts transferred to family before her death which did not escape inheritance taxes. Her husband was not left in the poor house. Gordon Roddick maintained his share of the £100 million the couple received when they sold The Body Shop.

When the brain hemorrhage took her life on 10 September 2007 at the age of 64, The Body Shop she had founded had spread more than 2000 stores in 50 countries with revenues, according to Time magazine, of more than $980 million.

Roddick, by the way, would have stamped all over that comment, as she did when she picked up the Evening Standard after the sale to L’Oreal to discover that she was front page news because of the amount of money that she made off the deal.

“It is so damned boring,” she told The Independent. “Why is there no other measure of success? Why isn’t it about how we changed the law on animal testing? Why do economic values supersede everything else?”

Indeed. “The real triumph isn’t the fantastic price that L’Oreal paid for Body Shop,” Rory Stear, head of the Freeplay Energy, which has Gordon Roddick as one of its directors, told Time magazine. “It’s that L’Oreal has now adopted into its core operating model plans to move the biggest cosmetics group in the world toward the ethical standards that Anita had championed. The triumph is that The Body Shop, which was a relatively small player in global business terms, now, after 30 years in existence, has the big players turning to it and saying, ‘You were right all along. We want to do that, too.’ Anita was clearly a visionary, way ahead of her time.”

August 2008, Maverick