Like Mother, Like Daughter: The Other Remarkable Ms Roddick

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The Independent/UK

Like Mother, Like Daughter: The Other Remarkable Ms Roddick

Dame Anita, the Body Shop tycoon and philanthropist, was one of the world's most colourful activists. But Sam Roddick is an equally radical figure, and since her mother's death she has seemed determined to get noticed.

Paul Vallely

It was not what you might have expected. A glittering horse-drawn hearse, pulled by gleaming black-plumed steeds, moved slowly through the streets of London to St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday. Behind it walked the actress Emma Thompson and the sex-shop owner Sam Roddick. But this was not a funeral. It was a demonstration, its organizers proclaimed, against sex trafficking. An art installation, they said, would open in Trafalgar Square this weekend, and then tour the country.

There might be some who would regard the presence of Sam Roddick at such an event as rather tasteless, considering that her mother has not yet been dead a fortnight. But then the desire to shock is something that has long characterized the behavior of Anita's Roddick's youngest daughter who, metropolitan gossip has it, is shaping up to become a campaigner even more flamboyant than her late mother.

Her shop, Coco de Mer, which she describes as an "erotic emporium", sells everything from lilac mink-lined crotchless panties to clitoris creams. From it, Roddick jr organized a naked street protest against the war in Iraq with members of the International Union of Sex Workers. Most recently she has been in trouble with the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents traffic wardens, for surrounding a hapless black parking attendant with a street performance band and harassing him as he went about his duties on a Hampstead street. A video of the event, which features Ms Roddick bawling "Traffic Wardens Need Love" into the unfortunate man's face, was posted on the internet.

It was probably always inevitable, given the whirlwind personality of Anita Roddick, that her younger daughter would struggle to compete for attention. Though she was happy helping out at the Body Shop, filling bottles and packing gift boxes during school holidays, Sam determined from early on to make her mark. She was rebellious at Frensham Heights boarding school in Surrey, which she was asked to leave. She got just two O-levels, pleading undiagnosed dyslexia, and was taken off to Nepal with the mother of one of her friends, who advised indigenous communities on how they could use their traditional crafts to make products that would sell in the West.

To Anita's relief, her daughter returned fired with enthusiasm for direct action. She soon went off to Brazil to see how local people were opposing a dam being built by the World Bank. The reality unnerved her. Opponents of the scheme were being murdered. "I saw some really heavy stuff," she later told an interviewer. "I saw dead bodies, I went to the middle of rainforests and saw burning acres, I saw malnourished kids working in charcoal pits. It was brutal."

She spent the next few years in a desultory unformed activism. She gave a slideshow on the issue at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and did a tour with the Canadian-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, which was exploring economic alternatives for local people. But then she had a kind of breakdown. "I had this idea that change [would be] instantaneous," she said. "I thought that once people knew what was going on, everyone would be so taken aback that they would change." Rather than steeling herself to redouble her efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged, she decided that: "I didn't want to work in global politics any more."

From that point, she later said: "I thought 'Right, the way I can change the world is by not consuming anything and setting up community development projects, going very, very grass roots." She moved to Canada and fell in with a group of anarchists - many of them spoiled rich kids who dropped-out knowing they had an escape route out of their self-imposed poverty if they wanted it. They raided skips and bins for food that had been thrown away. They called it dumpster-diving. Their ideal was never to buy anything. "I gave up the whole notion of wealth for a while, and that was really liberating," Sam said.

Her reality check came when she realized that she was pregnant. She ran home to her millionaire parents. "As soon as I got pregnant, I wanted to look nice. I started buying clothes for the first time," she explained.

Back in Britain, she was struck by the differences in social attitudes to sex. "I was fascinated by the hiddenness [of the sexual scene] here. If you went to a club it was very liberated, but it was all done in a drunken haze." While in Canada, aware she'd always been unhappy with her appearance, she began taking photos of herself naked. She was pleased with the results. From there she had started to get commissions to do "naughty pictures" of her women friends and put them into hand-bound books for their partners to masturbate over.

In London, too, she found there was a market for what she called her Little Boys' Wank Books. "So I was running around town finding props for the photos and I realized that there was absolutely nothing that expressed a sophisticated idea of sexuality." Most sex industry products were poorly made, catering to desperation rather than desire. There was, she concluded, a gap at the top of the market.

So in 2001 she opened Coco de Mer, named after a palm nut whose shape resembles a female bottom, and persuaded Saatchi & Saatchi - it's handy having such a famous family name - to work on her launch for free. They produced a poster campaign of people, including her, photographed at the point of orgasm.

Her Covent Garden boutique is a high- class version of an Ann Summers shop except, that all the sex products are beautifully designed, luxurious and very, very expensive. A human-hair whip is £188, bondage knickers are £200 a pair, and a Shiri Zinn Crystal Dildo, with Swarovski crystals - made by the firm who make Formula One trophies - is £1,100, including stand.

"Quite frankly," Sam Roddick says, "when you spend £150 on shoes and only £10 on your vagina, it doesn't match in terms of sense of importance in your life."

The idea, says the shop's owner, who sports 10 tattoos beneath her sensible clothes, is that the shop is very " female-centric" and celebrates sex without exploiting women. Her mother was not convinced. Anita Roddick just last year hit out at the sexualization of contemporary culture, in which young women aspire to dress like Beyoncé or Britney Spears - that is, she said, like high-class hookers - and celebrities talk about visiting lap-dancing clubs.

We were falling prey to a "pimp-and-whore" pop culture, she said, that degraded sex and made it virtually impossible for young women to grow up with high self-esteem. "There are thousands of ads, mostly focused on young girls, that say you are not attractive, you are not sexy, you are not intelligent unless you look like this," she said. "Something's gone very wrong."

Sam tried to defend her corner. "You can't hold a pop-star responsible for someone trafficking women," she replied, "but I don't think the way we communicate about sex allows people to connect all the dots, especially young people. If you treat sex like a throwaway culture, you'll end up feeling like you're a throwaway within it. I think that's what she was addressing and I agree with her.

"There's something selfish," she added, "about buying a new pair of shoes, but you're definitely sharing something if you're buying a sex toy for your partner, right?"

Quite what Anita would have made of Coco de Mel's current website is a moot point. It shows a film of two languid young women in silk gowns, stripping and posing against a black leather "tally-ho" vaulting horse with hand-stitched saddle and leather stirrups, demonstrating the use of the emporium's various products. They use whips. They graphically insert glass dildos. And the film includes close-ups of an open vagina. The site also advertises Sunday "salons" for those wanting "erotic education, intellectual debate, music and debauchery," which include sessions on Japanese Rope Bondage, The Sensual Whip, Back door Betty and Lesbian Sex Tricks for Men.

Sam Roddick sees no difficulty in squaring this with her campaign against sex trafficking. Porn should be reclaimed, she told a seminar recently, and the way to fight bad porn is to make good porn. More than that, in keeping with the traditions of her mother, all Coco de Mer's products, she says, are "ethically sourced" - including a Fair Trade "spanking paddle". She claims to have a WWF endorsement that her dildos are made from naturally-felled wood.

Whether the old Roddick cocktail of caring capitalism, world travel, self-fulfillment and campaigning on human rights and green issues is as persuasive in the context of the sex industry is another matter. As to her "Pleasure Project" - to educate women in developing countries on how to enjoy sex - it is probably wise to make no comment. The best her mother could come up with was that "my youngest, Sam, never stops surprising me with her creative radicalism". But she gave her daughter very short shrift when Sam suggested that the Body Shop allow its windows to be used for promoting the rights of sex workers.

Others buy her line. The investment bank Triodos recently gave her an ethical entrepreneur award for "enabling individuals to use sex as an instrument to transform their own existence". And an environmental group named Anti-Apathy have signed her up to a campaign to link sex to climate change with slogans such as "sex is carbon neutral'' and "more sex means less shopping".

"Sex is about pleasure," she says, "and if you get fulfillment you will want fewer material objects". If you believe that, you'll believe anything. But then Sam Roddick does. "People can be crazy on love... Allowing yourself to love is like free-falling off the edge of a cliff... I have felt ashamed in love, been ugly in love, basked in love... Sometimes, without realizing, I try to make myself unlovable because I fear love." We shall, doubtless, be hearing a lot more from her.

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