Anita Roddick is now 63, and, eager as ever to defy conventions, is showing no signs of mellowing. "The truth is, I came out of the womb an activist and I will go to the grave an activist," she exclaims, wringing her hands in the air in way that hints at her Italian heritage, caught up in her own excitement.
Itís been 30 years since she set up the tiny cosmetics shop in Brighton that was to expand into the multinational cosmetics giant, The Body Shop, and Anita feels sheís outgrown these roots. Five years ago, she left the business she had built up over 25 years, feeling that her uncompromising views were becoming increasingly incompatible with the subtle world of commerce.
"As I was getting older I was getting more radical," she explains," and what was fascinating me was not the pursuit of business youíre never remembered for what you do in business, never. What was interesting me is the role that business plays in civil society and that itís the most powerful, the wealthiest institution on this planet. It is more effective now than any religion, any political system.
But it has to have a moral integrity, it has to have an honourable code of behaviour, that was the bit that was interesting me more and I started finding a network of moral activists in the business world. I guess they all started getting a little worried when I wanted everyone in The Body Shop world to make a stand against the Iraqi invasion. It would have been suicide if we had done that in America." Roddickís tiny, sprightly frame is deceptive.
In all other respects she is a dominating figure and her energy seems boundless. She is highly impatient, quick to dismiss what she feels are nonsensical ideas and unable to contain herself until the end of a question when the subject interests her. Yet above all, her warmth is remarkable, particularly considering that neither her good intentions nor the influences of her Mediterranean background have secured her a place as one of the mediaís golden girls.
She regularly comes under harsh criticism from the press, primarily for the huge earnings she made in The Body Shop and secondly, because her choice of product, cosmetics, does not seem to square too neatly with her vehement support of female emancipation. Anita is quick to insist she is not hoarding her wealth, and quickly assures me, "Wealth has never worried me, greed worries me.
Iím part of a socialist tradition that means it is obscene to die wealthy, so my entire life at the moment is very intelligently dedicated to giving it away." With regards to the second criticism, however, she remains defiant. Asked whether she feels that the cosmetic industry encourages women to be overly concerned with changing their appearance she almost jumps out of her seat.
"Oh no, thatís too purist for me, Iím much more concerned about human rights, trade justice, workersí justice, and sweat shop labour. I donít give a toss if someone wants to pull a hair out or put make-up on. Anyway if you have a look at the social anthropology of women, many women put on make-up before they go onto death row. You know everywhere I go, concepts of beauty are different. In Japan the neck is supposed to be the most important part of a womanís body.
In certain African tribes flat breasts are sexy because it shows youíve had kids. So having perky boobs and long legs was not an issue, you have got to be good workers. Definitions of beauty changes, and no, I never worry about that. I canít bear being purist, itís too boring." To say that Roddick has a frosty relationship with the media is something of an understatement. "I think weíve really got to hit the media over the head.
They are never going to tell you the real truth of Disney, theyíll never tell you the truth of Asda or Walmart. Until we get the media saying this is what it costs to buy this, this is the slavery you are supporting. I donít think people will ever get outraged. We have got a society where weíre hell-bent on persuading everyone of us to buy. You are what you buy, you are what you earn, you are what you consume.
?? She is scathing of the mediaís halfhearted attempts to engage with these issues. She says of the Make Poverty History campaign, "It pissed me off. I think Make Poverty History was one of the things that people love: it was celebrity endorsed, it was of the moment and thatís the end of the story. Having anything that was really profound, really making peopleís lives better, was not what the media want. They wanted a show.
I find myself agreeing; Roddickís impassioned stance is contagious and, despite her tendency to be judgemental, her obvious sympathy and passion for humanity is remarkable. Given that a campaign by The Body Shop succeeded in changing the law in England concerning animal testing for the cosmetics industry, I wonder what Roddick thinks of the animal rights demonstrations on Oxfordís doorstep. Perhaps I should have guessed.
"Just the very fact that Americans now deem the animal rights movement as the work of terrorists makes me want to puke. I think civil disobedience is absolutely appropriate. I think the right to stand up and dissent is part of any literate society people have always done that. I think that people donít know about the animal testing and the way animals are treated. But I think animal rights activists do have a big dilemma with their public image at the moment.
There is one more thing troubling me. Itís not just her exuberance that appears to belie her growing age Anita Roddick looks as youthful and radiant as a women 20 years her junior. Momentarily forgetting the pressing concerns of Anitaís human rights campaigns, I wonder, has she sacrificed her ethical principles in the face of modern day cosmetics? Barely able to contain my self-satisfaction at this apparent trump card, I ask her what cosmetic products she uses.
"Everything I own is from The Body Shop, I cannot stand the beauty industry, because itís usually run by menÖ" she mutters as she whips out a small make-up bag from her bulging handbag and spills a few items of make up out onto my lap. After a thirty second brief on application of a new Body Shop product, she whisks out of the room dynamically. It seems Anita Roddick still has many a campaign to fight.