Bloody Wonderful: Goodbye, Anita Roddick

A friend and colleague remembers the hell-raising, dirty joke-cracking, fast-walking, top-selling firebrand who leveraged her Body Shop brand into an unstoppable force for social change.

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Anita Roddick, Dame Commander of the British Empire, founder of The Body Shop Ltd., lifelong activist, and member of Mother Jones‘ board of directors, has died, but to consider her “gone” would be to invite a tongue-lashing from beyond the grave about lack of imagination. As she would put it, she is very bloody much still here, and we all better get used to it.

I met Anita when I was producer of in 1999. She blew into a board meeting from a delayed flight and discovered us doing free-association exercises with big colored pens and enormous pages of newsprint. We had been asked to draw that which inspired us most. “Bollocks!” she shouted, and grabbed a pen. A crude drawing of bags of cash emerged on the left; a wobbly planet sat on the right. Interrupting, in her famously impatient manner, she narrated: “What I want to do is give all my dosh away to people who make a difference now, and not sit around drawing all afternoon.” Later that night, she joined three of us in a hotel room, drank warm white wine out of a bottle, told outrageous stories, and played poker for M&M’s.

Anita revolutionized business in a place no one was even sure existed—its soul. The Body Shop pioneered socially conscious business practices and became wildly successful by marketing ideas and opportunities for activism, and for never once running an ad. She took a great deal of heat for criticizing the beauty industry while selling beauty products. But it all made sense when you listened to her—she’d tell you that anti-wrinkle creams were “God’s way of separating the stupid from their money,” and that all you really needed to stay young-looking was to “quit smoking, stay out of the sun, and eat more tomatoes.”

In her human-rights and environmental activism, she saw plenty of tragedy. Her friend, Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by the Nigerian government after he led a long battle against Shell Oil in the Ogoni tribal lands in 1995. Instead of crying, Anita decided that Ken would want her to carry on the fight that much harder. So she did. When Shell offered to buy advertising on this site to “green” its image, I asked her what she would do. She said, “I’d take their money and make them squirm. Tell the truth.”

She was irreverent and demanding, easily bored and completely frenetic. At barely 5 feet tall, she walked so fast, I had to break into a jog every few steps to keep up with her. Anita waited for no one and nothing. Time was precious and laziness an obscenity. Knowing there might, perhaps, be something to this whole “mortality” rumor, in the past two years she had been making big plans. The day before she died, she and her husband Gordon brainstormed their activism goals for the coming year. She was never done.

Anita became not only a mentor and later an employer to me, but also my best friend and conscience. When I met her, I was questioning my power as a journalist to create any meaningful change in the world. But to her, defeatism was self-indulgent clap-trap, and no excuse in any case. Her favorite saying was, “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” Yet when I hit a low point and did give up, she showed me a quiet love, generosity, and loyalty I have never witnessed before or would expect again. This past New Year’s Day, she and her family literally saved my life.

She may have given millions to charities and fought the first battles against global warming, unfair trade, domestic abuse, animal testing, prisons, torture, and indigenous rights, but in person she was anything but politically correct. She loved to ask blunt questions about strangers’ sex lives. She told off-color jokes—never mind, downright filthy jokes. Two years ago we were sitting together in the visiting room at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola when the guards swarmed in and asked us to leave. We had been campaigning on behalf of the men we were visiting, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola Three. While the guards worked out the bureaucratic details of removing us, Anita calmly told a truly stomach-churning dirty joke involving penguins. Even the guard captain had to crack a smile, and the tension instantly lifted.

I imagine Anita right now drinking Italian wine and playing poker with God, and telling him that she has a few burning questions on the subjects of injustice, human suffering, the environment, organized religion, and, of course, sex. Next up: redecorating the place.

But enough of all that: Anita would tell us all to stop blubbering and get on with the work. And each of us owes her that much; her work was so global and wide-ranging that she might well have changed the way you live, whether you know it or not. The best tribute to her is to tell someone a dirty joke, and then go out and do something. Buy a newspaper from a homeless guy, hold a door for a stranger, call your congressperson, write a check, picket something, and scream at the top of your lungs. And then go eat a tomato.


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