Anita Roddick

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ANITA RODDICK IS RECALLING THE DAY back in 1988 when Queen Elizabeth II, with an immaculately gloved hand, bestowed upon her the Order of the British Empire medallion—and received in return a blast of the businesswoman's garrulous charm. "Here's the Queen, right? I'm coming toward her, and there's music from My Fair Lady coming from somewhere," Roddick says breathlessly. "My hair is wild. I walk up and curtsy, she hooks on the medal and says, 'It's going well in America, is it?' And that was her fatal mistake! Because I never stopped frigging talking!"

Here she is, world: that 5'2" bundle of dynamite. Anita Roddick—a woman whose head is so crowded with new product lines and ideas that she blew out of Buckingham Palace that day accidentally leaving her medal behind. Founder of the Body Shop, an almost-all-natural-cosmetics empire, Roddick, 50, is one of the five richest women in England. Presiding over more than 950 shops in 42 countries—including more than 130 stores in the U.S.—Roddick has succeeded by flouting the gospel of the beauty business. "You don't have to suffer the terrorism of body shape," she says. "You don't have to have tight skin to be loved!"

Much like a witch—a Glinda the Good Witch—Roddick crisscrosses the globe several months a year gathering leaves, barks and nightingale droppings, then streaks home to toss them into her research-and-development vats back in England. She routinely visits such tribal communities as Brazil's Kayapo Indians or the Bedouin women of Oman to find ingredients. But her most recent slop was much less exotic: Atlanta, where she spoke at the annual meeting of Social Venture Network, a group of socially concerned businesses. Activism is another of Roddick's passions: The typical Body Shop is stocked with posters and pamphlets promoting everything from human rights to saving the rain forest. She has also funded projects, from a Boys Town for orphans in India to the rebuilding of Romanian orphanages. Roddick is "the most progressive business person I know," says consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "If somebody says, 'Let's do that,' she says, 'Let's do it yesterday.' "

Why is she always ablaze? "It's my frigging sense of outrage about some of the things that go on, and psychologically from my bloody fear of death," says Roddick, whose social conscience was first awakened as a little girl, when she read a book about the Holocaust. "I've only got finite time," she says, "and that translates into energy."

Even as a tot, Anita Lucia Perella, one of four children of first-generation Italian immigrants, was keen to rocket out of the town of Litllehampton, Sussex, in England. Her mother, Gilda, now 78, passed along a gritty peasant work ethic and some of her operatic temperament. She had two husbands: the first, a café owner named Donny Perella, she divorced when Anita was small to marry his cousin, Henry Perilli. Much later, when Anita was 18, her mother revealed that "Uncle Henry" was her real dad. "I was delighted," says" Roddick, "that I came from the Perilli s, who had been tightrope walkers and fire throwers in circuses, and not the Perellas, who were unimaginative. It all made sense then."

Schooled by nuns, Roddick later trained to be a teacher at the Newton Park College of Education at Bath. To complete a thesis project, she went to work at an Israeli kibbutz, but soon got bounced. Kibbutz leaders objected when she dressed a bearded youth in bedsheets, submerged stones in a lake so he would seem to be walking on water and then yelled to some kids, "The Messiah's arrived!" Thereafter she pinballed from Paris to Greece to Madagascar and worked for a time for a women's-rights arm of the United Nations in Geneva.

On a visit back home in 1968 she met Gordon Roddick—a tall, thin Scotsman with an adventurous streak of his own. Trained as a farmer, he was more interested in writing poetry and traveling: He had already gone from tin mining in Africa to canoeing the Amazon. They wed in 1971, when Anita was pregnant with their second child, Samantha, now 21. (Her sister is Justine, 23.) Live years later, when Gordon went off to ride horseback through South America, his wife opened the first Body Shop in the seaside resort of Brighton, England. "My goal," she says, "was just to survive."

Roddick's exotic travels gave her the idea of selling natural cosmetics. "In Polynesia I had seen women rubbing cocoa butter on their breasts and bellies and bums," she says. "Their skin was like velvet." Teaming up with a local herbalist, she created the first Body Shop products and got a burst of publicity right away, when two funeral-parlor directors on her block objected to the name of her store.

The Body Shop's line has since ballooned to more than 400 items, from Rhassoul Mud Shampoo to White Grape Skin Tonic. It is an empire the Roddicks run as a team. She is the public dervish, "mercurial and marginally eccentric," says Gordon, 50, "and usually right, which drives everybody mad." Meanwhile, "Gordon manages the larger strategy and expedites my ideas," says Anita. Occasionally they even wind up at home at the same time, in their converted Sussex farmhouse 50 miles from London. Aside from sometimes seeing a movie, Roddick says she does nothing but work; her husband is a passionate polo player on weekends. As for the daughters, Justine is presently doing PR for the family firm; Samantha lives in Vancouver, B.C., where she puts out a newspaper on environmental issues.

Roddick herself has had to spend a lot of time in America since 1988, when the first stateside Body Shop opened in Manhattan. She has had some unique problems here. At limes puritanical mall managers have banned her store posters; one, a sketch suggestive of a naked man that read: "Turn your armpits into charm-pits," was censored because it was thought to encourage homosexuality. "And lawyers here forever tell me I can't do such-and-such because I'll get sued," Roddick says. "There's this bloody fear of litigation." Though she has always had a policy against advertising—"I don't want to spend the money," she says—she has decided to hoist her profile in the U.S. by doing TV spots for American Express. Yet if Roddick has tailored her act a bit to conquer the States, Americans are having to adjust to her too. Answering some of the questions on the Body Shop franchise application, for instance, is like being interviewed by Barbara Walters: "If you were a car, what car would you be and why?" and "How would you like to die?"

Still, if Roddick can sometimes seem a bit of a goofball, she's the smartest goofball going. In 1992 the Body Shop's worldwide gross topped $38 million, and Roddick claims that now there are at least 33 American copycats. "Imitators piss me off," she says. "We have to defend our trademark like a lion defends its cubs." She complains that imitators offer ointments and ecobabble "but never imitate the underlying values"—meaning her commitment to social change. Last year she opened a shop in Harlem, with 50 percent of the profits earmarked for community groups.

Being such an activist hasn't necessarily made Roddick an ideal boss. "She's very autocratic," says Gus Colquhoun, 30, who shoots the Body Shop's in-house videos and counts himself a Roddick fan. "There aren't many in the organization who find it easy to disagree with her." When Roddick announced the Body Shop's collective opposition to the Gulf War in 1991, she bigfooted a protest within the company. Indeed, when asked if there's room for political diversity at the Body Shop, Roddick replies, "Not much. If you don't want to be part of this kind of social activism, you can work for Coors beer." No wonder some employees come to feel like hippies in lockstep. As one ex-staffer put it recently, "I just felt that I had to be permanently angelic. I began to hate the face of Anita Roddick telling me it was my duty to save the world."

The biggest question about Roddick's future now seems to be what she'll do when she runs out of countries. The Body Shop is beginning to expand into Mexico, and now she is eyeing Cuba and Vietnam. (Typically, she plans to look first for native products to buy there before considering opening stores.) Meanwhile she foresees an eventual 500 to 1,000 Body Shops in America—meaning there are lots of U.S. franchises left. A tip for those who want to apply: To the question "How would you like to die?" one good answer is, "Wrapped in basil leaves." Says Roddick: "I once visited a tribe who wrapped their dead in sheets of basil leaves. I learned then that there's an ingredient in basil oil that slops the smell of decay."

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