The Socially Conscious Cosmetician: Anita Roddick is Born

“There is no scientific answer for success,” says Anita Roddick. “You can't define it. You've simply got to live it and do it.” In creating the wildly successful Body Shop chain of cosmetic stores, Roddick created her own definition of success. She went against the norm in choosing to operate her business in an ecologically sustainable manner, and not only achieved success, but also redefined the possibilities of what it means to be in business.

Born on October 23, 1942, in Sussex, England, Roddick (née Anita Perella) came from a hard-working family, with her parents being among the first Italian immigrants to the region. She was the third of four children to parents Gilda and Donny Perella. Her mother ran a successful café in Littlehampton, which kept the young Roddick busy for the better part of her childhood. It was, in fact, the first and only American style diner in their town at the time. Whether it was working as a waitress or cleaning up after hours, few evenings or weekends were left free for the Roddick children. In addition to teaching her a strong work ethic, it was Roddick’s mother who first introduced her to the concept and value of recycling.

When Roddick was eight years old, she was told that her father was actually Donny’s cousin, Henry, and that she was the result of an affair. Henry died from tuberculosis just two years after she learned about the news. Of the experience, Roddick wrote that she “felt as if an enormous weight of guilt had been lifted off [her] shoulders…It gave me a lot of confidence in gut feelings – taught me to trust my instincts above everything else, and stood me in very good stead when I came to open my first shop.”

Because her family had immigrated to England, Roddick claims she always felt she was different. “I was a natural outsider, and I was drawn to other outsiders and rebels,” she recalls. “James Dean was my schoolgirl idol. I also had a strong sense of moral outrage, which was awakened when I found a book about the Holocaust at the age of ten.” Initially, Roddick’s sense of moral outrage led her to become a teacher. She declined an offer from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, choosing instead to enroll in the Newton Park College of Education and Bath. Here, she studied English, History, and Aesthetics. In 1962, Roddick went on a kibbutz to Israel, which eventually turned into an extended working trip around the world.

“I traveled enormously during the 1960's,” says Roddick, “when you measured everything by where you traveled and what you did as travelers.” She clipped newspapers for the International Herald Tribute in Paris, worked for the United Nations in Geneva and took a self-guided tour through Tahiti, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, Australia, and Johannesburg. While in South Africa, Roddick disobeyed the laws of apartheid by attending a jazz club on ‘black night’ and was sent back to England.

Upon her return, Roddick’s mother introduced her to a young Scotsman by the name of Gordon Roddick, of whom Anita says, “Our bond was instant.” The two decided not only to be together in a relationship, but to go into business with each other. First, they opened up a restaurant, followed by a hotel in Littlehampton. In 1970, with one child together already and another one on the way, the pair was married. However, it would not be long before their passionate interests were taking them in uniquely different directions.

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