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'What drives me? It was being that little girl who had to get up and fight every single time'

Jo Malone sold her first perfume business for millions but its loss left her miserable. The mum-of-one tells Sarah Caden how she's built a second successful company after a gruelling cancer battle

Published 22/10/2016

Smell of success: Jo Malone’s interest in perfume came from her beautician mother
Smell of success: Jo Malone’s interest in perfume came from her beautician mother

There are two moments in conversation when Jo Malone's demeanour changes. One is when she describes a new scent she has created for her brand, Jo Loves. It's called Smoked Plum and Leather, and she gets the faraway look in her eyes of someone in the first flush of love. "It's smoky and it's powerful and it's the kind of thing I'd never have had the courage to do before," she says.

The second time it's a look of disgust that comes over Jo. She's talking about one of the lowest times in her life, after she came back to her original business, the one that bore her name, Jo Malone, after nearly a year of being treated for cancer. The treatment had been tough and facing her mortality had been tough. But what became a particularly cruel blow was her damaged sense of smell.

"That was really awful. All I could smell was like I ran my hands down an aluminium pipe," she shudders. "It was a really horrible smell; it was that and a mouthwash that I had (during the cancer treatment) and it makes me heave if I smell it now."

Reading her just-published autobiography, Jo Malone: My Story, you quickly grasp that this extraordinary gift of smell is not all that is different about her. Jo Malone's rags-to-riches story is a good one, but it's not her full story. She's also what you might call a comeback queen.

In 1999, she sold her company Jo Malone to Estee Lauder for "undisclosed millions". She stayed on as creative director but then she was diagnosed with cancer and stepped away from the business for treatment, only to return and find she couldn't reconnect with how it had changed in her absence. She left the business in 2006 with an agreement that she couldn't work in the fragrance industry for five years. It was an agreement that devastated her, shaking her sense of self to the core.

She came back though, and that's what makes her really different. She's a wildly successful businesswoman who has not just once built a brand from nothing to multimillion-pound level, with Jo Malone, but is well on the way to doing it again with Jo Loves.

I suggest that, to some people, Jo's position in 2006 would have been a dream come true. Millions in the bank, a sense of personal achievement in having built a global brand from nothing and the knowledge that she could live a comfortable life for the rest of her days. But she was miserable.

Was it not working that made you unhappy, I ask.

"Yeah. I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what to do with myself. It wasn't about a wage. At the end of the day, it was about being occupied and being of use. I wasn't happy."

Jo Malone's accent remains pure Bexleyheath, Kent, where she grew up in a council house, a sensible, driven and pragmatic girl from the start. She was also the daughter of a father who gambled and a glamorous beautician mother who allowed her to help out in the business, teaching young Jo how to make face creams and do facials.

Her father's gambling was a massive strain on the family; money was scarce and rows were frequent.

"I knew that I was the sensible one," says Jo. "I was the one who, before I left for school, looked in to the fridge and thought, 'Okay, there are four eggs, some cheese. What are we going to eat for dinner?'"

Jo was key to keeping the house going, but as she grew into a teenager she also became crucial to her mother's business. Dyslexic, she was considered lazy at school, though she was anything but. When her mother had a stroke during Jo's early teens, the dynamic changed in the house.

"She was really sick and she changed tremendously as a person," Jo says. Tension grew between them and it culminated in an incident when her mother threw jars of face cream at Jo. Her father and younger sister Tracey - her only sibling - sided with Jo's mother and the rift with them did not heal until many years later, not long before all three died within a relatively short space of time. "What happened with the face cream was the straw that broke the camel's back," Jo says, "but that was the making of me, really, because there was no going back. But I never stopped loving them, and that's in the book.

"People know the success of my life, but they needed to know what was under that. What drives me. And that little girl who got up and fought every single time, that's what drives me. And forgiveness is so much more liberating than resentment; that is the message here."

Jo married her first love, Gary Willcox, in 1985. A former surveyor who gave up that career to join her as Jo Malone took off, he is probably the key strategist. In 1999, 15 years after she started the business, Estee Lauder made the deal to buy it from her. She stayed on as creative director and it was an exciting time as she travelled all over the world.

In 2000, at the age of 36, she discovered she was pregnant and had her son Josh. However, in 2003 Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her association with the Lauders turned out to be a blessing, as Evelyn Lauder had set up a breast cancer foundation and they helped Jo to get the very best treatment in New York. She and Gary and Josh moved to Manhattan for almost a year and Jo approached cancer with the same determination as every other challenge in her life.

"Control is my thing," she notes. "I need to be in control. But with the cancer, I just handed it over to the doctors." When the treatment was over, Jo gently reimmersed herself in Jo Malone, but it wasn't the same.

"When I went back I couldn't identify with the brand I'd built, because I was a stranger. And I couldn't marry all my emotions about it. And that's why I went (from Jo Malone), because I wasn't happy any more. When I look back it was probably the right decision at the wrong time."

Jo hated being idle. Her agreement with Estee Lauder was that she couldn't be in the fragrance business or use her name for five years. And the money, despite what anyone else might imagine, didn't help. "I'm not in love with money," she says. In Jo's house, they can afford waste but she cannot countenance any. Sunday night dinner, she says with a smile, is "bits-and-bobs dinner", which means using up anything in the fridge that might get thrown out otherwise.

She is not a gambler like her father. "If I found £100 in my pocket and I was told to turn that into £10,000, I'd rather invest it in a business than place a bet. I'd rather be in control of it than gamble it. The scariest part of the five-year lock-out was that I didn't know who I was."

Jo 'trained' her nose back into some sort of action but the ability to create a new scent evaded her until a holiday in the Turk and Caicos Islands. She had been thinking about the pomelo, a melon-like tropical fruit, but during her morning walk, the fruit's fragrance melded with other smells; the sun warming the sand, the luxuriant tropical island around her. Pomelo, her first scent for Jo Loves, was born.

Now, five years in to the journey with Jo Loves, she has a shop in Belgravia, London - near where she had her first job in a florist. Jo thinks that's a sign of how right it all is, and one of her Jo Loves scents, Flower Shop, is a nod to that history.

She adds: "I love what I'm doing now with Jo Loves. It's like the second child that gave me a second chance."

Jo Malone: My Story, Simon & Schuster £20

Belfast Telegraph

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