Interview: Lynne Franks
She headed a successful agency and was the inspiration for Ab Fab. Now she’s dedicated to empowering women.
"At the time, I felt they stole my life", says Lynne Franks about Absolutely Fabulous
Lynne Franks is wearing a badge which proclaims her to be an "outrageous older woman". She is chatting to me, while simultaneously briefing her PA and making herbal tea (she is currently detoxing from caffeine). She exudes energy and enthusiasm, and at 63 is bubbling with ideas. When the time comes, she will probably be buried with a BlackBerry in her hand, she jokes.
At some point in the dim and distant past, Lynne Franks was a fairly typical Jewish girl. She grew up in Southgate, went (reluctantly) to synagogue every Saturday and left school at 16 to train as a typist after an unremarkable school career.
Two decades later, she was a one-woman industry - the founder of the country's leading PR agency, a practising Buddhist and the woman on whom the character of Edina in the BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous is based.
You do not need to spend long in Franks's company to work out why her career progression was so spectacular. And also why her friend Jennifer Saunders found her compelling enough to write a sitcom around her. To my slight disappointment, she does not seem much like the ditsy Edina. Rather than a Bolly-swigging socialite, Franks lives for work.
However, despite having been loathe to acknowledge it at the time, she herself feels there are indeed similarities between the woman in front of me who made millions from PR and the loveable if laughable character from the hit comedy show.
There had never been as creative, edgy an agency as we were
Franks says: "There is an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which Edina is standing in a supermarket with a trolley-full of champagne waiting for somebody to come and serve her. It wasn't quite true but it almost was. I never did my own shopping. I had people who would take care of me all the time while I would work, work, work. I'd rush for a massage, then to my next appointment. Being Lynne Franks took a lot of effort.
"The character was not me but there were some funny bits. For example there was a scene when she was chanting. She said: 'I'm chanting as we speak', which was funny - I was a Buddhist at the time. Also, I would come into the office giving instructions on my mobile phone, just like her."
Franks recalls that she was asked by the Ab Fab producers to appear in an episode, but she turned it down. "Of course, I should have done it. Now I'd die to do it but I was very insecure at that point." In fact,
Ab Fab, which returns to the BBC soon with three special episodes celebrating the show's 20th anniversary, could not have come at a worse time for Franks who was suffering a mid-life crisis.
She explains: "I wasn't sure who I was anymore. I had just come out of my marriage and I'd just sold my business. Everything I thought I was - wife, business partner, Lynne Franks PR - was changing. Because my business was also my name, people thought they knew me. Then Ab Fab started and everyone thought I was that character. So I'm going through this whole life change in my early 40s and there's this TV show on every week with this crazy character who everyone thought was me. It was a shaky time and, yes, I was a little pissed off about it. I felt that my friends had stolen my life."
Franks left her palatial home in Maida Vale, and with it the nannies, chefs, the chauffeurs and the crazy lifestyle which she had been living ever since she left school. As a 16-year-old it was all about fashion, dancing and partying. After completing a Pitmans shorthand course, Franks flitted from job to job, acquiring valuable experience in the worlds of PR and journalism, but she usually ended up leaving or being sacked when her various jobs began to interfere with her social life in London's clubs and music venues. Her epiphany came when, aged 21, she was offered the opportunity to look after PR for fashion designer Katherine Hamnett. At around the same time she met businessman Stephen Rubin [who later founded the Pentland Group]. "I really didn't know what I was doing but he and Katherine gave me the confidence to go on and work for myself, so I gave it a go."
She started working from the kitchen of the Notting Hill flat she shared with her boyfriend, later husband, Paul Howie. She quickly picked up four accounts, paying her £20 a month each, but for some time after she held on to her Saturday job at a Regent Street furrier.
It soon became clear that Franks had a unique talent. She puts it down to her enthusiasm. "I was your typical customer. I was really plugged in and I got excited by what we were doing. I'm very good at creating imaginative solutions to interesting problems - it's just the way my mind works."
Within a few years the agency had expanded and taken on top clients including Raleigh bikes and, crucially, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, which for the first time gave Franks the opportunity to work with a big budget. She did not look back. Soon, she was boss of one of London's foremost agencies. "There had never been as creative, edgy an agency as we were."
At the height of Lynne Franks PR she began to examine her spirituality. Although brought up as a Liberal Jew, the religion "never really resonated" for her.
"My sister married a nice Jewish boy and ended up doing the Jewish thing. I married a non-Jew, and went on a spiritual journey. I started practising Buddhism through a number of friends in America. I had a lot of stress running a business and bringing up two kids. My friends said that chanting would sort me out. It definitely helped but I don't consider myself Buddhist anymore. I think it's all about integrating everything. I still meditate with a Hindu-based women's spiritual organisation and I also love the Jewish ritual and ceremony. My son, [comedian Josh Howie] follows a very Jewish path - he's a strong member of Westminster Synagogue and I sometimes go with him and his family."
Franks's work too has evolved since she left her company in the early '90s. Gradually, she found her calling was in encouraging and promoting women in business. In 2000, she wrote The Seed Handbook, in which she described a feminine way to create businesses. Since then, with the backing of the Regus Group, she has created B.Hive, specifically for women with small businesses.
She says: "I could see there was this need for a more feminine space where women who worked from home could come to and have their meetings and network." There are three branches so far - in Covent Garden, Manchester and Bristol, with more to come. She is also a consultant for several multinationals on the role of women within their organisations.
However, as always, Franks refuses to be tied down to a single project. She is making a foray into the world of journalism with a series of interviews for the JC featuring a selection of prominent women.
"I think there are some amazing Jewish women out there. My work is in the empowerment of women and I don't know whether there's a lot of awareness in the Jewish community of just how extraordinary these women are."
For details on Lynne Franks's women's retreats, visit www.lynnefranks.com