August 23 - September 6, 2002 No. 528
Her method of paying the mortgage led to a juicy Evening Post suburban sex scandal exclusive, but this merely provided one of Bradley Stoke's most colourful characters with a wealth of new career opportunities.
Robin Askew uncovers the exraordinary life of Sandra Hobson.
'Channel 5's On the Game Show: Sex for Sale Secret of TV Woman' screamed the front page of the Bristol Evening Post on February 19, 1998. "A woman who went on TV to tell of her desperate search for a man is running a sex-for-sale business at her home near Bristol, we can reveal. Sandra Hobson told viewers of Channel 5's HouseBusters that she wanted her home to be more attractive to men. But she has as many men as she wants on the telephone asking for 'a massage' at her modern home in Bradley Stoke. Sandra is prostitute 'Val' who charges customers £100 for sex in her house, tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac."
It was a classic tabloid-style suburban sex expose, complete with those obligatory coy references to "saucy antics", "sex games", "explicit acts" and "personal services". Even the celebrity angle was covered, as makeover show presenter Russell Grant had actually set foot in her house of ill repute. The polite, well-spoken, 62-year-old black woman who greets me at the door of this very 'brothel' hardly fits the image of the devious, astrologer-scamming madam. But for the framed photographs of the younger Sandra in various states of undress during her previous career as an exotic dancer, this could be any cosy suburban home. She makes coffee and we sit in the small but well-tended garden. I notice the gnomes. Disappointingly, none are arranged in erotic poses.
Sandra has a story to tell: one of those triumph-over-adversity yarns that would make a terrific TV movie. Not for nothing is her favourite film the Tina Turner biopic, 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' Her hair is only now growing back after chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer: the latest in a catalogue of misfortunes to befall her, and the one that prompted her retirement from prostitution. To occupy her mind during treatment, she decided to write her autobiography, entitled 'From Virtue to Reality'. A pile of copies, printed by self-publishing firm Authors OnLine, sit on her desk waiting to be sold. This is her retirement plan. She asks me what I thought of it. I reply, truthfully, that I found her story engrossing but the book could have benefited from the attentions of a professional editor.
The adopted daughter of a successful Harley Street dermatologist, Sandra enjoyed a privileged upbringing, being chauffeur-driven to a private prep school. After passing her A levels at the French Lycee in South Kensington, she'd been accepted to read medicine at King's College when a dramatic falling-out with her father and the lure of exotic dancing took her off around the world. Over the next few decades, she lived a life of luxury, hung out with the stars ("Having ice cream with Count Basie on the beach in Nice was one of the highlights," she recalls. "So was being given flowers onstage by Peter Finch."), played Mata Hari in a BBC film, and, as Lita Scott, acted alongside Christopher Lee in 'Curse of the Crimson Altar' and 'Theatre of Death' (the Internet Movie Database reveals that her roles were 'Girl with Cockerel' and 'Voodoo Dancer' respectively). But there was also a string of disastrous and abusive relationships. The woman who arrived penniless in Bristol on she remembers the date March 28, 1992, was, by her own admission, "a blubbering wreck".
That a life of glamour should lead to the sedate environs of Bradley Stoke may seem a little odd to some. "Well it ain't been sedate, honey, since I got here," Sandra jokes, in her best Mae West accent. In fact, she had friends in Filton and simply liked the look of the former Sadly Broke. Within a year, she was £1,500 overdrawn at the bank and, at the age of 53, "embarked on a financial adventure to support the kind of lifestyle that I intended to make for myself." To put it a little more bluntly, she went on the game. Many of her readers might be surprised to learn that she came to the sex industry so late in life. "Firstly, I didn't expect to stay alive," she explains. "I came back here to drop dead. Then when I found, eight weeks later, that I was still alive, I thought, 'Good lord, you'll have to make some money. How are you going to support all this?' If you look at the options, with my qualifications and what I would be able to earn, it was nowhere near enough to pay the mortgage, never mind the other bills. Chiropody, nail extensions, even teaching languages, wouldn't generate the income necessary to buy this house, which was my one aim."
Most of her business came from advertisements in Trade It and, ironically, the Evening Post. 'Cloud Nine Stress Management Company,' they read. 'The Ultimate Solution'. Not once in our conversation does she use the words 'prostitution' or 'punters'. Clients are always referred to as 'guests'. Why so coy with language? "Coy with language?" She raises an eyebrow. "I've never had that expression before. Coy with my language? I'm open and frank! I always call them guests because if you come into my house you are my guest. And I expect you to behave as such. I wasn't offering the plain sex industry type thing. It had to be something I could agree with. I'm a qualified chiropodist, reflexologist and aromatherapist, so everybody got a massage to begin with. You'd get these idiots who'd phone up and say, 'Can we cut out the massage and get straight down to it?' And I'd say, 'No, you can't. If you come here, you are going to get a massage. If you can't agree to that, you go elsewhere because you're not my type of clientele.'"
A couple of 'guests' a day paying £50 for massage and £120 for full sex soon got the debts under control. "I was very selective, which meant that I earned less than a lot of other people. But at least it meant that it was something that I could deal with in my own mind. And I've never been greedy."
This failed to convince the Inland Revenue, who launched an investigation into Sandra's earnings. "I invited them to sit here with me all day, every day, just to see how many people I see," she chuckles. "But they refused." The tax dispute was soon resolved. Luckily, one of Sandra's clients turned out to be a tax inspector, who offered her advice. The others were a pretty mixed bunch, among them several Asian men who wanted to be her slaves, an Oxford don, several doctors and dentists, men with physical disabilities who couldn't get sex elsewhere, a middle-aged chap who'd taken so much Viagra he couldn't get it down again, and a supple bloke who enjoyed sucking his own penis while she "administered sensations with a vibrator". When she wanted a loft conversion, a local architect even agreed to draw up the plans in return for her 'stress management services'.
In 'From Virtue to Reality', Sandra describes the challenge of understanding the Bristol accent, the little idiosyncrasies of local Men (they like their women in uniform around here, apparently), and how she drew up lists of practices that she found acceptable and those which were taboo (no kissing, no funny business). Drawing on her former showbiz career, she carefully choreographed each transaction, raiding the dressing-up box where necessary. "Very often my guests were very overweight, old, rather clumsy and not freshly bathed," she writes. "The first thing was then to tell them to shower in the bathroom A favourite expression of many who came to see me was, 'My wife's not interested in sex any more.' I have to say, with some of my guests I can fully sympathise with them."
All the time, she kept her head down, as it were, and thought of the money. Soon, she even had the facility to accept credit cards. Given that her goal was to own her home not for nothing is it called The Sanctuary it's perhaps surprising that she should choose to meet 'guests' here rather than at the hotels just around the corner. "When you're on your own territory, you know where you are and you know what's happening," she reasons. "If you go to a hotel, the other person has the advantage. Don't forget that I was used to dealing with hundreds of people when I was onstage. You learn how to control people."
Far from damaging her career, the Post expose led to new opportunities. As many of her clients were emotionally damaged in some way, Sandra had long considered going into sex therapy. "I've actually sent people home. One poor chap was so shell-shocked and so shattered that I said, 'You don't really want what you think you came here for.' His wife had just told him that he was absolutely useless in bed and that she was leaving him. So we just talked. I didn't give him a massage or anything. If people were having difficulties in their marriage, I'm the last one to say: 'Well come upstairs, dear, and I'll sort it out'."
She's now written 'How to Have an Orgasm'-type articles for virtually all the women's weeklies (Chat, Bella, etc) and runs her own modestly successful sex advice website (www.sex-advice.co.uk) and counselling service. An approach from the Downend Ladies' Club launched a second career as a popular local public speaker. Her subjects include funny incidents in showbiz, motivational tales of triumphs over adversity and, of course, the sex industry. After ten "tumultuous" years, Sandra achieved her goal and paid off the mortgage. Now she's a pillar of the Bradley Stoke community, a school governor, and a member of the town twinning committee (being fluent in several languages makes her very popular indeed). Everybody in her cul-de-sac knows what she used to do for a living and, she says, they've been universally supportive. When the local paper ran a critical article, the vicar who lives next door wrote a letter in her defence. The cancer was another setback, but she seems to be making a slow recovery. As I go to leave, there's just one more question that's been bothering me. Don't you ever get sick and tired of talking about sex, Sandra? "Yes I do," she says quietly. "Yes I do."
'From Virtue to Reality' is stocked by the Greenleaf bookshop, Colston Street, Bristol, price £9.95
Created: September 5, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
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