Delight... then despair... what really happened when our favourite diva's New Year Honours secret leaked out: Darlings! I thought I'd lost my Damehood before I even got it, admits DAME JOAN COLLINS
When the phone rang at 7am in my apartment in Los Angeles three weeks ago, I decided not to answer and nodded back off.
Contrary to what everyone believes, California can be freezing cold in the morning and, because I hate having heating in the bedroom, I snuggled back into my comfortable bed and promptly went back to sleep while my agent burbled something about ‘an invitation from the palace for an important event’.
A party – yawn – I thought. An hour later when my agent rang again, I heard her through drowsy ears as she implored me to wake up and pick up the phone. I gave in.
Tears of joy: Dame Joan Collins - at home in LA - was thrilled to be made a Dame in the New Year Honours
‘I’m sorry but I left a cryptic message as I was told I could only tell you personally about this,’ she said. ‘You are being asked to accept a Damehood and the deadline is now. Will you accept?’
I could hardly believe it. I jumped out of bed, woke up my husband Percy and we got the form filled in, signed and sent before our first cup of coffee – it was a dream, surely.
I was to be honoured as a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list but it was an absolute secret and if anyone found out it could be rescinded. Percy and I were over the moon all day, our lips sealed tightly shut, while I occasionally burst into tears of joy and excitement.
Those tears soon turned into shock and horror the following morning when the story leaked on to the front page of a newspaper. Since Percy and I had spoken only to my agent and the Foreign Office, we were mystified as to who had done this dastardly deed, which could scupper my award. We still have no idea.
I was immediately inundated with emails, texts and phone calls from friends congratulating me but I could not say thank you – I couldn’t even acknowledge that I was going to receive the honour.
It was an incredibly frustrating time and in a way quite sad as we wanted to share our delicious secret with our friends and family.
Being raised as part of a showbusiness family, the only dames I ever came across as a child were those performing in pantomimes that my father produced at Christmas time.
I remember laughing uproariously at Cyril Fletcher and Arthur Askey, who were caricatures of corpulent, hideous females but who nowadays would be at the top of any politically incorrect list. Today, my favourite panto dame is Christopher Biggins, who has been entertaining audiences for 40 years.
Biggins was one of the first people to ring me up to congratulate me when the news broke that I was to be given this cherished honour, saying: ‘Darling, I am down on my knees congratulating you. Welcome to my club.’
It’s a new and curious adjustment becoming ‘Dame Joan’ and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to handle it yet. I remember Elizabeth Taylor on a movie we made when she had just been awarded the honour. She, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine and I were all being arranged on a dais on a sound stage in Hollywood to have our press photos taken.
The young assistant director, whose job it was to tell us where to sit, was so terrified that he stumbled and mumbled: ‘Now, Miss Dame, I mean Dame Taylor – oh sorry, Miss Elizabeth... er, Dame. Oh hell, what do I call you?’
Elizabeth beamed and chortled: ‘I want everyone to call me Daaaame Elizabeth, and you can put that on the call sheet too!’
The technicians were quite intimidated by Dame Elizabeth but Shirley, Debbie and I had fun teasing her about it, and she was a good sport.
The first and most fearsome Dame I met was at the age of 15 when I took my audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Pictured, Dame Joan Collins with her husband Percy Gibson. She said: 'Percy and I were over the moon all day, our lips sealed tightly shut'
Seated before me were several legendary thespians of the British stage, including the great John Gielgud and Lady Bracknell herself – Dame Edith Evans. She was everything you would expect of a grand dame – white hair in a pompadour, pearl choker and an intimidating manner. I cringed before her and was afraid to look into her gimlet eyes as I intoned the opening strains of ‘You are a funny old gentleman’ from Shaw’s Cleopatra. I did pass, despite my feedback: ‘This student is hampered by the weakness of her voice. If she does not work on her projection it will be the films for her, and that would be such a pity.’ Really?
I don’t think I shall go for the white pompadour or the haughty expression. In fact, I don’t think being Dame Joan (or ‘Damn, Joan’ as my husband jokingly calls me) will change me at all, but I do hope it will bring more focus on to causes that richly deserve attention but are too often drowned in the noise of daily life. For more than 30 years, I have been involved in charities helping the UK’s hundreds of thousands of brain injured and disabled children.
My charity, the Shooting Star Chase children’s hospice, provides support and health facilities for families who are caring for terminally ill children. It’s one of the most heartbreaking causes one could ever be involved with as these children don’t have much hope, which is perhaps the reason why we don’t share as much of the limelight as the cause deserves – it’s too difficult for people to cope with.
But we try to make life as happy and comfortable for as long as we can and provide bereavement counselling and support for the families after end of life – every now and then we have some true miracles, but they are few and far between.
It’s a cause that is dear to my heart because of the near-death car accident my daughter Katy survived in 1980. I know that without help and support, but for the grace of God I could have gone. I sincerely hope I’ll be able to do more to help them.
I have had an extremely rich and rewarding life and career.
One of the achievements I’m most proud of is that I have worked hard in an extremely tough profession for more than 60 years and have been able to make a successful life for my family. I had no guides or mentors, nor any rich sponsors – I went through the jungle alone.
I also hope that, in some way, with this honour I can inspire other young women on the rocky road that is life.
Yes, I am lucky, but isn’t it funny how lucky hard-working people can be?