Dame Joan Collins. The name is synonymous with glamour and in the flesh, she doesn’t disappoint. She’s taller than I imagined, enveloped in a pink Max Mara coat, her eye make up and lippy are perfect. Actually she looks amazing.
Then there’s the voice, clear as a bell and cut-glass sharp. When I arrive at The Langham where Dame Joan and I are to meet, the restaurant hostess asks me discreetly how one should address a Dame. Now, in her presence I wonder whether I should curtsey.
My husband and her husband, Percy Gibson, hover in the background but soon head off the bar, leaving me alone with her.
There is an instant warmth from her and my fears that she will be unapproachable or frosty soon dispel. In fact, she’s very funny, candid and happy to discuss anything. And there’s plenty to discuss. Her career has spanned six decades and she’s starred in more than 70 British and Hollywood movies, hit TV shows and countless theatre tours.
Yet her father, theatrical agent Joe Collins, didn’t want her to become an actress. “He knew the perils of the business. He said ‘You’re a pretty young girl, people will try and take advantage of you.’ He gave me good warnings. He was the one who said, ‘if people try to take advantage of you, knee them in the downstairs department.’”
Starting out as an ingénue aged 17, signed to Rank, she was a target for producers and directors with more than movies on their minds. “#MeToo is nothing new,” she says.
I suggest that in some cases, it’s how you handle it. “I think you should put that and I’ll say I agree! I had lots of propositions from people right at the top down. One time I went to meet a producer, he was in the bath! You can imagine what he was doing. I left very quickly. Needless to say, I didn’t get the part. I was only young, 25 or something. I was going out with Warren Beatty at the time.”
Collins’ father was Jewish and two of her husbands were, too. “Oh yes I am half Jewish. My father had two sisters, my Jewish aunts. Lalla and Pauline, I used to design clothes for my mother Elsa and them. This was in the period when I wanted to be a dress designer.”
She adds “Mum was Church of England, Daddy was Jewish but we weren’t religious at all. We didn’t celebrate at all. I do feel Jewish, but I feel Christian as well.”
Her second husband was the Jewish actor and singer Anthony Newley, father of two of her children, Tara and Sacha. That ended in divorce. It would seem that heritage will out — in a way — as Tara Newley has embraced Kabbalah and married publisher Nick Arkle at The Kabbalah Centre in 2016.
“She wished me happy Chanukah the other day,” says Collins, laughing “I said ‘I didn’t get you a card, I’m sorry.’ She absolutely is completely into it. She does all the holidays and goes to kabbalah meetings five or six times a year.”
Collins’ youngest daughter, Katie was involved in a near fatal car crash when she was 12: “It was really a situation of ‘I might not be religious, but I am praying to every god there is that my daughter will get well.’ Thank God she did. I did ask a rabbi for guidance and a Buddhist monk and a Catholic priest as well.”
Collins has always known her own mind. She turned her back on the drug culture of Hollywood, always refusing to take part. “I once blew a bowl of cocaine over Sammy Davis Junior’s blue velvet jacket.” she said recently. Her only weakness is for chocolate, she tells me.
She has always fought to be paid equally to male actors and has usually won. When she starred in Dynasty, in the 1980s, she became the highest paid actress on TV.
Indeed, the only area her judgement and strength seems to have failed her was in her choice of men. Her first marriage to Maxwell Reed was brief. After her divorce from Newley, she wed Jewish businessman Ron Kass, father of her daughter Katie. That, too, ended in divorce. Then came her one completely disastrous marriage, to Swedish pop star Peter Holm.
But fortunately even that is now behind her. Her fifth husband, theatrical producer Percy Gibson, is thirty years younger than her and they clearly adore each other. He and my hubby are at the bar, getting on like a house on fire. Collins approves and says to me; “Look at our handsome husbands over there!”
The couple met when he was Company Manager on a US tour of the play Love Letters that Collins was starring in. “I regret the marriage to Peter Holm, that was two steps backwards and it put me off marriage for a long time. It wasn’t until I met Percy that I felt ready. We proposed right after 9/11 because we realised that life is very short, and we realised we loved each other deeply enough to commit.”
She’s about to embark on a tour, Joan Collins Unscripted, where audience members get to ask her anything at all. What if they ask her something she doesn’t want to answer?
“I say I don’t want to answer that question. Very simple, I’m not 12 years old.
“People are very respectful actually, sometimes they ask racy questions, I just deflect them. We had two girls in the audience with microphones, sometimes for fun we dress them as Alexis and Krystal.” She’s referring, of course, to her character in Dynasty, Alexis Colby and her screen bête noir, Krystal Carrington.
Dame Joan with Percy Gibson
Dynasty ran for nine seasons from 1981, and was rebooted last year. The soap opera, created by the Jewish husband and wife team Richard and Esther Shapiro and produced by Aaron Spelling, turned around the fortunes of Collins who found that roles in film for her dried up in the 1970s. “When I first started, they wanted me to wear tweed suits and pill box hats like Jackie Kennedy. I said ‘I’m not doing that! She’s haute couture’. Big shoulder pads had just come in and I said, ‘I love that look’, That’s what we did.”
If she was to meet the young Joan Collins now, what advice would she give; “You’re better than people say you are. I think I got a lot of negativity when I started. ‘She can’t act, she’s pretty and good looking, coasting on her looks.’ Vivien Leigh told me once that she wasn’t taken seriously as an actress until she started to lose her looks. She was a great beauty. But she was always met with negativity. She married Laurence Olivier, he was good looking, beautiful, nothing stopped him. It’s very unfair. I got tarred and feathered with it. But I’m used to that kind of negativity, I got a lot of it. And my reviews, oh my god! Really bad! I got used to it and I’m still here and working.”
Last year she made a film with Pauline Collins, The Time of Their Lives, a sort of octogenarian road trip. She hints there may be a sequel. Most recently she was cast in cult US TV show American Horror Story: “I met Ryan Murphy who is the producer, writer, creator, everything. He’s the $300 million man! He’s just done a huge deal with Netflix. He did Glee, The Assasination of Gianni Versace, The People Versus OJ. I met him at a party, we chatted, he said he was a big fan of mine which is always nice to hear. He said he had an idea for me. Two weeks later I got a call from my agent saying they’d like you to do American Horror Story so I was thrilled.”
She plays several different characters: “I am a cannibal, I am a witch, I am an ex-movie star, the wife of the ex-head of MGM. She drops names and says things like ‘Being disappointed, dear, is like going to bed with Yul Brynner.’”