Joan Collins: ‘When this is over I’m going to squeeze every last drop of joy out of life’
The Legendary star talks about waging war on lockdown - and how she's not cancelling Christmas..
When Dame Joan Collins was 21, she was chased off the 20th Century Fox lot by the older, married actor Richard Todd. Her co-star on the 1955 historical drama The Virgin Queen ‘didn’t take kindly to rejection. He followed me at high speed in his car, screaming at me to wind my window down, and when I did, do you know what he said? “By the time you’re 23, you’ll be a washed-up old bag!’’’
The enduring actress is laughing at the baseness of male desire. She’s laughing at the notion that she should be designated a plot and handed a shovel at the age of 23. But mostly it’s the amusement of knowing that, after a career that has spanned three-quarters of a century, from Hollywood’s second Golden Age to Dynasty and the hit US TV show American Horror Story, Collins was still touring the country in her one-woman show until Covid hit, still fronting fashion campaigns for the likes of Valentino and Kurt Geiger, and is about to grace both the big screen – in Vincent Woods’ festive drama The Loss Adjuster – and the small screen in José Luis Moreno’s forthcoming period TV drama series Glow & Darkness. Not bad for a washed-up old bag.
How has the Bayswater-born star endured when so many haven’t? As a friend of hers, I wonder whether it doesn’t all come down to Dame Joan’s extraordinary zest for life. This is a woman who gets so excited about Christmas that she put up the tree in her Belgravia flat in the second week of November, captioning an Instagram post: ‘So what else should one do during #lockdown in #november?’ Even today, as we get stuck into our phone interview, she is distractedly mulling over whether ‘a few more baubles might be good – they’re so cheery, aren’t they?’, and dips down into an X-rated phone-line purr when I ask what she’s wearing. ‘Oh hello… Well, if you must know: grey trousers and a casual grey top with “Las Vegas” on it.’
She’s appalled by my opening question: ‘How are we going to make Christmas 2020 work?’ ‘Darling, of course Christmas is going to work! We intend to have the kids and grandkids over, if we can, with Percy doing the “heavy lifting” in the kitchen, like the turkey, while I dress the table. But we’re going to make it work, whatever we’re “allowed”.’ This last word is spat out. Dame Joan has made no secret of the fact that she sees all these lockdown rules and regulations, all this confinement and isolation, as an affront ‘to my civil rights, my human rights, my rights to live as a civilised human being and not in a draconian society, being watched over by the Stasi’. During lockdown #1, I’ll never forget the actress telling me in cut-glass Alexis Carrington tones: ‘When this is all over, I’m going to squeeze every last drop of joy out of this life.’
She’s been true to her word. First, she finished off work on The Loss Adjuster, in which a hapless insurance man – played by former Bros drummer Luke Goss – has a catalogue of disastrous encounters that lead to an epiphany. Collins plays a glamorous ‘merry widow’, and the victim of an alleged burglary, who welcomes Goss into her home. ‘Actually, she reminds me of my mother,’ Dame Joan muses, ‘who was very pretty and funny and slightly flirtatious.’ Then, having squeezed in a two-month break in Saint Tropez, where she and her husband of 18 years, Percy Gibson, own a home, she headed off to Madrid to film the medieval series Glow & Darkness, alongside Jane Seymour, Mira Sorvino, Steven Berkoff and Denise Richards.
In the Game of Thrones-like drama, which is ‘full of beheadings and bloody birthings’, she says gleefully, Collins plays the real-life French queen Adelaide of Maurienne, the second wife of King Louis VI. ‘She was very politically active, and when he died, she went on to do a lot for women’s equality, which was very unusual back then.’
Although a Covid-secure set was a priority, with Collins and the crew tested constantly and temperatures taken every day, the actress found things ‘much more civilised, and I got to spend quite a bit of time with Jane [Seymour],’ she tells me, ‘who I have known for years. But basically I was in the bubble I took with me, so my hairdresser, my dresser and, of course, Percy.’
Of course: Percy. Despite being worth an estimated £20 million, Dame Joan only has one member of her entourage that she can’t live without, and the 55-year-old Peruvian producer is at once her greatest love, confidant and trusted advisor, happy to ferry the star to and from meetings, lunches and suppers in their 1984 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. I will never forget Gibson pointing out a step to his wife as we left a dimly lit restaurant in the South of France two summers ago – ‘She’s my queen,’ he said simply.
The couple have an eclectic group of friends from the worlds of showbusiness, fashion, politics and the media, and the parties thrown at their Beverly Hills apartment – a sprawling art-deco-styled condo; their St Tropez villa – ‘everything is Provençal-style and has to be extremely comfortable’; and their London pad – ‘which has a much more conservative English feel’, are notable because you never quite know who is going to walk through the door. It could be Sir Michael Caine, Liz Hurley, Tom Ford, journalist Eve Pollard, Andrew Neil, Amanda Wakeley or Dame Joan’s goddaughter, Cara Delevingne.
The pandemic may have suspended these, but it hasn’t impacted her relationship with her husband. ‘We’ve always been very, very close,’ she says. ‘During lockdown in London, we both had our own boltholes, which helps. So he’s got his study downstairs and I’ve got my big bedroom and walk-in wardrobe. It’s important to be able to escape one another. But we cooked and watched TV together and had a lot of Zoom cocktails.’ When asked whether she worries about the age difference, Dame Joan’s default quip is: ‘Well if he dies, he dies.’
Does being married to someone younger make her feel younger? ‘I suppose subconsciously, but we gave this marriage a great deal of thought before we walked down the aisle. Everything from how it would be when I got into my 90s and Percy was in his 60s was considered. In the end it was his decision, because he was taking the biggest chance – in that he might be the one who ended up wheeling me around,’ she says, with a shudder. ‘But we loved each other so much that in the end it didn’t matter. And sometimes I think that being married to someone younger makes me take better care of myself.’ She thinks about this – then rejects the idea. ‘But I don’t think so, because I’ve always taken care of myself.’
Anyone who believes that female beauty has an expiry date has not spent many lunches and dinners sitting at close proximity to the woman once voted ‘the most beautiful girl in England’. Dame Joan still draws looks from across the room in restaurants, and it may surprise people to know that she is ‘actually pretty low-maintenance’. She’s ‘never had any of those injectables’, she assures me. ‘Not only am I needle-phobic, but everybody knows how old I am – sadly. So it would be ridiculous if I suddenly looked like a pumped-up doll.’
He armoury has always been more of the designer clothes variety. It was her mother, who would take her shopping in Oxford Street as a child and who she was very close to, who instilled her sense of style early. And when Dynasty costumier Nolan Miller suggested putting her in ‘tweed suits with pussycat bows’, she was horrified. It was Dame Joan who decided on the ‘nipped-in waists, big shoulders, big hair and big earrings’ she had seen on the Paris catwalks of Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent at the time, and leather, sequins and feathers have remained leitmotifs of her look ever since.
In order to keep the tiny waist and slender legs needed to wear her favourite designers – Valentino, Erdem and Louis Vuitton – ‘I only eat half of what’s on my plate in restaurants, because the portions are so large now.’ She also exercises three times a week on FaceTime with her personal trainer: ‘free weights and floor work and stretching’. The muscle memory of all those years of ballet has been a great help, she says. Her mother was a dance teacher, ‘so I first went to ballet school when I was three and I’ve exercised all my life’. The only time she has felt uncomfortable with her weight ‘was immediately after having Tara and Alexander when I gained 30lb. But I enjoyed motherhood so much, and because I was always crawling around with them the weight sort of fell off.’
That GPs are now afraid to tell obese patients to lose weight is absurd, she feels. ‘There are so many things you can’t say these days. Why? When we know that being overweight makes you more likely to be seriously ill with Covid? And I don’t think being obese is particularly attractive, I’m afraid. I don’t like to mock people who are heavy,’ she says, when I ask her about the hate pop-star Adele has been subjected to since losing 40lb, ‘but I think she looks fabulous… beautiful and slim.’
But for Dame Joan, staying in shape is as much about keeping ‘fit and strong’ as looking good, she points out. ‘When I went to the doctor’s the other day and he made me bend my leg, he couldn’t believe it!’ She gives a low chuckle. ‘And maybe I was showing off. I’m no Jane Fonda – but I can still do the splits.’
She thinks it’s curious that her father, Joe Collins – a theatrical agent who helped launch the careers of Peter Sellers, Tom Jones and Roger Moore – had used almost exactly the same words as Richard Todd when he urged his eldest daughter to give up on the idea of acting. ‘He’d say, “By the time you’re 23, they won’t want you any more, because you won’t be pretty any more.” But I know why he was worried: he knew how predatory men in that industry were, what a difficult profession it was and how much rejection I might face.’
It might have helped that, as a ‘Blitz baby’ who was moved around a lot with her younger sister Jackie – who died at 77 in 2015 of breast cancer – and brother Bill, now a 74-year-old property developer, she was forced to grow a tough skin. ‘I was constantly being sent to new schools during the war. I’d go to one in Chichester or Brighton and then Daddy would call and say, “It’s safe to come back to London now,” and then we would all be sent off again to another school in Oxford or Tewkesbury. And you know what little girls are like: those six-year-olds can be pretty mean and snobby!’
When, at 15, she insisted on trying out for RADA, her father agreed on one condition. ‘If you don’t get in, then you’ll have to do a typing course and become my secretary.’ We both yelp with mirth at the idea of her as a typist. But there was another career she’d considered, she says: ‘Jackie was writing these fabulous novels, even at 10 years old, and I remember I would draw her characters for her – I did 40 or 50 drawings.’ After the much-anticipated ‘Jackie and Joan’ biopic is released about the sisters’ rise to fame, she and her nieces are considering publishing the drawings, ‘because they’re fascinating’. But the series is still a way off, says Collins, who is an executive producer. ‘I didn’t approve the original writer, so the first script had to be ditched, and now we need to wait until July 2021 to get a new one.’
Dame Joan remembers ‘trembling with fear’ at that RADA audition, performing a Shakespeare piece ‘in front of John Gielgud and [RADA director] Kenneth Barnes’. But a few months later, ‘I got a telegram saying that I had got in. It was pretty thrilling.’ And at 17, she was signed to the British studio Rank. That she ‘wasn’t in the least bit scared’ when she ‘tootled off to Hollywood’ at 20, with Fox paying for her airfare, hotel and car once she got there, however, still baffles her. ‘I didn’t know a single person in America.’
Only once she was given a contract by Fox a year later, in 1954, did Collins begin to understand the culture her father had wanted to protect her from. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she was cast alongside the likes of Celia Johnson in I Believe in You, Richard Burton in Sea Wife and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in The Road to Hong Kong.
‘Most actors at that time thought it was their divine right to have it off with the ingénue,’ she tells me. ‘And I spent a great deal of time scurrying away.’ She wasn’t always able to escape her predators, however, and in her 1978 autobiography, Past Imperfect, Collins described how she was drugged and raped at 17 by Maxwell Reid. The actor was 14 years her senior, and although she went on to marry him the following year (the marriage only lasted a year), it was out of naivety, she admitted in a 2014 documentary, Brave Miss World: ‘Well, I better marry him because you know, he took my virginity, [but] I really hated him.’
Although she has been speaking out about the culture of harassment and abuse for decades and is a supporter of the Me Too movement, she is also honest about the shades of grey that exist. When I ask if it was true that, as one actress friend once told me, ‘male co-stars would always stick a tongue in during kissing scenes pre-Me Too’, she wholeheartedly agrees – ‘Oh always, although I’m sure they don’t do that any more.’
There were flings with actors in her early years and after dating Warren Beatty (by whom she became pregnant but had an abortion) and Robert Wagner, she married the mercurial actor and singer Anthony Newley, in 1963, with whom she had her daughter, Tara, 57, and son Alexander, 55. In 1972 she had a third child, Katyana, 48, with the late American businessman Ron Kass.
Is it very easy to fall in love on set? ‘With my co-stars not at all,’ she says with aplomb. ‘With the exception of Paul Newman, who I absolutely adored.’ Bob Hope ‘was funny and scatty’, but Bing Crosby ‘was very cold – I didn’t like him at all’. She pauses, before uttering a sentence that sums up everything I love about her. ‘I have worked with some really great actors. But I have also worked with what I can only sadly call utter dicks. Sorry. I know this is a family newspaper.’
Although to most, Dame Joan is the incarnation of ‘a star’, she prefers to think of herself as ‘a jobbing actress – because that’s what I am’. When I point out that she seems very at ease with the trappings of stardom, however, she agrees, and is reminded of an event she attended with Princess Diana – who she ‘admired tremendously’ – in the mid-1980s. ‘It was in Palm Beach and there was a huge amount of press there – bleachers with three tiers of photographers – and when we found ourselves together in the receiving line, Diana turned to me and said: “My God, do you ever get used to this? It’s terrifying.” And I said: “Yes, you will.”’
When Diana died, Collins ‘cried for three days’, she tells me, ‘because she represented youth and beauty and equality’. Does Dame Joan think she would have got on with her daughter-in-law, Meghan Markle? ‘Ha. The Meghan question. Well, if Meghan had upped and left the Royal family like she did, I don’t think that Diana would have liked that at all. Did we, the great British public, like it? No, it was very disappointing, because I think everybody thought that she was the next Princess Diana – and the future.’
I could listen to her anecdotes all day, but there’s more joy to be squeezed out of the day and Christmas shopping to be completed. ‘Are we done, darling?’ she asks. Nearly. Just one last thing: I’d like to hear what her most memorable Christmas gifts have been. As she is describing ‘a gorgeous Moussaieff diamond bracelet I once got from dear Prince Azim of Brunei’, who died last month, a memory stops her short. ‘I’ll never forget when The Stud came out – in which there was a bit of stripping?’ I know the one: late 1970s, based on her late sister Jackie’s bestseller, with Dame Joan as a nymphomaniac club-owner. ‘Anyway it came out in spring, but they decided to reissue it at Christmas, so they had a promotional ad of me lying in a black basque and a chauffeur’s hat with the tagline: “Give your dad Joan Collins for Christmas.”’ Short of a Covid vaccine, it’s hard to think of a better festive gift for the discerning older – or younger – man.
The Loss Adjuster is released on DVD/digital on Monday and in cinemas when they reopen