Joan Collins

Seven Magazine, Mar 2012

Even at 78, Joan Collins is still Hollywood’s head-turning queen of dish. But she’s just a shy girl at heart, she tells a disbelieving SEVEN magazine


 Also at The Telegraph

It’s lunchtime in Beverly Hills and Joan Collins has just arrived at the Polo lounge, the venue of choice for the old Hollywood lady of leisure. She’s wearing a straw fedora and big sunglasses and looks every inch the former bombshell. “Did they tell you this place was full?” she says, with a mischievous smile.

They did. I tried to reserve our table, and even when I said I was lunching Joan Collins, the lady said, “I’m sorry sir.” So Joan’s publicist called Joan who made a quick call and – wouldn’t you know it? – they found us the most visible table in the house. She might not be Alexis Carrington anymore, but she’s still got some pull at the Polo Lounge.

“Thing is, I do come here quite often,” she says. “I know the number off by heart –887 2777.” She beams. “I like to remember phone numbers because it keeps your brain active. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

No one could accuse Joan Collins of losing it. At the age of 78, her curves and feline beauty are intact, and the twinkle in her eye tells you she knows it. She is, however, a bit distracted. A few days earlier, her daughter Katy, from her 3rd marriage, fell and hit her head. So she has kept a bedside vigil at the hospital ever since, and came straight from there today. But she doesn’t want to talk about that. She orders half a McCarthy salad (the Polo lounge’s signature dish), with extra avocado, and turns to me with a wink.

“I always order half portions,” she says. “The full portions are so huge, it’s no wonder there are so many fat people!” That Joan Collins is no fan of fat people is no secret. Over the last year, she has variously described them as “Orca sized oafs” and “Jello warriors” from “Planet Girth” who are “digging their graves with their own teeth.”

“I feel sorry for them,” she says. “Being fat is as serious as cancer. This will come out. But I don’t want to have this: ’I hate fat people’ says Joan. At least I don’t knock them like Gisele did the other day.” Gisele Bundchen? “Yes, it was pretty disgusting. Look it up.”

Days of Googling and I’ve no idea what Gisele is supposed to have said, but of this I’m sure – when it comes to a sharp-elbowed remark she can’t hold a candle to our Joan. Lately, they’ve been coming thick and fast, mostly from her recently published book, The World According To Joan, which kicked up a bunch of controversy, as she surely intended.

It’s a delightfully incautious manifesto-slash-complaint about modern life covering Men, Manners, Glamour, Ageing, Children and so on. Modern television, she writes, is “repellent, amateurish and puerile”. Actors aren’t masculine anymore – “they look a bit wimpy” – and actresses aren’t glamorous. “We know how Sarah Jessica Parker looks without make-up as she takes out the rubbish,” she says. “There is no magic.” Men lack chivalry and are either “bland metrosexuals or Neanderthal lumps”. Kids today are “spoiled”. And then there are long tracts about the importance of makeup and a sense of glamour.

“I do all my own makeup, it takes me ten minutes,” she tells me. “I don’t employ a stylist either.” Among her friends, this is apparently quite rare. She does, however, employ a hairdresser, and a personal trainer. But she drives herself about, and even does her own grocery shopping. She can’t work a washer/dryer and she’s no good with a hoover – “last time I tried, the dirt went everywhere!” But she does a bit of cooking. She’s not precious. And this is very much the roll-your-sleeves-up tone of her book. As we talk, our lunch feels like flicking through its pages, listening to that crisp, haughty voice pass brisk judgment on all that ails us.

“Oh it did very well,” she says, matter of factly. “I sold 40,000 copies”.

No doubt, in these troubled times, there’s comfort to be found in Collins’ brand of old fashioned common sense. But it’s not a cheerful book. Modern life saddens her, she says.

“We used to have leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt and Maggie Thatcher – and whatever you think about her, I like her,” she says, firmly. “And now what do we have? The coalition is a disaster because David Cameron – who I think is good – can’t make a move. And we have Mr Obama…” She looks carefully at me. “What do you think of him?”

Well, it’s exciting to have a black president. “Yes! I was sitting with Sidney Poitier and some friends on the night that he won. That was incredibly exciting. And we were expecting great things.” She has a bite of salad and shoos away her next thought. “Look, I can’t solve everything. Ask me something else. Just don’t start asking me about other actresses!”

When her book came out, it became something of a sport for journalists to take her out to lunch and ask her opinions. So we learned that she doesn’t think much of Carey Mulligan or Keira Knightley, for instance. Today, I sense she’s been told to tone things down. She’s eager to point out that there are somemasculine actors out there, like George Clooney and Bradley Cooper. And that there are some things about modern life she quite likes actually.

“Technology, cellphones – I’ve got one of those ipads, I read all my papers on it. I like fast cars, Las Vegas, Miami, St Tropez in the summer – it’s much better now than it used to be.”

But it’s no good, she can’t help herself. “I do hate litter, though,” she says. “I hate litter and rude people and I hate the fact that my husband Percy – who is the most gallant man you could ever meet – if he holds a door open for a woman, she’ll say, ‘I can do that myself, thank you very much’. The women’s movement has shot itself in the foot. Look at that cruise ship. They were pushing the women and children out of the way! They didn’t do that on the Titanic.”

Few have earned the right to hold court more than Joan Collins, at least if a full life were any qualification. During six decades in the limelight, she has been married five times and divorced four; she has lived in London, Beverly Hills, St Tropez and New York; had three children; rubbed shoulders with everyone from Bogart and Monroe to Brando and Newman; and while she was once among the most famous actresses in the world, she has also, at another time, waited to sign on for unemployment.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that she hasn’t just survived her rollercoaster, she has flourished. We all know she’s in exceptional nick physically – this is a woman who posed naked for Playboy at 49 – but her physical condition speaks to her emotional resilience. For all her tribulations, she has let none of it weigh her down. More than that, she claims to have the “happy gene”.

“You’re born with it,” she says. “And some people are born with the depressed gene. It’s true! I’ve had terrible things happen to me. The career has had many ups and downs. The divorces of course. And my daughter had a terrible accident 30 years ago.”

The same daughter who’s in hospital today was hit by a car when she was 9. The doctors gave her grim odds – 60/40 against. But Collins didn’t collapse. She wept and punched the wall so hard that she sprained her wrist, but then she pulled it together. Katy beat the odds.

“My parents instilled in me that life was going to be very difficult and that I’d have to work for everything,” she says. Her father, a theatrical agent, was a strict disciplinarian and not the doting type. He told Joan early on that film careers were often short-lived, and she should enjoy it while it lasted. The message stuck.

“I’ve been blessed in many ways, but I’ve also had quite a lot of shit thrown at me,” she says. “Mostly by men trying to take money from me, whether it’s a husband or boyfriend or an advisor or the tax man.”

A case in point was her first marriage to the Irish actor, Maxwell Reed. She was an 18 year old actress from RADA at the time, who’d just been signed up by the RANK film studios – well on her way, careerwise. But Reed was a monster. He took her virginity by rape and Collins, in her naivety, thought that she’d better marry him. “I was stupid,” she shrugs.
The night before the wedding, she cried her eyes out, but her father told her that everyone had been invited, so she had better go through with it. When it came to the divorce, Reed threatened violence unless he got everything he asked for.

“But it didn’t make me anti-men or anything,” she says, grinning. Far from it. She lived in Hollywood at the time, and was friendly with the likes of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. She had a long affair with the then-unknown Warren Beatty. Though she’s very much a traditionalist when it comes to gender roles, Collins was  also the epitome of a liberated independent woman at a time (the 1950s) when that sort of thing wasn’t easy at all.

“Everyone used to see analysts back then, 3 or 4 times a week, and Paul and Marlon used to tell me, ‘Joanie, you’ve got to see an analyst, you’ve got to find yourself.’ I said, ‘but I’ve found myself!’ I did go in the end. I would just lie there and tell him what I’d done, and I found that I didn’t really have any hang-ups about anything!”

Her second marriage to the actor and musician Antony Newley was more successful – it bore her two children. But he was a cheat and after seven years she called it quits. So at the age of 37, she had two divorces and two children to her name, but nevertheless, she ploughed on, making a string of forgettable B-movies and running the gauntlet of the casting couch along the way. Her third marriage, to the movie producer Ron Kass, ended a decade later when Kass became addicted to cocaine. (He died of cancer three years later, with Collins at his side.) And the fourth marriage, with Peter Holm, ended so acrimoniously that the divorce made national headlines.

Failing marriages weren’t all that might have tarnished Collins’ happiness. Her career had as many downs as ups, and at one point in the 70s, she found herself actually waiting in line for the dole. With hindsight, her decision to strip off and make the softcore porn of The Stud and The Bitch in the late 1970s, based on her sister Jackie’s books, was a smart one. It gave her notoriety, and might well have brought her to the attention of the Dynasty producers. “My attitude is, you just get on with it. Do what you have to do,” she says. If there’s a recipe for Collins’ fireproof happiness it’s something like this – avoid introspection, stay busy and try to like yourself. “I’m not perfect,” she says, “but if you haven’t got some self esteem by my age, you must have had your eyes shut!” The faults she sees in herself are surprising. “I’m a bit shy, I suppose, and a bit lazy,” she says.

Shy? Joan Collins? “Oh yes. I could have done with more self-confidence. I mean – you’re going to scream with laughter – but I could never go up to people at parties and start a conversation.”

It’s not the impression she leaves, having played vamps and vixens all her life. “Yes, but I always got those roles because of how I looked – you know, dark and sultry. I’m not complaining, those were always the more interesting parts, but you know… After Dynasty, everyone had this image that I’m this businesswoman. But I like nothing better than to loll about on the bed with a lot of magazines, eating chocolates and watching TV!”

These days, she shares that bed with her fifth husband, and love of her life, Percy Gibson, a theatrical company manager she met in 2002. They’ve just celebrated their tenth anniversary together. The fact that Percy is 32 years her junior – Demi Moore, eat your heart out – doesn’t phase her at all. At their wedding, she quipped: “if he dies, he dies”.

“Our fathers are almost the same age,” she says. “So even though there’s an age gap, we have the same generational set of values.”

Does Demi Moore’s breakup not give her pause?  It can’t be easy being a cougar, living with that fear that he might run off with a younger woman. She shakes her head. “Not Percy. It can be hard if the man’s always off on location, but Percy and I are together all the time. And he’s South American – they don’t have this hang up about age that we do here.”

They live just up the street from the Polo Lounge, in a glitzy apartment block. Their neighbors include Elton John and Cher and Ozzy Osbourne. And life is as full as it ever has been. She’s preparing for her one woman show in London, One Night With Joan (which Percy will produce). There’s another memoir in the works, her fourth. And as always, she’s hopeful that the call will come to return to TV. She appeared in Footballer’s Wives last year, and also in Hotel Babylon. But she’s got her fingers crossed that they might remake Dynasty, just as they’ve recently done with Dallas (it comes out this summer).

“Now, goodness, is that the time,” she says. “I’m going to leave you with the bill, darling. My daughter needs me. If there’s anything else just call.” And she has a think before telling me the number of her building. “You see! That’s two numbers I’ve told you off by heart!”