You glimpse what life must be like if you’re Joan Collins when you watch the police open the road for her. I am in a chauffeur-driven Jag with the actress and her silky-suave fifth husband, Percy Gibson. (You remember the story: there are 32 years between them, and when Collins, now 81, was asked whether that worried her, she snorted: “If he dies, he dies.”)
So: in the car, New Year’s Eve last week, 9.40pm and 10 minutes late for a party. Collins does not do late. Her punctuality lies in her proper English upbringing: Francis Holland School, Rada and a well-connected agent father whose clients included Tom Jones and the Beatles. But it also reflects the masochistic constancy of her work: her CV, she tells me in the Jag, is “massive — 60 movies, 1,000 episodes of television, 12 or 14 plays”. Plus 17 books — four of them autobiographies — which, thanks to screen plugs and an exuberant celebrity life papped and played out in gossip columns, have sold well. (Jackie Collins, her sister, has flogged twice as many books as Dan Brown.)
It has been a stressful and somewhat stroppy evening up to that point, and London is gridlocked. By the time we hit a roadblock, the peevish snarl in Collins’s voice is approaching a climax. Now, I am forbidden to say exactly how it happens, but I can report that, for Collins, the policemen click their heels, lift the bollards and wave us on. Thus we speed through Bloomsbury on empty roads, while the cursing muggles honk.
Last week Collins was made a dame in recognition of her charity work. A mutual friend arranged an interview and invited us to the same party. But it all began rather horribly.
She is seething when I first glimpse her, blanking me and striding past in a black lacy outfit with fabulous sleeves like bat’s wings, diamond-and-oyster shell earrings aglister. A mix-up has led the photographer to arrive with a brace of assistants, a large light and other equipment, instead of the “quick picture” Collins has been expecting. So she spends 20 minutes or so shuttered away elsewhere in her Belgravia flat, while Percy flits affably between the entrance hall (where I am camped), the Joan Wing and the photographer in the sitting room. (Huge oil of an eastern European duchess, a collection of 18th-century camel pictures and a fabulous abstract drawing of a reclining woman. “I outbid Madonna on that one,” Collins later purrs.)
She emerges White Witch-frosty, hissing: “I don’t trust any photographers after what happened in Spanish Vogue this summer. Eleven pages — the worst pictures I’ve had in my life.”
But look at her: she could be 30 years younger. The green eyes that snared Beatty, Hopper and Belafonte (to name three of her many early lovers) retain a cruel and mischievous sparkle. The cheekbones are sharp as rapiers, neatly printed with just a few crow’s feet.
She stands: her legs cross, a hand clamps hip. She drops her shoulder and a smile — accusing, bored, scarlet — catches on her face. She growls instructions.
“Go higher. You’re shooting me too low. Higher! Let me see that one. No, I’m not going to move. This is the pose you’re getting.”
It is over before it starts, and we move to the “Green Room” where I sink into a deep and puffy turquoise sofa and begin burbling apologies. Collins begins to glow: everything happens for her and around her. She says things such as “it behooves me”, complains about “hideosities” such as wheelie bins and, my favourite, pronounces “enclaves” with a semi-French accent as “enclahves”.
Dynasty, the extravagantly lapelled soap opera that made her, as Alexis Carrington, the best-paid woman on 1980s telly and saved her from near bankruptcy, is “Dienasty”. She calls that show a “grand guignol”, but also notes that when it became the most popular on American television, “Everyone said it was because of me.”
Percy fixes us G&Ts: spindly ice, no citrus, good thunk of booze.
“Waaaaaaah,” Collins sighs appreciatively. “That’s a gin and tonic.”
Joan Collins in about 1960Joan Collins in about 1960
She is warm and affable on some subjects; flinty and brusque on others. She has a sharp way with language — snapping at me, “I’m a dame, not an oracle”, at one stage — but is also watching carefully what she says. Thus, the proudest moments of her career and her legal victory against her publisher Random House in the 1990s are happily remembered. She had sent them a manuscript they said was “unreadable” and sued her for the $1.2m initial advance. She won and they had to pay her a million dollars on top.
“Being made a dame makes me wanna giggle,” she coos. The accent is a warbling distillation of the Arthur Rank charm school and LA. It could slice crystal. “Dame Joan! — I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. Roger Moore — Sir Roger Moore — texted to say he was jealous. Christopher Biggins, Julian Clary, all my friends and family have sent flowers and emails.”
I mention that day’s reports that Gwyneth Paltrow spends £14,000 a month on her beauty regime.
“I read that,” she says. “I’m not going to say anything against her, but I think it’s ludicrous, ludicrous.”
Collins’s own system involves an occasional facial, moisturising, cleansing, night creams and “masks now and again” (that’s acting, darling). “But I mean all of that [Paltrow’s ‘electronic muscle stimulation’ and ‘oxygen mist treatment’] — who has the time?” How much do you spend a month on make-up, I ask.
“Not much any more, Oliver, because I have my own line.” Good one. And also true — she later hands me a leather-cased iPhone set to Timeless Beauty’s keenly priced website. Collins also hawks spectacles (“eyewear”, sorry), audiobooks she has recited of her sister’s novels, and a range of wigs costing between £30 and £660.
It is all the more remarkable when you remember she has no publicist or stylist. Percy, a charming Peruvian-Scot, seems to do a lot of the gruntwork. They met in 2000, when he was stage-managing a play she was in, and he helped to organise her one-woman show a few years ago.
Collins has said she “shudders” to think how much tax she has paid over the years. But when I ask her if she thinks she pays too much today, she says with knowing charm: “I see your headline now”, drawing out the last word over two or three seconds.
“I wish our taxes would go more on things like improving our schools and the NHS, and not being sent to countries that shouldn’t get it,” she soon admits. “And certainly not to the European Union, which I do not like at all.”
Ukip was a brief flirtation 10 years ago, but “I was never a member. Robert Kilroy-Silk [then a leading figure in the party] asked me to a meeting. It caused a huge fuss and suddenly I was the poster girl.” Are you considering voting for them in May, I ask.
“I’m not going to answer that question — but the answer is no. As you may have gathered, however, I am not a leftie. I don’t want to talk about politics, I always get misquoted.”
Collins regularly writes columns decrying the state of Britain — the national loss of manners, how she “despises” bankers, the rise of fat people (“orca-sized oafs from Planet Girth”), women who use Botox (“eyes like tiny pits in a marshmallow cloud”) and the “grotesques” who go on “squawk shows”. She pines for the political leaders of old: Roosevelt, Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher, whose funeral she attended. How does she feel about England today?
“I love my country when I cross Westminster Bridge or when I see all the other wonderful, traditional things we have. But then I see the litter on the streets and feel sad.”
One of the worst things about the modern world, according to Collins, is what has happened to women. She is aghast at how society treats them. “I’m totally not into porn, but people tell me it’s dark and nasty and demeaning to women nowadays, and that has a lot to do with the rise of rapes. The women have to look like Barbie dolls and be shaved everywhere.”
Joan Collins with her fifth husband and most devoted round-the-clock fan, Percy GibsonJoan Collins with her fifth husband and most devoted round-the-clock fan, Percy Gibson
Hollywood is just as bad: “It’s horrible what the actresses have to do, simulating sex to such an extent that the audience needs to think they’re really doing it. Showing your bottom, even for Michael Douglas, is the norm now.
“My trainer in LA, who works with young actresses, says they have to be like 100lb because producers want the audiences to be teenage boys. Sixteen-year-olds don’t want a buxom woman, they want young-looking girls. So you have to do all this stuff to your face and make yourself look teeny-weeny thin, like a social x-ray.”
Sex on and offscreen is a subject Collins knows about — her memoirs are as sodden with boisterous bonking as her sister’s novels, and no one who has seen the swing scene in The Stud (1978) will forget it. (My favourite Collins anecdote is her dumping of the rich playboy Arthur Loew. Whisking her round a dance floor, he stooped and breathed in her ear: “You’re such a f****** bore.” She rasped back: “And you are a boring f***.”)
Then, 20 minutes after we sit down, Percy is at the door. It is sweet to watch him: he is like a brilliant and non- genuflecting maître d’, taking her arm as she walks down the steps, holding open every door, walking behind her like Prince Philip. He may be her most devoted round-the-clock fan, and after some of her other husbands — including a philanderer, a crook and a rapist — that seems more than fair.
The drive to the party is punctuated by Collins reading aloud further congratulatory emails, dictating messages for Percy to write on her Twitter account and getting first too hot, and then too cold. The easy-listening station Magic FM is demanded and then criticised for being too much in “party mode”.
It is not a big party — we are about 20 people — but she chats to everyone she knows there, while Percy stands attentively nearby, filling her plate from the buffet (reader, she carbed) and gently steering her round the room. We count down with the TV: when Big Ben bongs, Collins hugs her neighbour, raises her champagne glass and joins in Auld Lang Syne.
By way of goodbye (12.10am) she shoots me her proudest pout, jabs a reproachful finger, narrows rainforest eyes and barks: “You be nice.”
Well, she amazes me. She is still working at 81 so that she can maintain the lifestyle she wants, keep homes in London, Los Angeles and St Tropez and pay her grandchildren’s school fees. (“What makes you think I could afford to retire?” she asked another interviewer not long ago.)
She is also brave. To take one example, it was courageous to speak out about how her first husband raped her when she was 17.
She has never accepted defeat. When her career faltered in the 1970s and her third husband, the music mogul Ron Kass, forged her signature and drove her into debt, she carried on with the stoicism of a woman who remembers the Blitz.
Most of all, in Dynasty she portrayed a new kind of female power, later bolstered and boosted by Thatcher. “I think a lot of women became empowered by me,” she says. “They saw in Alexis how to be feminine in a man’s world — to wear lipstick and beautiful clothes and jewels, but still compete in the boardroom.”
Collins continues to wear her fun, bolshie sexuality more stylishly than any other Englishwoman. A grande dame, yes, but also a great dame.