DAME JOAN COLLINS
Once renowned as Britain’s bad girl, gay icon Joan Collins has had five husbands, four divorces and a few high profi le fl ings, but she is most famous as Dynasty’s devious doyenne
Dig out your big retro shoulder pads as we honour the Dynasty legend with our Icon Award
There is a photograph my mother took of me as a young boy in an end- of- year school play in which I am dressed in a black wig, pink fur coat and blue catsuit. My role? I was Alexis Carrington Colby ( maiden name Morell; formerly Dexter and Rowan), one of the most infamous TV characters ever, and the reason most viewers tuned in to watch Dynasty.
From Neighbours to EastEnders, soaps were the big hit shows of the late 1980s, regularly pulling in tens of millions of viewers. Alexis was the queen of them all, played by Icon Award winner Dame Joan Collins.
In Alexis’ own words she was a woman fighting to make it in a man’s world: “I played by their rules, and believe me it is a man’s world,” she warns daughter Fallon.
As a young child, fully aware that I was not like other boys, while growing up in a time when both media and society attacked gay, lesbian and transgender people even more aggressively than it too often does today, those words resonated with me. I was a closeted young gay kid growing up in a straight man’s world.
“YOU’ LL BE LABEL LED A SLUT, YOU HAVE TO GET MARRIED”
I had no idea then of the struggles that I would come to face in the future, but characters such as Alexis showed me how patriarchy could be challenged, with added sass.
The fact that Alexis wore some of television’s most fabulous outfits ever — designed specifi cally for her by friend Nolan Miller — and served her ruthlessness with a delicious dose of cutting humour made her all the more fierce. ( It’s no secret that Ryan Murphy based part of Elektra Abundance’s character in Pose on Alexis.)
I would watch Dynasty with my aunts and female cousins, waiting for Alexis to come on screen for each season’s dramatic punch- up with Krystle, or her regular shade- throwing sessions with Dominique Deveraux and Sable Colby.
Alexis is undoubtedly Joan Collins’ most famous role, and one that she deliciously carved out for herself. By the end of Dynasty’s nineseason run she was the highest- paid actress on TV.
When the network reduced the number of episodes she starred in, ratings took a dive and the show was eventually cancelled. But the character’s cultural legacy endures.
However, a single TV role does not an icon make, and Joan’s career is as extraordinary as Alexis’ ambition, with a personal life almost as dramatic. When she first arrived in Hollywood, Joan was fl eeing a failed marriage to actor Maxwell Reed, an unknown name now but a heartthrob of his day and the first man she had sex with.
Joan recalls how Reed drugged and raped her at the beginning of their relationship, but she remained with him, pushed into marriage by her parents.
“I was 18, and I was making my own living. I was under contract to J Arthur Rank, making movies at Ealing Studios and Pinewood. I wanted to get away from home, so I suggested to my father and mother that we go and live together,” she tells me as we meet for our interview in her central London home. “They were up in arms.
‘ How dare you? That is the worst thing you can do. You’ll be labelled a slut. You have to get married.’ So, I got married; it lasted less than a year, in terms of living together.”
When the marriage ended, she turned to her agent and said she needed to get out of London, setting her sights on Hollywood.
Joan’s arrival caused quite the stir. With a history that included starring in Cosh Boy, one of Britain’s first X- certificate fi lms, her dark and fi ery looks caught the attention of the studios and the press.
“Most English actresses in the 1950s were blonde and rosy- cheeked, and I was more the Kohl eye- liner and the pale lipstick, the bangs, fringe that covered my eyebrows, my eyes,” she tells me.
“I suppose I was a bit of a rebel in many ways. I didn’t conform to the white gloves and neat little suits of my mother’s generation, or the Grace Kelly look, which was popular in those days.
“I was more lik e a bohemian, lik e I am dressed t oday really. I still have a bohemian way of dressing when I’m not done up , ” she says pointing at the casual y et still chic outfit she is wearing, as opposed to the ensembles she wore when we met last week for her Attitude cover shoot.
The US media of the 1950s referred to Joan as “Britain’s bad girl” which is a label that has followed her throughout her life, through to today. Joan releases an ever- so- slight smile when I suggest as much, hinting that she still harbours a rebellious streak.
From being romantically involved with Warren Beatty to featuring on the front cover of Playboy at the age of 49, through four divorces, fi ve marriages ( the latest to hubby Percy still going strong 17 years in, thank you very much), and a career that spans the most impressive peaks and some dramatic lows, Joan Collins has proved herself more than a survivor, but a trailblazer who continues to work even at 86 years young. A worthy icon indeed.
Cliff : What does “icon” mean to you?
Joan: Oh, well that’s very fl attering. I’m very honoured. I’m not surprised because I know that I have been a favourite, particularly of gay men and some gay women too, for quite a long time. Ever since Alexis, really. An icon, it’s a bit religious, isn’t it? I don’t know, it’s a very nice honour.
Let’s start with your earlier years. Your first marriage was far from ideal. How long did it take you for you to overcome that trauma of being raped and drugged?
Not long. I’m very much of the generation of the Blitz babies, war babies. It was sort of drilled into us — just get on with it. I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me in my life, I just don’t dwell on them. My mother had a motto if we ever felt sorry for ourselves or got upset by something, she’d say: “Think of the poor children in India who are starving.” That was a thing that all my generation was brought up with. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just get on with it.”
You were also involved with Warren Beatty.
Warren was an actor who had never made a movie. He was just about to do a play on Broadway. He was totally unknown and dating Jane Fonda at the time, and he pursued me. I had just been having an aff air with a married man; my first and last one. I do not advise any girl to go through that. I started going out with and living with Warren. I was under contract to 20th Century Fox Studios, and I was one of their up- and- coming young stars. They were appalled by the fact that we were living together. [ Columnists] Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and all those others said, “You have to get married.” So, we decided to get engaged. I still have the ring; it’s in a safe- deposit box. Then Warren started to do his first movie, Splendor in the Grass. So, while he was doing this movie with Natalie [ Wood], the rumours began. They were rumours; he was constantly saying: “It’s not true.” I still see Warren; we’re friends. He has said to me, “I was never unfaithful to you.” But we broke up because we just weren’t ready for marriage. He wasn’t; he’s four years younger than me. And I wasn’t ready for a second marriage. But my God, the papers loved those rumours.
“THE STUDIO WAS APPALLED THAT WE WERE LIVING TOGETHER”
What was it like to be the new, youngest star in Hollywood following the legendary actresses of the 1930s and 1940s?
When I went to the studios, they always referred to me as “the girl.” They’d say: “Put the light on the girl.” I said, “I do have a name; I’m Joan.” I never considered that I was following in their footsteps. I always considered acting as a job. I never wanted to be a star, like many of today’s young actors who just want to be [ famous] and be on the cover of magazines. I didn’t want that. I wanted to learn my craft at RADA. Even though I was fascinated by movies and movie stars, I didn’t want to be one. I started doing them to make money. The thing that I loved was the acting. That was what I loved, and to be able to throw myself into a role, inhabit it and learn from people like Richard Burton, Bette Davis and Gregory Peck, all of whom were my superiors in terms of experience. The red carpet and trying to find something to wear, didn’t really thrill me that much.
Does it thrill you now?
No. I mean I’ve done it so many times. I’ve been on so many red carpets. It’s fun. But the most fun is getting ready. Always, the most fun of going to a party is planning what you’re going to wear. Who’s going to be there, what it’s going to be like? Normally, it’s not nearly as much fun as the planning.
Some of the biggest films in the past few years have been female- led blockbusters. There are more female directors, producers and writer, too. When you started your career, did you ever envisage that?
No. Never. You just accepted the fact that it was a male- dominated society; a patriarchal society. The studios were all led by men in their fifties and sixties. They were all men, like Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Louis B Mayer, Darryl Zanuck. They were all tough, hard, controlling, domineering men. You were almost scared. Well, just seeing Judy [ Garland] and how Mayer treated her. It happened to me, but in a diff erent way. Fox bought my contract from Rank. When I went to Hollywood, I was told that I was too fat and I had to lose 8lb. I wasn’t fat; I was curvy. I was about 9st, maybe eight- and- a- half. So they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll go to this doctor.” He gave me some green pills, and I took them for almost two years. I had trouble sleeping, but I lost 8lb. Then it was the banana- and- milk diet, the cottage- cheeseand- tomato diet. The studio insisted you had to keep the weight off .
How long did you take those pills for?
My boyfriend, the married man I was having the aff air with, saw them and said, “These are poison.” He poured them down the loo, and I stopped taking them. I never took those pills again. But I trained myself not to eat too much. The studio did it to all of the female actresses. We had to be a certain size.
The Sixties were a diff icult time for you.
No, the Sixties were not bad at all. They were very, very good. I married [ actor] Tony Newley, who was wonderful at the time. I had two gorgeous, marvellous children who I absolutely adored and I loved being a mother. I deliberately decided I didn’t want to work; I’d rather be with my children. We had a beautiful house in Beverly Hills. We had marvellous parties with Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers and Sammy Davis Jr, except I wasn’t working in movies but a lot of TV. But I was a great hostess and gave great parties. It was only until the end of the 1960s that Tony came to me about how unfaithful he was. I had to get out. I was 34 years old. I was still pretty goodlooking. I didn’t feel that I was going to waste my life on a man who couldn’t be faithful.
During that time you starred in some of the most iconic TV shows ever: Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, Batman and The Man from U. N. C. L. E.
It wasn’t a bad time career- wise, it was diff erent from movies.
Did you realise how timeless those shows would be?
No. It was just a job.. I mean, bakers bake, tailors make clothes, actors act. Otherwise, how do they put bread on the table and feed their children?
You earned the title the “queen of horror” in the Seventies with films like Tales from the Crypt. When was the last time you watched Empire of the Ants?
[ Laughs.] I hated it. It was the most upsetting time. I was stuck in Florida around Thanksgiving, almost up to Christmas. I had infected legs. I had scars. I still have the scar on my leg from the infection, because we wore high boots and we were in this filthy swamp water up to our thighs. There were alligators on both sides of the river. I almost died when a car door hit me in a gale. I got a bruise on my head the size of an egg. I came- to while people were looking at me. I heard them say: “Is she dead? Is she dead?” I took a Polaroid and sent it to my children. “This is what your mother has to go through to pay your school fees.” Because I was the sole supporter of my children, I have been all their lives.
Was it diff icult to be confronted with that reality, that this wasn’t perhaps your first choice of a film to do, but you had to put bread on the table?
No, it wasn’t diff icult. Again, it’s that kind of “just get on with it attitude” that I have. It’s just that, “OK, Sacha’s at boarding school. Tara’s at another girl’s day school. I’m not getting enough money from Tony.” I got $ 1,250 a month, and I didn’t get anything from the state, obviously. So, I had to; I had to do it. I’ve always tried to look on the bright side. My glass is always half full rather than half empty. I had fun there with some of the actors. I always try to find the best of what I am doing.
You turned things around when you starred in The Stud and later on The Bitch. Again, I go back to “Britain’s bad girl”. It followed you again.
There were signs on buses, “Give your dad Joan Collins for Christmas,” and me in stockings and suspender belts, a merry widow, a chauffeur’s cap.
Was that, again, a moment where you thought: “I’ve got nothing left to lose. Let’s give this a shot.”
Yeah, it was. Then again, it was me who chose to do The Stud. Jackie [ her sister] had written it, and I needed a job. I was now approaching my mid- forties and that’s a very tough time for an actress, particularly if she’s a good- looking one and not considered to be one of the... how do I say, a Judi Dench, a Maggie Smith. So, I suggested to Jackie that we make it into a film. I went around for two years trying to sell it. It was the producer of Empire of the Ants, George Walker, who took it. It was a breakout movie. They would say,
“THE FUN PART OF A PARTY IS PLANNING WHAT TO WEAR”
“Oh, she’s taking her clothes off.” I said, “So is Glenda Jackson. So is Jane Fonda. So is Helen Mirren, a lot, on the stage, which is far more difficult because you have to do it every night. At least when I took mine off for a scene, I could get well and truly drunk then forget about it. Like on that swing, oh God. Yes, that was a bit embarrassing.
If anything, it opened doors for you, because then we come on to your next era, which was…
Dynasty. Yeah. That was great.
So much has been said about that programme, it’s almost hard to find something new to say about it. But what would you say is your favourite scene ever?
The first scene I did, which was me sitting in the defendant’s box in court, being interviewed by a fabulous actor called Brian Dennehy, and staring at the whole cast who were looking at me. I looked at them and I saw their dislike. I inhabited Alexis. I saw that as a role that I could really get my teeth into. I could make it more about my ideas. I felt this was a woman who was not about to conform to the little- woman syndrome: “Oh, you’ve done well, little woman.” The condescension that women had to go through is unbelievable. It still happens. I wanted Alexis to be empowering. I thought about her being like a businessman. I knew Donald Trump; this is long before he became president. I knew him and his wife, Ivana, who’s a good friend. I thought, “Yeah, he’s ruthless and he can be brutal, but he ploughs ahead and does what he wants.” This is what Alexis does. At the same time, she has to be dressed in the height of haute couture. This is why Nolan Miller loved my ideas. I said, “I want to be over- the- top couture, with shoulder pads, the nipped- in waist,” which is what Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin and all the designers were doing in 1982. Alexis was a woman who was going to use her sexuality, sex appeal and her intelligence to get what she wanted. I also said it was very important for her to have a sense of humour. I have a sense of humour in my persona, I think, I hope. So when people say, “Oh, you’re just like Alexis.” I reply: “Yes, because I have a sense of humour.” I liked to dress well. A lot of people said, “She was so terrible.” I said, “Oh, she wasn’t. She was wonderful. I loved her.” You can’t play a character, a bad character that people think is bad, unless you really like that character. I mean, Krystle was such a wimp, let’s face it. So, I saw the challenge when I was doing this first scene. I saw, sitting in the audience, John Forsythe as Blake, Linda [ Evans] as Krystle, Pamela Sue Martin as Fallon. Then John James, he was playing Jeff Colby, who I felt an affinity with. He was the only one who gave me the vibe of, “I like you, Joan.” Because I felt that the others didn’t. In fact, in the very first scene that Linda and I had, I had to yell at her, “So who do you think you are? You’re just a trumped- up little secretary who wormed her way into Blake’s life!” During the rehearsal, I played it down. I just said the lines, did the moves. Then when it came to actually shooting it, I saw Linda visibly shrink back from me. At the end, she said, “Oh my God, that was so real. Did you mean it?” I said, “Linda, it’s called acting.” From then on, she felt that I didn’t like her, and she didn’t like me. There wasn’t a lot of love lost between [ many of] us, particularly John, who played Blake. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the DVDs of Dynasty. John had to have his picture twice as big as anybody else, even though Linda and I were important. He couldn’t bear that. He had to have more lines than anybody.
Essentially, your character, and you, saved the show. I can only imagine the resentment from the cast.
There was a lot of resentment. I’ve been asked this question a million times, and when I was doing it, I would poo- poo it. I’d say, “Oh, no, no.” But yes. There was. And now I know there was because many people have come back to me who were around at that time and said, “They bloody hated you, Joan.” First of all, the fact that I was English, some didn’t like that. This English woman comes in and saves the show. This is what the media said, because the show was about to be cancelled. When I took it, my agent said: “It’s been turned down by Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Lauren. And [ producer] Aaron Spelling insisted on having you.” Thank you, Aaron. It was great when the English girls came in. Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara, Emma Samms, because we had a connection. Even now, when we get together for Dynasty reunions as we did a few years ago, I see an antipathy towards me. Also, if you look at some of the things that John Forsythe, Gordon Thompson [ Adam Carrington], and even Michael Nader [ Dex] said about me in interviews, they were not nice. I have never said anything about it before, but now the time has come. Let’s call a spade a spade.
What’s your favourite Alexis line?
“It’s caviar, Mark. Not peanut butter.” I think Alexis was having an affair with the tennis coach or something.
What do you think of the new adaptation of Dynasty?
I saw about 10 minutes, and thought: “This is like a morning soap.”
We have to talk about Playboy.
Oh God, yes. It was great. I was honoured and I was offered a huge amount of money. I was being photographed by the greatest photographer of the 1930s and 1940s, [ George] Hurrell. I had total autonomy over the photos. I’ve still got a pile of the out- takes in my safe, with Warren’s ring. It’s in a bank, if anybody’s wondering...
Well, I mean, age 50 as well…
I was 49. Please, 49.
Forty- nine, pardon me.
I didn’t particularly work out for that. The pictures were quite pretty and the cover was great. I know that John Forsythe thought it was the most dreadful thing ever. He went running into Aaron Spelling’s off ice carrying the magazine as if that was something the dog had just dropped, and said, “How can you allow this woman to make a laughing stock of our show and make it so disgusting to be in a magazine like this?” Aaron replied, “I think it’s great publicity, John.”
Last month, you marked the fourth anniversary of your sister Jackie’s death. Were you upset that she hadn’t shared her battle with cancer with you until a couple weeks before she died?
Upset? Shattered. But I wasn’t upset, I totally understood. She hadn’t revealed it to anybody, not even her daughters. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She was a very brave girl. She did it her way. We’re making a biopic called Joan and Jackie, which will honour her legacy.
When is that out?
Well, we have just received the script. Everybody involved in it has been having babies! It’s a very woman- based project. We got the script two weeks ago. I gave my final notes because I’m very involved. They are going to Hollywood next week, the two producers, or only one because the other one is having twins. We hope to be starting it in the next few months. Everything takes for ever in Hollywood.
You just starred in a beautiful Charlotte Tilbury campaign. How did you feel when they said, “We want you for this”?
How did I feel? I said: “How much?”
Have you managed to heal the rift with your son Sacha?
Yes. I wasn’t happy with what he did. That book, and all my friends were furious because most of it isn’t true. I was a really good mother. I was dedicated to my children. But I had to work because I had to support them and support myself. And I like a certain style of living.
Good Morning Britain,
Recently, there was a moment on when Piers Morgan mentioned the BBC saying there are more than a hundred diff erent genders and you said that was ludicrous.
Are there a hundred? Name me 20 right now. No, seriously. Over a hundred, that’s a lot.
I think that was a leading question from him.
Of course it was, and I wanted to block that question because I know Piers very well. I’m not about to let him box me into something. So, I said it’s ludicrous, because I know there aren’t more than a hundred.
OK. So what you were saying was that he was being ludicrous with his exaggeration?
It’s called ratings. It’s TV. He said that every time I go on Good Morning Britain, his ratings go way up. We have a good relationship. But no, it’s not that I’m negating the diff erent gender identities, it’s just that a hundred is a little bit extreme.
You’ve obviously got a hundred thousand gay friends.
I do. Ever since I was a child, because my father was an agent so we had lots of gay men and women in our lives.
What have you learned from your gay friends? What do they bring to your life?
A lot of humour. I see no diff erence between my gay friends and my straight friends. Miriam Margolyes is one of my friends who is lesbian, and Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, who I met when I was doing American Horror Story. But to me, I don’t see any diff erence. Julian Clary is one of my best friends. We play poker often, and his husband, Ian, is also a good friend. And there’s Rupert Everett, of course.
Does your mortality scare you? You still live life to the absolute fullest.
I know, I do. No, it doesn’t scare me because I can’t think about my age. That’s not me. I’m very lucky in that I’m very fit. I was with a very good friend yesterday who’s only in her late- forties, who’s just had cancer in her lung and liver, and had major chemo. Life is a lottery. I think I was dealt some bad cards in terms of bad marriages, bad investments, bad people who screwed me, figuratively. But healthwise, I was lucky. I have huge energy.
“I WAS DEALT BAD CARDS IN TERMS OF PEOPLE WHO SCREWED ME BUT HEALTH-WISE I’ M LUCKY”