Fab­u­lous, dar­ling

Af­ter eight decades, 125 screen cred­its and five fifi ve hus­bands, Dame Joan Collins is still on sparkling, spiky form. By So­phie Hea­wood

The Observer Magazine - - Front Page - Pho­to­graph BRIAN ARIS

When I go to meet Dame Joan Collins at her lux­ury condo in Bev­erly Hills on a bright Novem­ber af­ter­noon, I am told to wait for her pub­li­cist Jef­frey in the lobby, so when a male voice ap­proaches me I turn round to greet Jef­frey. Alas, it is in fact Dame Joan’s hus­band Percy, the fa­mous Percy, who is sun­tanned, jolly and very amused that I have mis­taken him for the PR guy. “Jef­frey has been de­tained,” he ex­plains, in his cheery in­ter­na­tional ac­cent, then adds hastily, “not by the po­lice!” Then he gets con­fused and calls me Sarah, takes me up to their apart­ment and in­tro­duces me to his wife as Sarah, too, by which point it’s far too late for me to cor­rect any­one.

Percy has read in an ar­ti­cle that tea tastes bet­ter in a mug, so would I like mine in a mug? Of course, I re­ply, much to their sur­prise. Joan in­vites me to stretch out with her on a large white sofa, above which hangs a paint­ing of Joan stretch­ing out on a large white sofa. “Oh, you are won­der­ful, dar­ling,” she says from be­hind her sun­glasses when Percy re­turns with her dainty teacup, along­side my gi­gan­tic mug, which is perched on a tiny saucer. “You can go swim­ming in it!” he beams at me. Just as I am putting a bis­cuit into my drink, Dame Joan says she won’t be eat­ing any of them. “Oh, you’re a dunker, Sarah,” she ob­serves, as the morsel dis­in­te­grates into my mas­sive mug. I don’t mind the at­ten­tion at all. Sarah, how­ever, is mor­ti­fied.

Joan Collins, now 85, is of course a house­hold name, a world-fa­mous ac­tor who has been awarded an OBE for her work which now spans three-quar­ters of a cen­tury, from 1950s Hol­ly­wood movies to Dy­nasty to her new role in Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story . South Amer­i­can theatre pro­ducer Percy Gib­son, 32 years her ju­nior, is her fifth hus­band, im­mor­talised in the tabloid head­line the day af­ter their wed­ding: “Joan says I do to young Percy from Peru.”

Joan is also a Thatcherite who once voiced her sup­port for Ukip. This is one of their three homes, along with Lon­don’s Bel­gravia and the south of France, so she seems pleas­antly sur­prised when she says how nice it was of the Ob­server to send me to meet her – she only reads the Daily Mail and the Tele­graph her­self. Then she en­quires po­litely about my jour­ney, asks if I have kids, and says I should have brought my daugh­ter to LA with me, “be­cause she could have played with Piers Mor­gan’s chil­dren.” The dark glasses she is wear­ing in­doors make it hard to see if there is a twin­kle in her eye, but I am al­ready start­ing to won­der – just pos­si­bly – if Joan Collins is trolling me.

But then Percy goes out, leav­ing us to talk, and a small fly starts buzzing around her head, and she looks a lit­tle upset and says some­thing I did not ex­pect. “Do you be­lieve that lit­tle flies or but­ter­flies or some­thing can be old souls, peo­ple that you knew? I have this lit­tle fly that comes near me all the time. It’s re­ally strange.”

Who do you think it is? “I think it might be my sis­ter,” she says, look­ing quite se­ri­ous. The nov­el­ist Jackie Collins died three years ago, af­ter seven years of keep­ing her can­cer di­ag­no­sis a se­cret, even from Joan. “I know that sounds weird, and I don’t know whether I be­lieve in the af­ter­life or not,” she con­tin­ues. “My opin­ion is still out to lunch about that, but it is weird that wher­ever I go, at least two or three times a week – wher­ever I am, France, Lon­don, here – this lit­tle fly comes. Now maybe it’s be­cause the fruit’s rot­ting in the kitchen!” She laughs. “I don’t know. But any­way…” her voice goes low and fa­mil­iar and rather sad, “If it is: hello Jack.”

The apart­ment is like some­thing out of Dy­nasty, and Dame Joan says she bought a lot of this glitzy fur­ni­ture at that time. She shows me var­i­ous sculp­tures and paint­ings around her sit­ting room that were presents from Jackie, and stresses how close they were. “You know, like sis­ters, we all have our prob­lems, which the press loved to ex­ac­er­bate, or ex­ag­ger­ate. But I mean, she was the clos­est per­son to me for many years and with me be­ing the older sis­ter she kind of wor­shipped me in a way.”

And is it re­ally true that she didn’t tell any­one about her ill­ness? “Only her daugh­ters. Thank God she didn’t tell me. I mean, I wish she had. But she didn’t want pity, and that’s what hap­pens – in this town par­tic­u­larly, you know, gos­sip.” I am about to en­quire more about this when Joan re­ceives a call, asks who it is, then is upset again when she is in­formed that a friend of hers has been rushed to hos­pi­tal. She prom­ises the caller she will stay in touch and not tell any­one. “They’re drop­ping like flies,” she says, when she gets off the phone. I don’t think the pun is in­ten­tional.

This place has only been her LA base for a cou­ple of years, but she couldn’t love the lo­ca­tion more, as it’s only a few blocks from her new job on Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story on the Fox lot, “which is where I started, when I was 20 years old and un­der con­tract to Fox. And then when I started Dy­nasty, for the first two sea­sons, we did it there as well. Third time lucky.” She plays three dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in AHS, which is now in its eighth year. It is made by Ryan Mur­phy, who also made Glee, “Or the $300m man, as they call him in Hol­ly­wood. So ev­ery­body com­mits to do­ing this with­out even know­ing what they’re go­ing to play. Ryan told me it was a won­der­ful meaty role – and next thing I know I’m a can­ni­bal, eat­ing hu­man flesh. Oh God, but they ac­tu­ally gave us some kind of gruel – quinoa – and I had to eat it like I was re­ally lov­ing it.”

And the quinoa, was it as re­volt­ing as hu­man flesh? “Well,” says Joan, star­ing at me through her sun­glasses: “I wouldn’t know what hu­man flesh was like, would I?”

In Fe­bru­ary 2019, Dame Joan will be tour­ing her onewoman show around English re­gional the­atres. It is not her first such show, but the pre­vi­ous ones were scripted, whereas this will be con­ver­sa­tional, “so I can have a rap­port with the au­di­ence, who can ask ques­tions, and Percy will be on the stage with me as well, which is great. So we can have ban­ter.” She then queries her own choice of ‹

‹ words. “Ban­ter – hmmm, that’s a Philip Green word isn’t it?” Joan plans to show clips of all the amaz­ing peo­ple she has worked with: Bette Davis, Richard Bur­ton, Gene Kelly. It does feel like you’ve out­lived ev­ery­one, I say. “I hope so!” she says. But there are all these amaz­ing peo­ple you’ve worked with and…

“And they’re all dead! Is that what you’re try­ing to say Sarah? Yeah, great. Thank you,” she replies.

But it must feel won­der­ful – “It’s not won­der­ful” – to have this great body of work and still be work­ing.

“Ba­si­cally, I came here and I was the youngest per­son on the set. The youngest per­son in the movie, the youngest per­son at the par­ties. And now I’m prac­ti­cally the old­est. So it comes full cir­cle. But no, there are still peo­ple around who – well – let me just see. I mean Shirley MacLaine. War­ren is still around, War­ren Beatty.” (She was once en­gaged to Beatty, and has writ­ten in her mem­oirs about their preg­nancy end­ing in abor­tion.)

“Sophia Loren, who I still see some­times in Eu­rope. Brigitte Bar­dot – well I spend a lot of time in St Tropez, but I never see her, she’s like a recluse. Doris Day.”

She thinks.

“But you’re right, I’m a sort of bridge be­tween the Golden Age of Hol­ly­wood, which I came in at the end of, when the gilt was be­gin­ning to tar­nish, as I say in my one-woman show. Yes, and then now I’m sort of rel­e­vant in a way, with Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story, which is re­ally nice, and it’s nice that peo­ple are still in­ter­ested in want­ing to go and see my one-woman show. And I hear Joanna Lum­ley has a one-woman show.”

Does she?

“Don’t you read the pa­pers?”

In­evitably, we dis­cuss Dy­nasty. I tell her that Alexis Car­ring­ton was my child­hood in­tro­duc­tion to the idea of a woman be­ing bad and good at the same time, and that I was mes­merised by her. Joan is ap­pre­cia­tive, but stresses pas­sion­ately that, “she was not bad. First of all, Alexis was chucked by Blake when she was 18 be­cause he was off mak­ing oil deals. Then he killed or maimed her boyfriend. And he mur­dered some­one later. He was the bad one!” But we like to pun­ish women for hav­ing de­sire. “Yes that’s true. And she was also beau­ti­fully dressed.” Is it true that you were the high­est-paid woman on TV? “I be­came the high­est-paid woman on tele­vi­sion only on the last sea­son, and when I re­ported to work, they said: ‘Oh, you’re only go­ing to be in 10 episodes be­cause we can’t af­ford you now.’ I thought that was a bit mean. But then it’s a very harsh town, this – you’ve got to have balls of brass. And you have to be able to ab­so­lutely take re­jec­tion.”

But have you ever had days where you’re hid­ing in a bath­room on set, weep­ing, think­ing I can’t take this any more? “No,” says Dame Joan. She gig­gles. “Sorry!”

Her views on the #MeToo move­ment are mixed. On the one hand, she her­self was drugged and raped by the ac­tor

‘I used to be the youngest on the set. Now I’m prac­ti­cally the old­est’

Maxwell Reed when she was a teenage vir­gin. She then mar­ried him “which I know is hard to un­der­stand”, and wrote all about it in her first au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Past Im­per­fect. “So when peo­ple ask why I wasn’t speak­ing out about this – I’ve been speak­ing out about it for 40 years.” On the other hand, she says she would never have gone up to a pro­ducer’s ho­tel room, know­ing what men are like. “It seems to me ac­tresses who are say­ing, you know, ‘I went up to this pro­ducer and he took his dick out and I froze.’ I mean, I’m sorry, you don’t freeze you go, ‘ Stop that, I’m leav­ing.’ I just gave them a knee in the groin. It’s hardly suf­fer­ing. You just didn’t put up with it.”

She is not with­out sym­pa­thy for the big­ger pic­ture, though. “My daugh­ter Tara is a pi­o­neer for women’s rights.” They have marched to­gether for women’s rights and they de­liv­ered a pe­ti­tion to Down­ing Street to save fund­ing for women’s refuges, be­cause Tara worked in one for three years.

“These women in the refuges are hav­ing to hide their iden­ti­ties. They’ve got chil­dren and ba­bies and then the hus­bands try to find them. I re­mem­ber Tara was cry­ing to me about a year and a half ago be­cause one of the women had gone back and been mur­dered – that’s what hap­pens. Women are abused all over the world. Ev­ery­body’s very adamant and strong and #MeToo here in Hol­ly­wood, but I don’t see them open­ing refuges for women who have been abused.”

We dis­cuss Joan’s other mar­riages, two of which were be­cause she was des­per­ate to have chil­dren. “Then there was that stupid thing with Pe­ter Holm – whom Michael Caine refers to as ‘the Swedish co­me­dian’, be­cause he was about as funny as this pil­low.” She looks at it. “Well ac­tu­ally this pil­low is quite funny. Any­way, that lasted a year. And af­ter that I didn’t get mar­ried again for 15 years.”

But she con­tin­ued to be­lieve in mar­riage very strongly. “I think there’s a won­der­ful com­mit­ment to it.” With ‹

‹ Percy, the dif­fer­ence was a real friend­ship at the start and the heart of it. He is a theatre pro­ducer; they met at work. “And you know, we of course thought about the age dif­fer­ence, but that didn’t bother him at all. He’s South Amer­i­can and they don’t have this hang-up about, you know, ev­ery­body’s got to look like Britt Ek­land in her prime! And so it just grew and de­vel­oped, and when 9/11 hap­pened, we were in Lon­don and we were do­ing a play at the Old Vic, and we re­alised we re­ally wanted to com­mit our­selves to each other. We were in love with each other, and we had a proper wed­ding, at Clar­idge’s. It did feel very dif­fer­ent.”

They now spend ev­ery day to­gether: “24/7, which can be won­der­ful most of the time. It can be a bit an­noy­ing some­times, you know, but he likes to do it. And he likes to drive, I don’t like to drive. So to­day when I went to get my hair done I said, ‘I’ll just take an Uber,’ and he said, ‘No no no, I’ll drive you.’ He just wants to do ev­ery­thing for me. And he’s won­der­ful with my chil­dren and the grand­chil­dren. He says that we are part­ners in crime.”

They don’t go out to par­ties much any more “be­cause they don’t have them any more – very few peo­ple have re­ally good par­ties. We do. I had a great party here for Percy’s birth­day about three weeks ago. We had about 50 peo­ple, Mex­i­can food stands. We only in­vite our friends – no bor­ing in­dus­try peo­ple.” They also went to her god-daugh­ter Cara Delev­ingne’s birth­day party at the Chateau Mar­mont in LA, which was “very weird, be­cause it was out by the dark swim­ming pool and you couldn’t see any­thing. And yes, there were half-naked mer­maid un­der­wa­ter strip­pers, but we left early be­cause you know, I like to be in bed by 10.” She wasn’t con­vinced by the ca­sual dress code ei­ther.

“But that’s young peo­ple, that’s what they want to do. It’s self-ex­pres­sion. But to me their self-ex­pres­sion makes them all look iden­ti­cal. They might have a dif­fer­ent thing on their T-shirts. When I first came to a party in LA it was at Jack Warner’s house [one of the two orig­i­nal Warner Bros] and my mouth fell open when I saw it! There was Lana Turner, Ros­alind Rus­sell, Su­san Hay­ward. There was Cary Grant. I mean it was mind-blow­ing, the way they all looked to­tally dif­fer­ent from each other. They all had their own in­di­vid­u­al­ity, which seems to be miss­ing a bit to­day.”

Joan and Percy went for din­ner with Piers Mor­gan and his wife re­cently. “I don’t know whether you like him. I like him a lot. He says this thing on Good Morn­ing Bri­tain – “The world’s gone mad!” And it has! I mean, they’re mak­ing it an of­fence to whis­tle at a woman in the street?” She tries to re­call when she first met Piers. “Oh it was when we did the last flight of Con­corde to­gether – when he threw a glass of wa­ter over some­body. Or some­body threw a glass of wa­ter over him. It was all very dra­ma­tique.”

When Joan mar­ried Percy, she was asked if the age gap didn’t worry her, and she replied, “If he dies, he dies.” So how’s it look­ing – is he hang­ing in there? “Ha!” She cack­les, but then looks alarmed and sprints from her sofa across

‘Very few peo­ple have re­ally good par­ties any more. We do though’

the room to grab the din­ing ta­ble, “Oh please, let me touch wood.” She re­turns to her seat. “He’s only 53! No, he’s won­der­ful. It was one of my off-the-cuff rude re­marks, but for some rea­son ev­ery­body liked it,” she says. “An­other one of my best re­marks, I was with this boy who I’d been dat­ing for about eight months, and it was New Year’s Eve and we were on the dance­floor, and the re­la­tion­ship was draw­ing to a close as they do in your 20s, you know, they don’t last. And he said to me: ‘Oh you are a fuck­ing bore,’ and I said, ‘And you are a bor­ing fuck.’ So that was that.”

As I am leav­ing, Dame Joan asks if I want to look at her wall of shame, as she calls it – a wall of framed pho­tos of Joan with all sorts of peo­ple in­clud­ing the Queen, Thatcher, Rea­gan – she tells me she loved them all. There is a typed let­ter from Noël Coward and a hand-writ­ten one from Princess Diana thank­ing Joan for send­ing “her lat­est edi­tion” over. I men­tion Meghan Markle, whom Joan likes, but has not met. “She’s more than three months preg­nant don’t you think, though?” she says, rais­ing a dis­creet eye­brow. Then we come to a cou­ple of Joan-with-prime-min­is­ter pho­tos that are so low on the wall they’re prac­ti­cally fall­ing down the back of the sofa. “He’ll have to go,” she says, jab­bing at Tony Blair, the only non-Tory on there. “But I think he’ll have to go, too,” she says, point­ing at David Cameron.

Well it’s him who got us into this Brexit mess in the first place, I say. “Mmm,” she says, pos­si­bly agree­ing, though I sus­pect she means he should have stuck around and seen us all the way out of Eu­rope. We say our good­byes and I nip to the loo be­fore I leave. It is all black and shiny, like some­thing from one of Jackie’s nov­els, and there is a photo on the wall of the two of them in the back of a limou­sine. On the mar­ble basin is a sil­ver mir­ror, a bunch of flow­ers and a bot­tle of Tom Ford per­fume called Fuck­ing Fab­u­lous. ■ Joan Collins tours Eng­land through­out Fe­bru­ary 2019 with her live show, Un­scripted (seet­ick­ets.com)

Sil­ver screen: (clock­wise from top) with Far­ley Granger in The Girl in the Red Vel­vet Swing, 1955; with Jackie Collins in 2009; and with Jackie, Roger Moore and his wife Luisa Mat­ti­oli, 1977

‘Blake was the bad one’: Joan Collins with John Forsythe, Linda Evans (left) and other mem­bers of the Dy­nasty cast in 1983

Mak­ing a stand: (clock­wise from top) with daugh­ter Tara New­ley Arkle (left) at a rally against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; with hus­band Percy Gib­son; and on­stage in 2016

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