By Sophie Heawood
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 is of course a household name, a world-famous actress 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, is her fifth husband, immortalised in the tabloid headline the day after their wedding: “Joan says I do to young Percy from Peru.”
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.
Joan with Jackie in Las Vegas
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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..
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 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)
JOAN COLLINS UNSCRIPTED 2019 – BOOK HERE!