Dame Joan Collins is furious about the scaffolding. Not her own (although we’ll get onto the subject of those extraordinary cheekbones), but the metal scaffolding outside her jaw-droppingly grand apartment in London‘s exclusive Belgravia.
It’s been there for months now, and it’s such a bore, she says, explaining that the ladders and boards appeared when her upstairs neighbours did some renovations. They botched something, which meant the roof had to be replaced, which in turn has meant workmen all over her frontage.
‘How would you like to live with this stuff all day long?’ she asks, standing with one elegant foot in the drawing room and one out on the balcony, which used to be such a tranquil spot.
‘You’ll be getting out of the bath and going into the bedroom and the curtains will not be quite closed, and then suddenly you see a guy walking through, and you’ve only got your towel around you. It’s a total lack of privacy.’
It’s been quite the saga, has the scaffolding. Lawyers have been consulted. Letters have been written. At one stage – when she felt lockdown rules were being breached – the police were called.
She fumed about it on Twitter, to limited sympathy. ‘I got all these nasty remarks and thought, ‘F*** this. I do not need this.’ So I stopped doing Twitter.
‘What gets me is that you go to Pinewood Studios or Elstree and they build a village in ten days. Here they can’t take down a roof in nine months! It’s a joke!’ Can we conclude that Dame Joan isn’t the most patient person on the planet? ‘Yes, that’s my main fault. I’m very impatient,’ she agrees.
She seems to have grown quite fond of the workmen though, talking about them by name. When the publicity director from her publishers arrives, she asks her cheerily, ‘Did you get whistled at?’, then she remembers what century we’re in.
‘Oh, they don’t do that any more, do they? It’s not allowed.’
Back in the day, Joan was presumably whistled at more than most? On these very streets, she says.
‘When I was 16, I used to walk from my house in Great Portland Street to Gower Street to go to RADA in the shortest skirts and the tightest tops. Of course, you didn’t take any notice. It wasn’t an insult. It was a compliment.’
So she liked it? She wouldn’t go that far. ‘You neither liked it nor disliked it, it was just a fact, like traffic hooting.’
Anyway, she shuts the window, and settles down to talk about ladders of a different sort – career ones. Dame Joan has published the diaries she kept at a critical juncture in her career, starting in 1996.
Her Dynasty days, when she was at the pinnacle of her appeal (and earning power), were behind her and she was suffering that affliction so familiar to Hollywood actresses: being over 50, and suddenly invisible to the studio bosses. ‘It’s about how you cope with a smile on your face as you go down the ladder of success,’ she says.
She never planned for these diaries – spoken into a ‘cute little tape recorder’ at the end of every day – to be published, but perhaps it was only a matter of time. Dame Joan has now written way more books than she’s had husbands (some 16, as opposed to just five husbands).
She’s stopped with the husbands now (she married her beloved Percy in 2002, and ‘will never be with another man’). Her books – including several autobiographies and a raft of novels – haven’t always been received positively by the critics, but no matter.
‘I have had a lot of s*** thrown at me for my writing, but I read one of my books during lockdown and I thought, ‘This is good’. It had a good narrative, good descriptions, a proper plot.
‘A lot of the books today that are supposed to be good are not entertaining and, quite frankly, I want to be entertained. I do not want to be preached at by do-gooders and wokers.’
Well, guess what, her diaries are dazzling (so many parties! So many bad facelifts on other women! So many suitcases at airports!) and certainly entertaining. They offer an extraordinary insight into a woman whose life continues to fascinate us.
They cover the period when she met film producer Percy. That story alone is worth the price of the book. She was starring in a play for a company he managed and she ran out of eyeliner (an occupational hazard if you’re Joan Collins), so Percy offered to go and fetch some.
He came back with mascara. She said, ‘So you are not gay, then?’ and he said, ‘I’m afraid not’. They then had a passionate affair and she ditched the man she’d been with and has been with Percy ever since.
He opens the door today, takes my coat, brings us water and she does not know what she would do without him. ‘I really don’t know how I got through lockdown,’ she says.
‘Probably because of Percy.’ They’ve been through the mill recently. Apart from Covid, there have been a series of domestic disasters including a flood and a devastating fire.
‘We’ve had it all – flood, fire, pestilence, with Covid.’ How dramatic. It sounds Biblical! ‘Yes! We even had death. Two years ago our concierge, who I adored, died. Percy found her body.’
Percy is the quiet star of her life, but the bling of her diaries comes from the bigger names. It’s all here – how Donald Trump (‘that ungallant schmuck’) once tried to sell her an apartment (not realising how much closet space she needed), how the death of Princess Diana (whom she also adored) floored her.
There are delicious anecdotes about everyone from Gregory Peck to Debbie Reynolds, via Roger Moore, Prince Andrew (in the days when he got invited to parties), Liz Taylor…
She makes no apology for the constant name-dropping. ‘People say I name-drop, but this is my work.’ Actually, she makes no apology for anything, hence the title My Unapologetic Diaries. Her writing is whip-smart and insightful about the often ludicrous business of show. ‘I am very cynical about Hollywood,’ she agrees.
She wants to know if I like the book (who knew Joan Collins would care what anyone thought?), and I say I found it delicious and brilliantly observed, to the point of I-can’t-believe-she-put-that-in-writing. Like what, she asks, curious.
The moment that sticks out is a throwaway line about meeting then up-and-coming (and now deceased) It girl Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who was being hailed a society beauty.
Joan didn’t see it, and the resulting observation straddles that line between bracingly honest and cruel. ‘What did I say? She was ‘plain’?’
‘You said she was, ‘plain, verging on the horsey’.’
‘What’s wrong with that? It’s true. I mean, I’m sorry. What am I supposed to say? She’s a beauty? I have friends who say, ‘Hello, gorgeous’ to everyone. When people say that to me I say, ‘Don’t say that to me when you say it to people who look horrible.’
In this case, she concedes that she might have had an agenda against poor Tara back then. ‘She was going round saying to people that she was the Original Tara, and my daughter Tara was annoyed at that.’
In some ways Tara P-T gets off lightly. Joan is quite forthright about Linda Evans (her Dynasty co-star and, these diaries pretty much confirm, adversary). When they were cast together in the play Legends, sparks flew.
So when Linda went down the excessive cosmetic surgery route, Joan was going to make merry. Her descriptions of Linda’s face are quite something.
‘Are you supposed to ignore somebody when they come in with tape on their eyelid?’ she asks today. ‘Every one of the other actors was saying, ‘What do you think she had done?’
She reckons people with inflated lips (or hips for that matter) should be called out on it.
‘Am I the only one who thinks there’s an obesity crisis? Those lips people have done, I think they look ludicrous. I’m sorry. And if people want to go round looking like that I’m going to laugh at it.
‘We all talk about it. Have you ever been in a hairdressers? The Kardashians, for instance.
‘Kris Jenner, their mother, is a good friend of mine and I don’t want to be rude about her children, but there’s an awful lot of surgery there and I’ve talked to my friends about it, as I’m sure you have, the bottoms, the tiny waists.’
On to the subject of Sophia Loren and her huge teeth, which Dame Joan says, ‘look like they have been carved out of ivory’. She jokes about how many sets of ‘terrible teeth’ there are in Beverly Hills. Fair comment? ‘When I saw that written down I did say, ‘Is that rude?’ she admits.
‘She’s still alive. But it’s not as if we’re bosom buddies and she’s never going to speak to me again. And it’s true!’
She asks the publishing PR if she thinks such comments will be put down to ‘bitchiness’. There is talk of being ‘refreshingly honest’, but Joan seems niggled. ‘Well, then maybe my editor should have been a bit more…’ her words peter out.
Then, suddenly, she’s laughing again, going full Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ as Jack said,’ she cries, having a pop at the woke generation.
‘The thing is you can’t say anything these days without being cancelled. What am I allowed to say?’ She gestures to the floral arrangement on the table.
‘Am I allowed to say, ‘These orchids are fake’? Because they are. Well, forget it! I’m not kow-towing to cancel culture. Can’t say this, can’t say that. I’m like my father [the late theatrical agent Joe Collins] in that regard.
‘Non-diplomatic. I think it’s a Gemini thing. I quite admired the Duke of Edinburgh, saying things he thought even if they offended.’
Actually, I love Dame Joan. I just think it’s startling that she’s so tough on women (and their bodies) but men get an easier ride. Elton John, for instance, has put on a few pounds, she observes in her diaries, but it ‘suits him’.
Not that her comments come from a place of cruelty. They come more, perhaps, from a lifetime of having her own looks dissected. ‘I have been relentlessly criticised for how I look,’ she admits.
‘Relentlessly! For everything. For my make-up, my figure, my face. I’ve been accused of having a lot of face work – and I’ve had none. When I was in the play Private Lives someone said, ‘She wore a silver dress but she had a large belly.’ Well, it was cut on the cross.
‘It was a 1930s style. When I was very young I would cry at how cruel they could be. I’m not the only person who talks about how other people look.’
The irony (or upshot?) is that she looks utterly amazing. People assume she must have had copious work done, but I genuinely don’t think she has. Everything moves.
Her cheekbones are a thing of wonder. Her hair is scraped back today but she loves a wig because it ‘cuts down on time in make-up by half’.
Yet when it comes to her own looks, she moves in to find fault before anyone else can. On those cheekbones she says, ‘They’re better when I’m thinner, because I’m a bit overweight now.’
She’s really not! ‘I’ve got very thin legs and arms and shoulders but I put it on here, around the middle, which is why I’m wearing this loose top.’ She needs to lose a few pounds, she says. ‘My doctor said I shouldn’t put on any more. It’s not healthy.’
Her railing at fat people (‘yes, I am quite rude in the book about people in Las Vegas’) comes from a place of concern, she says.
‘We eat too much. When I go to dinner I ask for a small portion, and it’s not small. Afterwards, the waiter will say, ‘Was there a problem with the food?’ and I say, ‘It’s just too much.’
One of her specialist subjects is dieting. She seems permanently trying to drop half a stone in her diaries. ‘Aren’t we all? Everyone I know wants to lose 5lb. Everyone except Kate Moss, and I don’t know her well.’
She can do it too. If she has an acting job coming up (which she does, although she’s sworn to secrecy about it, but we can reveal she’ll be playing a famously thin person), she just drops the pounds.
‘It’s the discipline of being in my job. The camera puts on 10lb, always, so I want to look the best I can. Apparently you’re supposed to put on 3 or 4lb a year after 65.’
She looks appalled. Again, she’s spent a lifetime being called out for her weight, even when she was at Twiglet-level thinness.
‘In Dynasty we always had to be 10lb less than our ideal weight, otherwise we’d get a b*****king,’ she says, not remotely bitterly. Early in her career it was much worse. Studio bosses put her on a diet of ‘what was that white creamy stuff? Cottage cheese!’ and an egg, and a pill. Emphasis on the pill.
‘It was total poison, the stuff they put Judy Garland on. Some sort of upper.’ Her boyfriend at the time ‘threw them down the loo’.
She’s talking about speed. She was on speed to keep the weight off, which is shocking, but not to her. Did she feel weird on it at the time? She shrugs.
‘Oh you know, when you’re 20 you feel weird all the time anyway, whether you’re on an upper or not. I was in Hollywood.’
They simply don’t make them like Joan Collins any more, and she isn’t done yet. She fizzes with plans for the future – roles to take, books to write, cages to rattle – determined to eke out every last morsel of life. She’s a wonderful gossip.
Today she asks what I make of Prince Harry’s hair. Never mind that, Joan, what do you make of Harry and Meghan? Another look of disdain. She won’t say.
‘I feel that they’ve had enough oxygen, but what I will say is that I absolutely love Kate Middleton and Prince William and their three children. I think they’re great, and I’d rather read about them because I think they do a lot for the country. I don’t really wish to talk about the other two.’
She’s meticulous about her health, even calling herself a hypochondriac. ‘If I have a mole I will have it checked out.’ Her sister (the novelist Jackie) was the opposite.
‘She would not go to the doctor. And she died.’ So she was delighted to be a poster girl for the Covid vaccine, being jabbed on the same day as the Queen.
She’s been missing her children and grandchildren terribly because of Covid restrictions, and her son Sacha is abroad, she says. ‘He’s gone to Montenegro with his wife and dog. I don’t know if he’ll be able to come back.’
She comments on how much television she found herself watching during lockdown, appalled. She’s still writing though. There are more diaries planned.
Her next book will be called The Covid Diaries. ‘That will be a saga of fury,’ she says. We can’t wait.
My Unapologetic Diaries by Joan Collins will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 October, £20.