RÓISÍN INGLE TALKS TO THE HOLLYWOOD LEGEND ABOUT HER LATEST BOOK, MY UNAPOLOGETIC DIARIES – A ROLLICKING AND IRREVERENT READ FULL OF INDUSTRY SHENANIGANS, NIGHTS OUT AND CELEBRITY MUSINGS.
As sprightly and energetic as she may appear in photographs and on television chat shows, it appears that – like many of us civilians – Hollywood legend Dame Joan Collins is suffering from that very modern malaise: Zoom fatigue. A Zoom call has been requested but her publicist is adamant that “on this occasion, the rapport will be better by phone”. I can’t help feeling a little short-changed that we are not conversing via video call. It means I can’t see what inevitably glamorous outfit Collins is wearing or look over her shoulder to gawk at the furniture in her Beverly Hills apartment, or marvel at how astonishingly great she looks.
But perhaps it’s for the best. I’d been fretting, for good reason, for a few days about what to wear for a Zoom call with glamazon Collins. In her new book, My Unapologetic Diaries, nearly every time she encounters a celebrity or an acquaintance she makes a comment on their appearance and often specifically on their weight. The only person who gets off lightly on this score is Elton John. She noted that Elton had put on a few pounds but also that it suited him, keeping on the good side of the singer. Being neither waif-like nor groomed in a way Collins might approve of, I’d be extremely self conscious about her getting a look at me on Zoom. An old-school phone call, it is then.
A diarist since the age of 12, this latest book – her 18th, I am surprised to discover – is a rollicking and irreverent read full of industry shenanigans, nights out at restaurant hotspots such as The Ivy and Spago along with countless celebrity musings about the likes of Rod Stewart, the British royal family, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Taylor. She is snippy about a lot of people in the book, from model Cheryl Teigs, who gets a Collins dressing down for not wearing make-up on a night out with Jennifer Aniston, to Ellen DeGeneres who she reckoned was given far too much airtime when she decided to come out as a lesbian. (Ellen’s coming out threatened to overshadow Collins’s debut appearance in the short-lived Aaron Spelling TV show Pacific Palisades, which clearly had a great deal to do with her irritation). Jay Leno, for another example, is dismissed as “one of the unfunniest men in America as well as one of the most unattractive”.
But as the book title indicates, Collins makes no apologies for any of it, and my opening salvo when I get her on the phone is to ask what she has against apologising. “This new thing in which people have to apologise all the time is kind of pathetic,” she says. “I see it happening all the time on social media but I don’t feel that I have anything to apologise for. Because everything that I said was the truth. And, you know, why should women apologise for the truth?”
She’s keen to stress that the book was recorded not written down. She started recording it on a dictaphone in her dressing room on the set of Dynasty where for nearly 10 years she famously played the indomitable Alexis Carrington, winning a Golden Globe for the role. The diary spans nearly thirty years from 1989 to 2006 and was recorded whenever she felt like she had something to say. If the diaries have a narrative arc, one of them is her experience of being typecast as an evil, man-eating vixen – in reality Collins played Alexis as a more complex, nuanced and often very funny character, at least in the earlier seasons – and how hard she had to work against this to get more job offers after her huge success in Dynasty. She went from Dynasty to the West End in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and thought she’d be inundated with work. She wasn’t.
How did she cope with being typecast? It was nothing new, she says. “I was typecast from the time I was put under contract aged 17. I was typecast as the smouldering British bad girl, I played baby prostitutes, I played juvenile delinquents. I have been typecast for most of my life.” Dealing with this and the inevitable ups and downs of a life in show business has required serious reserves of resilience. “I think what helped was the fact that my parents always stressed to me that life is not a bowl of cherries. Life is a bowl of cherry pits. People expect life to be easy and it’s not.”
Collins has always had a jaundiced eye when it came to the vagaries of life in the entertainment business. She refers me to a part in her diaries when she is at the height of her Dynasty fame, and a journalist asks her what she’s going to do if all of this ends. “I said it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. I’m flavour of the month now but I won’t always be. That’s the life of a jobbing actor and I’m very down to earth about these things”.
When I ask the Londoner about the leading men she’s reportedly met and romanced over the years, she balks at my use of the word assignations. “Assignations,” she says laughing. “I never really had assignations. I was married five times so a lot of my life was taken up with the same men. I was a serial monogamist.”
At one point she was in love with Warren Beatty and wrote in her first autobiography Past Imperfect about the illegal abortion she had while engaged to the actor. Who was she most taken by of the many handsome and charismatic leading men she worked with? “Paul Newman,” she says without hesitation. “I enjoyed working with him, he was a great friend, and a wonderful person and incredibly handsome”.
What is she proudest of when she looks back at her career? “Well, I am proud of having survived seven decades in a cut-throat industry. I don’t think many actresses have. I can think of Angela Lansbury and Sophia Loren, but I don’t know if they are still working. And Shirley Maclaine, but she came into the business two years after me. And Dynasty, I am proud of that and the success it brought me”. [Maclaine and Lansbury are still very much working but Collins is definitely a member of a very small club in terms of longevity].
Since starting her career as a teenager, Collins has appeared in more than 70 television programmes and films such as Our Girl Friday, The Virgin Queen, The Stud and The Bitch, the latter two based on bestselling bonkbusters written by her late sister, Jackie Collins. More recent roles on television have included The Royals, Benidorm and American Horror Story.
Her professional wings, and that of her peers, were clipped quite substantially during the pandemic. Has she found this a worrying time? “Yes, it was worrying up to a point, because we did everything we could to protect ourselves. We had the vaccines as soon as we could. But the fact of the matter is, that however much you protect yourself, this virus is very sinister. And in the south of France this summer, exactly six months after my second vaccine, I got Covid. And I got it after being very, very careful, not touching anybody, not being close to anybody, not doing the hugs … my doctor told me that the reason I got it is that the vaccine wore off after six months. Yeah, it’s worrying. People say it’s just a flu, it’s just a cold. It’s not.”
She wasn’t bored during Covid, at least. “My mother used to say, people who are boring get bored,” she laughs.
Inevitably, we talk about ageing. I should clarify that I’m actually the one who brings it up but only because my mother (82) told me to. “Will you please ask Joan Collins: does she have any ailments?” my mother had said, listing her own ailments – the macular degeneration, the arthritis and the broken bones.
I do my daughterly duty. My mother says to ask have you any ailments, Joan?
“I don’t really have any,” she says, pondering the notion. “Somebody hit me on my Achilles heel once years ago, when I was at the airport, crawling after one of my grandchildren. And so I have a slight bit of a pain in my Achilles heel. But other than that – and I touch wood when I say this – I haven’t.”
It’s astonishing, really. She’s something of a medical miracle in this regard, even her own GP can’t figure it out. “When I went to my doctor recently, he said, ‘How many pills do you take?’ I said, I just take one for indigestion. And he was amazed.”
I imagine she must be sick of being asked why she thinks she has aged so well but I ask anyway. She doesn’t mind trying to pin it down, and immediately gives credit to her mother. “I think it’s all because my mother was very, very, very careful how much she gave us when we were young. She always insisted we ate all the greens and we didn’t have sweets. We had supplements up the kazoo. And she also was very much in favour of physical exercise. And she was quite strict about health before other people were into it. And of course, I was also lucky, in that I grew up when everything wasn’t, you know, filled with fertilizers, and all kinds of stuff that they put in vegetables and things today.”In the book she quotes her mother saying women had to suffer for beauty.
“It was said in a jokey way, when she was doing my hair as a child and it hurt.” But Collins says – apart from vigorous workouts – she doesn’t really believe in suffering to look good.
“I haven’t done all of that stuff which so many of my friends have done, which they call tweakments where they have needles stuck in their faces and poisoned substances put in, I’ve never done that and I never would,” she says. “Working out is a bit of suffering but it’s not real suffering … I mostly try not to take anything too seriously in life”.
In a previous memoir, The World According to Joan, she revealed how at age 17 she was drugged and sexually assaulted by her first husband, the late actor Maxwell Reed. It was at the very beginning of her career six decades before the Me Too movement would give voice to women’s experiences. Collins says her father, a theatrical agent, always warned her about men in the industry. “He knew what the men were like. And he said if they get fresh give them a knee in the lower regions. I think it’s about time [the Me Too movement] happened. Women have been used for too long. Just look at what Marilyn Monroe said about her early life. She said she was passed around, like a piece of meat.”
I tell Collins that a friend of mine, a Collins super-fan met her in Palm Springs a couple of years ago. They had what he said was a wonderful conversation during which he praised her for being so ahead of her time in terms of equitable pay, insisting she was paid the same as her late costar John Forsythe who played Blake Carrington. (Forsythe, Collins says, was “a total misogynist”.)
She won that equal-pay argument even if the number of episodes she was in was cut back, with producers saying they could no longer afford her. “Since Linda Evans and I were the most popular on Dynasty it stood to reason we should have got the same amount of money as John Forsythe. I didn’t think there should be any argument about that and I never did. I was an early feminist, I believe women could do anything men can do except when it comes to physical strength … women are just as smart and you know I was raising three children, and working as well as the breadwinner that’s hard to do. Not many men are bringing up three children and are also the breadwinner.”
I ask whether any of her partners – she was married to actor Anthony Newley with whom she had two children – resented her success over the years. Did her earning and star power annoy any of them?
“Yes,” she says.
And how did that manifest?
“In divorce, obviously.”
This is classic Collins, queen of the one-liners. When she first got together with Percy Gibson, her producer husband who is more than 30 years younger, she was asked whether she was worried about the age difference. “If he dies, he dies,” quipped Collins.
Now that we’re talking about Percy, would she rate him as the best of her five husbands? She clearly agrees, but says she doesn’t want to “gush” about him. “That’s too cringe-making but yes, he’s wonderful in every way”. The diary tells the story of her falling in love with him after meeting him through her theatre work. It’s a slow-burn love story told with wonder and appreciation.
Not surprisingly, Collins has learnt a lot about marriage over the years. “You have to be very tolerant, you have to love each other but also be great friends and to not find fault all the time … the tolerance is one of the most important things. And being a team.”
She is taking a small hiatus in LA at the moment, before returning to London in January for her twentieth wedding anniversary celebrations. Can she share any details? “Ah, it’s a secret,” she says.
There are a number of work projects coming up too, but she doesn’t want to jinx them by speaking too soon. She can talk about the six-hour miniseries that’s being made about her and her sister, the late author of beloved bestselling books. “It’s called Joan and Jackie,” she says. I mention it’s six years since Jackie died of breast cancer after keeping her illness a secret from her sister. She must miss her?
“Oh, God, I do, I do, so much. You know, she was part of the reason that we came back and bought this apartment in Los Angeles so that we would be close to her. And then it was a terrible shock, a terrible, terrible shock when she died.”
Collins is godmother to several people, including supermodel and actress Cara Delevingne. What kind of advice does she give the younger women in her life?
“Listen to your instincts,” she says. “You know, the first thing that happens to you, when you are given a choice of something whether it’s going out with somebody or getting a job, the first thing that comes into your brain, it is usually your instinct.” Did this kind of instinctive living serve her well? “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone more and more with my instinct. Yes, definitely.”
We talk about ageing again. And ageism. She believes people should not be judged on their biological age. “I mean, I’ve seen people in their 50s and 60s who are bent over and can hardly walk. I’m going to a birthday party tomorrow of a friend of ours who is 95. She is quite sprightly and in a relationship. You can’t be judged on your age.”
I would have thought fabulous Joan Collins might be exempt from ageism?
“Maybe I have been to some extent. But I’ve heard people say about me, ‘well, she looks good for her age,’ and that kind of thing. I think that’s condescending.”
“Anyway, how old are you?” she asks suddenly. I tell her I have just turned 50. “Well enjoy it and remember you will never look as good or be as fit as you are right now”. Thank goodness we are not on Zoom, I think.
Before our half-hour, old-fashioned phone call is over, I bring up the fact that in several parts of her diaries she mentions starving herself for various castings or even meetings about roles.
“I don’t do that anymore,” she says, adding that she enjoyed a big plate of ribs while out with Gibson the night before. When they are not out her husband cooks and they watch programmes such as The Morning Show and Impeachment about the Bill Clinton scandal. They also go to the cinema a lot. The couple went to the movies twice the other day, once to see to The House of Gucci and a second time to a friend’s home where they watched “the most appalling movie I’ve ever seen, it had a $250 million budget”. I try to find out which one – No Time to Die had a $250 million budget, for one example – but she refuses to tell me the name of the movie she saw. “I’d be blacklisted in this town,” she laughs. Whatever else might be in Joan Collins’ future, somehow, I can’t see that ever happening.
My Unapologetic Diaries by Joan Collins is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson