‘I’m not wearing designer! I can’t afford designer! I love clothes but I draw my own designs. I hate handbags. Every time you see someone with a Chanel bag it could easily be a knock-off.’
I’m in Yorkshire, on Zoom with Dame Joan Collins. It being August, she – of course – is at her villa in St Tropez. I’m having a panic attack as the screen is black, though I can hear her Rada-trained, decidedly-not-old-lady voice.
‘Percy!’ I squeak. Her husband is hovering. ‘We were told it was sound only,’ he says. Ah. Hence my first question. I’ve been imagining a picture hat, shoulder pads, signature wig. But it turns out Collins is not the brittle cliché that is part of the cultural landscape.
‘This morning,’ she booms, ‘I woke at 8.45 as we were at a party last night. I threw on a dressing gown then another as it’s freezing: it’s the Mistral. I had some fruit and coffee, was reading the papers online, then the maid said, ‘Can I do the room?’ I said, ‘No’, as it’s the only quiet spot in the villa.’
Is she the same size as in her 20s?
Joan Collins (pictured) doesn’t believe in cosmetic surgery, or anything with needles. Coat, £2,600, gloves and shoes, price on application, richardquinn.com. Dress, Joan’s own
‘No! I still have quite thin legs, arms and butt but the middle part’s not as good as it was. I dress well enough to hide it.’
I tell her she looks fabulous in our pictures where she’s wearing Richard Quinn.
‘We are in control of the way we look. It’s all to do with pushing yourself away from the table, not eating too much. Stop eating bread, buns! I eat everything except shellfish, as I’m allergic.
‘I always ask for half a portion, and I leave some on my plate. People eat too much. When I was a young woman, we all ate much less. I think we have a problem, and everybody’s too scared to address it.’
She has ‘really good skin’ as she won’t go out in the sun without a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Has she make-up on now, 11am?
‘Are you kidding? Who puts make-up on first thing? We did have a very famous actress stay, a great friend from the 1950s, and she would come down in the morning with a full face, a pearl necklace and a negligée. I wear a baseball cap and a kaftan, or shorts and a T-shirt. Moisturiser.’
When I interviewed Raquel Welch a few years before she died, she told me, ‘I’m a professional beauty. Without make-up I resemble a little grey wren.’
What does Collins look like?
‘I don’t consider myself a professional beauty, I consider myself a working actress. I also know I’m pretty good-looking, and I don’t need a lot of make-up. For last night’s party, I put on some darker base as my body is brown so I have to.
Joan, pictured, puts her enduring beauty down to good nutrition and exercise. Tights, £12.99, calzedonia.com. Shoes, £425, rosamundmuir.com
Joan pictured with husband Percy at the V&A Summer Party in London in June. She met Percy in 2000. A theatre producer, he was working on her US tour. They were married at Claridge’s two years later
‘Some eyeshadow. I never wear false lashes or mascara. I have friends who have lashes on permanently. They look strange with a pale face and spidery lashes.
‘I mean, these reality stars all have lashes, pumped-up lips and frankly I can’t tell them apart! Does that sound horrible? Take it out! Judi Dench looks fabulous.’
And the famous face ice bath to de-puff?
‘I only do that if I’m going to an event.’
A ton of friends have just left and more are due in a few days. Does family stay?
‘It’s the sort of house that lends itself to having groups, not more than seven or eight. There’s a beautiful view, a pool, not much to do except eat, drink and lie in the sun. We’ve got lots of CDs, Netflix, all that.’
She has three children, four grandchildren. Her eldest daughter, 59-year-old Tara Newley, is a novelist and has two children: a 24-year-old girl called Miel and a 19-year-old boy called Weston.
Pictured: a young Joan Collins in a chic purple and lilac ensemble. The star has been known for her wit and glamour for decades
Joan pictured in a black and white blazer when she was younger. She was known for her work in the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema
Then there’s her only son, 58-year-old Alexander Newley, who’s a novelist too and also has two children: an 18-year-old girl called Ava Grace and a one-and-a-half-year-old called Deia Shanaya.
YOU HAVE TO PUT THE WORK IN – LAST YEAR I WAS IN A WHEELCHAIR. NOW I SWIM EVERY DAY
Collins’s youngest daughter, Katyana Kass, known as Katy, is the most private. The 51-year-old appeared as a baby in one film in 1973, The Optimists of Nine Elms, but there’s not much known about what she did after.
Are they in awe? ‘I don’t talk about my career, they don’t want to hear about that.’
Any contemporaries left alive to invite? ‘Yes!’ She thinks. ‘Michael Caine.’
Who does she miss most?
‘Roger Moore. And my sister, of course.’
Jackie died of breast cancer aged 77 in 2015. I venture they only became close at the end of her life. ‘No, we were terribly close a good four or five years before she died. All siblings have rifts. We still loved each other.
I was devastated. I kept thinking, ‘It’s not possible, why?’
Their mother, Elsa, died from the disease in 1962, aged 52. ‘Even when the bombs were dropping in London and we were in an air-raid shelter, she would never let us see a newspaper, she would make jokes about it, so we never felt threatened or upset.
Joan pictured in her role as Elizabeth Raleigh in The Virgin Queen, a film which came out in 1955
Jackie died of breast cancer aged 77 in 2015. The two sisters pictured in London, at a premiere, in 1970
Joan (left) says she was close with her sister (Jackie) ‘were terribly close a good four or five years before she died’
She kept everything inside, never showed fear, and I think that contributed to her cancer. She was a great mother. We ate organic greens, she sent me to ballet school when I was two or three. I’ve danced all my life.’
Her sister would never go for a mammogram, but Collins gets checked regularly. ‘I’m practically a hypochondriac! You have to put the work in. Last year, I had a back problem and was in a wheelchair.
‘I had physio three times a week, and now I swim every day. Nothing happens without the work.’
The sisters were pioneering feminists: Jackie with her steamy novels encouraging women to be selfish in bed, Joan with her portrayal of her sister’s heroine, Fontaine, in The Stud. It was 1978: ‘No one at first was interested in a woman slightly over 40 having sex, showing her breasts. It was shocking.’ Collins did Playboy aged 50: ‘The only cover I was ever paid for.’
Despite the #MeToo movement, does she think feminism has regressed, given the likes of Florence Pugh are now walking the red carpet in see-through dresses?
‘They think it’s empowering. But I see it as showing off. You know your breasts and the crack in your bottom will get you more space in the papers and the most likes. I’m trying to think of someone who doesn’t do it!’
What does Collins think of Meghan and Catherine? ‘Meghan isn’t really in my consciousness. Catherine never puts a foot wrong.’ (She’s not too keen on Kate’s favourite label, Alexander McQueen. When she was made a dame in 2015 for services to children’s charities, she wanted to wear McQueen, but designer Sarah Burton demurred.)
She is soon to play that other great royal pariah, the Duchess of Windsor, in a new biopic, In Bed with the Duchess, depicting the last years of her life. ‘I think she was somewhat maligned… The press can put a noose around your neck by giving you a title, like they did with me: the Bitch.
‘I know I made the movie but some people have made movies called The Murderer and they aren’t tagged with that.’
Joan pictured in Turn the Key Softly (1953), a movie about three women who are released from prison on the same day
Joan (pictured in Turn the Key Softly) says she has only tried Botox once in the late 1980s but is a ‘needle phobic’
How did she celebrate her 90th birthday in May? ‘I didn’t celebrate, OK? Please don’t mention age again. I don’t talk about my age, I don’t want to be identified with an age group, because it’s all different.
‘Biden might as well be 105. It’s a question of your physicality and mental abilities. I think people give up. There’s so much, ‘Oh, women over 40.’ I had that. I looked fabulous when I was 40. Some of it can hurt, but I just think about how I am as a person. My life is really good. I was born with a happy gene.
‘Everyone thinks I wear wigs all the time but I don’t. I have fine hair, I wear it scraped back, which doesn’t look too bad. My husband loves it. I haven’t gone grey. During Covid, I stopped going to the hairdresser, let it fly loose, and it’s almost twice as thick now.’
Collins doesn’t believe in cosmetic surgery, or anything with needles (Jackie, on the other hand, had a nose job).
‘I’ve had nothing done. I tried Botox once, this was the late 1980s, I’m needle phobic anyway. I screamed and rushed out and I’ve never been back. I’m very happy with the way I look.’
She puts her enduring beauty down to good nutrition and exercise. Is she obsessive about food?
‘I don’t believe in being obsessed about anything. There’s too much obsession about treatments and whatever that stuff is they’re sticking in their bodies to make them thinner.’
What does she think about Davina McCall et al who won’t stop moaning about the menopause?
‘Me and my girlfriends, all the same generation, none of us had a problem with it. I think the reason today so many women have problems is the poisonous stuff in our diets. I took HRT for 20 years, thought when I stopped I’d turn into a crone but I didn’t. I married Percy, so I wasn’t a crone.’
She met Percy in 2000. A theatre producer, he was working on her US tour. They were married at Claridge’s two years later.
He’s 32 years her junior. I tell her I don’t believe an age gap works. My ex-husband used it as a stick to beat me with.
Joann, pictured in Sea Wife (1956), said that she took HRT for 20 years but ‘thought when she stopped she’d turn into a crone’
She met Percy in 2000. A theatre producer, he was working on her US tour. They were married at Claridge’s two years later. The couple pictured together in June
‘I’ve been reading [in the Daily Mail] about your horrible husband,’ she says. ‘What a nightmare! He sounds worse than all four of mine put together! You keep going back to your exes, why is that?’
Relationship counselling from Joan Collins! I tell her she’s lucky to have found someone supportive.
‘My husband is happy with the way I look. If I say, ‘Should I do something about my neck or my eyes?’ he’ll say,”No, I love you the way you are. I don’t want you to change anything.’
Is it harder, getting older when you have been a great beauty? ‘I don’t think it’s a curse. If you’re born with a certain amount of good looks, which I was, and if you take care of yourself and you do not abuse yourself by booze, drugs, too much sun and the wrong food, I think you can still look pretty good.’
Collins left Rada aged 17, lured by a contract with Rank, the British film studio.
I wonder if she tended to marry beneath her to retain control of her career. ‘My first husband [Maxwell Reed] was a very famous movie star in England. He might have been inferior in many ways. My second, Anthony Newley, was a genius.’
She was 17 when she met Reed, who was 32. He drugged then raped her on their first date. In those days, it was the done thing to marry the person who took your virginity.
They wed in 1952 but by 1955 she was in Los Angeles, under contract to 20th Century Fox, and they divorced in 1956.
The Hollywood years of the 1950s and early 1960s must have been thrilling: the day she arrived she spotted Fred Astaire, out window-shopping; the well-documented romance with Warren Beatty who, when she became pregnant, promptly arranged an abortion – Collins was 26. She hung out with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Brando: he’d raid her fridge for ice cream.
Back in London, in 1963 she married Anthony Newley. He had been a child star, playing the Artful Dodger in the 1948 David Lean adaptation of Oliver Twist. ‘He was a serial womaniser,’ she says.
‘I wouldn’t have married him if I’d known. He had this insatiable urge.’ They had two children – Tara, born in 1963, and Alexander, in 1965, and divorced in 1971.
In St Tropez with all the family earlier this summer. Her acerbic wit is sharp today. She enjoyed Succession but found the clothes ‘hideous’
She met Ron Kass, who worked in the music business. They married in 1972, and quickly had a daughter, Katy, who, aged eight, was knocked down by a car and went into a coma with serious head injuries.
Collins camped outside the hospital for six weeks (Katy recovered and is now a mother). She stayed home, even cooked. But then Kass insisted they move back to Los Angeles.
She became the breadwinner. Unknown to her, Kass was plundering her earnings to fund his drug habits, but hid how bad it had got.
‘Honestly, it was shattering. My brother, Bill, came to stay, and he said, ‘What are all these unopened bank statements on your husband’s desk?’
SHE HUNG OUT WITH McQUEEN AND NEWMAN; BRANDO WOULD RAID HER FRIDGE FOR ICE CREAM
I said, ‘I don’t deal with the banking, Ron deals with it. I act, I write, I’m a mother. I look after Katy [who was still recovering].’ I found out £100,000 – all that I had – had been embezzled. [Kass forged her signature. She won’t discuss his drug use, out of respect for their daughter.] I had to sell my beautiful house, another in Marbella. I had three children to support. Dynasty saved me.’
US TV mogul Aaron Spelling needed a ratings boost for an ailing show. Collins pipped Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor at the post. Ah, the glorious years (1981-89) of Alexis when she was watched, at the show’s peak, by 150 million worldwide. Her lines were fantastic.
‘I didn’t ad-lib as such, but I did suggest some of the dialogue. It worked because viewers like seeing attractive people having a miserable life. During Covid, we opened a Dynasty box set: my god, I thought it was good.’
Her acerbic wit is sharp today. She enjoyed Succession but found the clothes ‘hideous’. When we talk about Taylor, she snaps, ‘Elizabeth was a girl’s girl. And very good with money.’
To promote her latest memoir, she is about to tour the UK with Joan Collins: Behind the Shoulder Pads. As well as St Tropez, she has homes in London’s Belgravia and Stupéfiants LA. Does she need the money? She banks at Coutts, after all.
‘Yes, and I haven’t been excommunicated! I don’t need to, but I have heavy family responsibilities, I won’t go into it. It’s hard work being an actress. I ask for questions from the audience. Percy goes round with a mic. Everyone is very polite.’
What if someone were to ask if you still have sex? ‘I would say that’s a very intrusive and rude question.’
How is she with social media? ‘I have an old smartphone. Percy keeps on at me to get a new one. I’m not doing Twitter any more. I have strong opinions but I don’t want to be cancelled.’
I wouldn’t have thought that she was scared of anything.
‘I’m not scared, I just don’t want to stick my toe into a boiling cauldron of hatred.’
What I love most about Collins is her confidence: too many of us claim imposter syndrome.
She’s so together, so unapologetic, so respectful when talking about her husband when all we do these days is – sorry, Joan – bitch.
I don’t let on that we once met, in 1999, at a party in aid of a breast-cancer charity. She was gracious, adept at small talk.
She even smelled wonderful. Joan Collins for Prime Minister! One final question. Has she planned her funeral and, if so, who’s invited?
‘Oh, shut up! Is this article about death?! It would be quite nice to hit 100.’
Joan Collins: Behind the Shoulder Pads begins its 12-date run on 1 October in Newcastle (amickproductions.co.uk)