Joan Collins describes being called in to replace Elizabeth Taylor
Fifty may be the new 40, but 90 remains 90. Better than anyone today, Dame Joan Collins knows it.
As she awakens this morning in the exquisitely draped, Marie-Antoinette-style boudoir of her Belgravia flat, it is to the realisation that on Tuesday, her very big birthday, really did happen and she is now officially Britain’s best-loved nonagenarian.
A flute of champagne may accompany her coffee while she attends to her three to 10-minute make-up routine – “When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, you get it down to a very fine art,” she once whispered to me over lunch in the South of France – and reaches for one of the hair pieces she is rarely seen without.
“I’ve always had problems with my hair,” she shrugged. “It’s very fine. I have to spend hours on it. Much of the time I can’t be bothered, so I plonk on a wig instead.”
As for ageing, why would it faze her? Been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.
READ MORE: Ageless Joan Collins exudes glamour as she celebrates 90th birthday with husband Percy
Joan Collins in 2021
“The entire world knows how old I am,” she pointed out three decades ago when she hit the big six-oh, the milestone every woman dreads. “So what would be the point in lying about it?”
Despite the mileage clocked, the triumphs and tragedies sustained, the many marriages and flings survived and the overcoming of endless fall-out both financial and emotional, this indomitable vixen and author of more than 20 novels, memoirs and beauty guides still exudes more energy, flair and determination than most actresses half her age.
Haven’t you always believed, as I have, that she should have been a much bigger star? In the league of Jayne Mansfield, say. Or Kim Novak, Sian Phillips or Carol Burnett – all, like her, born between the wars, in 1933. All except Mansfield are alive today. Compare and contrast.
Perhaps Joan was just too talented, too beautiful, too darn hot for Hollywood in the late 1950s, early 60s, when sex was left at the bedroom door and when housewives swooned over Doris Day’s virginity. Never shy about shedding her clothes, Joan was light years ahead. By the time her spotlight swivelled, it should have been too late.
“I was supposed to be Britain’s answer to Ava Gardner,” she has said, of the love of Frank Sinatra’s life who was 11 years her senior and a major movie star when young Joan came breathing down her neck. “The critics said I was exotic, smouldering and sexy. They called me ‘a coffee bar Jezebel’.” When we discussed the movie industry, she was scathing of so-called “modern competition”.
“Where are the Ava Gardners, the Liz Taylors and the Marilyn Monroes now?” she scoffed. “There isn’t a female acting in Hollywood today who has an iota of their star quality.
“As for the men: I’ve worked with the best. They don’t come better than Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. I worked with those guys in The Persuaders, and they are hard to beat. I do think George Clooney and Brad Pitt are great. Comparisons are odious, mind you.”
Joan Collins leaves her flat for 90th birthday lunch with husband Percy, 58
Born in west London, Joan was the eldest child of her English dance teacher mother Elsa and Jewish South African father Joe, a talent agent with Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and, at one point, The Beatles on his books. Her sex-kitten sister Jackie, four years younger, tried to follow her into films as a teenager but became a blockbuster novelist instead. Brother Bill grew up to be a property developer.
Jackie lost out to cancer aged 77 in 2015, the year Joan was made a Dame for services to charity by the late Queen Elizabeth II. She and Bill, who is now the age at which their sister died, remain close.
Fresh out of RADA and married at 18, Joan divorced first husband actor Maxwell Creed after he tried to sell her for £10,000 to an Arab sheikh. She joined the Rank Organisation, who made her a teenage starlet of a string of forgotten flicks.
20th Century Fox snapped her up in 1955. Most of her pictures for them are history too. There was almost The Big One, the prize that would have catapulted her to global fame and celluloid immortality. But the leading lady chosen for 1963’s Cleopatra, co-starring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, was Elizabeth Taylor.
Joan’s consolation, the biblical “epic”, Esther And The King, failed to ignite. Wounded, she cut her losses and joined Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in The Road To Hong Kong.
Celebrated through the 1960s and 70s, more for her private life than for her career, she enjoyed a moment in Tales From The Crypt before starring in film adaptations of Jackie’s sizzling novels The Stud and The Bitch. Then, at long last, her turning point.
In 1981, when Joan was 48 and by Tinseltown standards a little sabre-toothed for a sex symbol, she was cast as incendiary, conniving Alexis Colby in TV soap Dynasty.
Joan aged 48, as Alexis Colby, in US drama Dynasty, the role that made her a household name
Its popularity afforded her the international fame and acclaim she had longed for. Joan, God love her, milked it. That bubble did not burst for almost a decade. The profile it secured her has never waned.
About that private life. I got to hear about it point-blank on several occasions. Our first encounter was in May 1987, when I found myself seated beside her on a Nice-bound flight.
She was miserable, she confided, having just split from fourth husband Peter “the Swede” Holm. (Husbands two and three were actor-singer Anthony Newley, and record company executive Ron Kass.)
By now a mother of three – Tara and Alexander, with Newley, and Katyana, with Kass – she was on her way to hang out with Rod Stewart. Expressing concern for my well-being, she said she thought I was pregnant.
“Trust me,” she said, “I can always tell. I’m a witch about these things.” She was right too. She wanted to know what had happened in my life. As I poured out excruciating details, Joan simmered silently. She then went in for the kill. “I’ve made my mistakes,” she said. “The wrong men. Lots of them. But there have been the right children. They are all my life. I’d be nothing without them.
“However, I raised all my kids without a father. I mean, they all had fathers, but they didn’t stick around.
“Men who walk out and leave a woman with children are disgusting. It is the most despicable thing to do. I see it everywhere, more and more. Who do these men think they are? Such lowlife! I have often wondered down the years whether I shouldn’t have become a lesbian.”
Joan in 1952 at the start of her career
Twenty years later, back on the Côte d’Azur in Le Club 55, we discussed men again – this time in the company of fifth husband Percy, 32 years her junior and the one about whom she famously joked about their age difference: “If he dies, he dies.”
That year, she was 74 years old, and a grandmother. Perfectly attired, dripping diamonds. Close-up, I studied her. Her face, neck and décolletage were porcelain-pale. They had not seen the sun, she said, for half a century. The rest of her was mahogany.
She let me touch her.
“No knives,” she said sternly. “Had Botox once, years ago. Hated it. I’m an actress, I have to have expression.” Had the couple’s age gap not tempted her into the odd nip and tuck? “Never once. Percy’s age is the last thing on my mind. We worked together and fell in love quite unexpectedly. He’s my reward. As everyone knows, I kissed a lot of frogs.”
Those amphibians included actors Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Ryan O’Neal, Terence Stamp, playboy “Bungalow Bill” Wiggins and dandy art dealer Robin Hurlstone, to name a few.
I then asked Percy if it bothered him that his beloved had shared her favours so generously? “That’s the profession she’s in,” he shrugged. I sat watching her eat – she consumed precisely half of everything – and listening to how she defied gravity.
“You need half the food at 50 as you ate at 25,” she instructed. “Half as much again at 75. I’m going to live to be 100, and I am telling you: look after your skin. Never leave the house without make-up.
“Don’t diet, just eat less. Never drink tap water. If you need to drop a few pounds
to fit into something, eat boiled eggs and broccoli for three days.
“If you must snack, more broccoli. Exercise a little. I hate it, but you have to.”
What was her secret to survival in the modern world?
“Do it yourself – whatever it is,” she stated. “My parents taught me that. They also warned me that life would not be easy, but that I’d just have to get on with it. That is what I have always done.
“I’ve lost many dear ones to cancer. Several were diagnosed with it right after they’d been through a terrible shock or had dreadful things happen to them.
“My advice, for what it’s worth: get over it. Whatever it is. Don’t brood. Be resilient. Never think about what might have been. Play the cards you’ve been dealt. Any day now could turn out to be your last.”