Saturday, April 26, 2014


Joan Collins: 'I am a feminist, but I enjoy being a woman'

Hannah Betts receives a makeover at the hands of Joan Collins OBE, grandest of Britain’s cinematic Grandes Dames – and is bowled over by her warmth and wit

There are very few true stars in this world, but Joan Collins OBE is one of them. Actress, author, producer, star of more than 60 films and dozens of plays, including a one-woman show, Tinseltown peer of Bette Davies, Elizabeth Taylor and “Jimmy” Dean, and the shoulder-padded embodiment of all Eighties bitchery.
Here is a woman who was wont to play the bongos with Marlon Brando, turned down advances from “pockmarked” Richard Burton, and received career advice from one Marilyn Monroe. Damn it, she is even an accomplished journalist (check out her columns in the Spectator) and godmother to model of the moment Cara Delevingne. Presumably, when Andy Warhol finally got round to silk-screening her in 1985, her attitude was an elegant version of: “15 minutes? Out of it, Warhol”.
And behold, here she is, enthroned before me in Claridge’s, the hotel that is the spiritual home for her screen-siren sophistication and where she and her fifth husband, Percy Gibson, married 12 years ago. Rarely do I feel in awe of another human being, but at Miss Collins, one gazes.
This is a woman who can redefine zeitgeists with a bat of her (artfully accentuated) lashes. It was La Collins, who started the whole “40 is the new 30, if not actually 20” thing.
First, in her mid-forties, she disported herself topless on a swing in The Stud, the viewing of which proved the formative erotic rite of passage of practically every man of my generation. (“And a few older ones,” she chuckles, “I had to be so drunk to get on that swing.”)               
Second, she posed for Playboy at the age of 49, back when 49 was thought to spell cocoa and hip replacements.
There were times when people’s reactions to her sex appeal were less welcome. Working with Burton (four years after queuing for his autograph), she fought off his advances: “He told me he’d gone to bed with all his leading ladies. I said, 'What, [the famously puritanical] Olivia de Havilland? I’m not about to be another notch on your bedpost.’ ”
She married her first husband, screen actor Maxwell Reed, after he raped her, divorcing him when he considered an offer of £10,000 for someone else to have sex with her.
No less an authority than Marilyn Monroe warned her against “the wolves in Hollywood”. Collins recalls: “It was difficult being very young, just 21 when I went to Hollywood. Everyone was older and the men were on the whole quite lecherous. And when I read all the stuff today about these women, 30 years later, saying, 'Oh, well, he touched me inappropriately’ – it was endemic! Any pretty girl had to fight that all the time. I was talking to a girlfriend of mine who’s an actress slightly younger than me and she said, 'Constantly’, and I agreed, 'Yes, constantly.’ ”
Signed at 17, she was told she would be spent by 27, a prediction she takes understandable delight in. She appeared in The Virgin Queen with Bette Davies in 1955. “She was intimidating, an angry young woman. Smoked like a chimney. But it was fantastic to work with her. I worked with so many people.
“I came into the business in America at the end of the golden age, but the gilt was beginning to tarnish. Most of the directors I worked with had been there for 20 or 30 years: Leo McCarey, Henry King, Henry Koster, Howard Hawks. And so had most of the actors: Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Maureen O’Hara.” She used to “hang out” with the bongo-bashing Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were “great friends”, as was Sammy Davis Jr. “I’m not name-dropping,” she cautions. I tell her I don’t think she has to.
In the past, she has lamented that Hollywood is now full of epicene weeds, but today only has praise for Pitt, Clooney, Penn and DiCaprio. Angelina Jolie is “fantastic in every way”, ditto Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams, whose performance in My Week With Marilyn was “unbelievably great”.

Saint Joan: Miss Collins gets to work on Ms Betts, with a little help from make-up artist Peter Camburn
Her own next film will be a take on “Thelma and Louise – the next generation”, co-starring Pauline Collins. “There are no roles for older women, even for women who aren’t so old. Julianne Moore, who I think is a fabulous actress, I saw her in this Liam Neeson movie, Non-Stop, and she’s basically playing 'the girl’ role that you play when you’re in your twenties. But there aren’t roles for her. It’s really sad.”
The part that Collins most famously and impeccably embodied was that of Alexis Carrington Colby in “Die-nasty” (her pronunciation), which she played for nine glorious years in the Eighties. It depicted a world in which even intensive-care patients sported full make-up: a show of such cultish glamour that there are still YouTube tributes devoted to Alexis’s various entrances and exits, clad in fresh, hyperbolically shouldered exotica.
So sterling, so terrifying a job of Alexis did she make of it that people still fail to differentiate the two. And yet Collins is unrecognisably warmer. Is this why people tend to see her as a “personality” rather than an actress? “Well, I’ve made a lot of films, but I’ve also done a Snickers ad, which brings me down a few notches.” In fact, it reinforces her credentials as a comedienne, in the manner of her Cinzano ads with Leonard Rossiter.
So here, for the record, is a list of unAlexis-type things that JC does: laughs – a lot; mucks in; offers me half her lunch; remembers everybody’s names; refuses to bad-mouth anyone; constantly states what nice skin/hair/figure/frock/even eyelashes I boast, adding the winning: “You’re Snow White, short of the dwarves”; is endearingly adoring of her husband; creates a group selfie; and makes off with chocolate (Snickers!) for her grandchildren.
As she herself states: “I’m very down to earth”. Yet people cannot reconcile this with her beauty. As a baby, her pram bore a sign saying: “Please do not kiss me”, in adult life she experimented with a burka to escape recognition.
Despite the attention her idiosyncratic appearance brings, Collins abhors the “cookie cutter” approach. “Bette Davies did not want to look like anyone else. Lana Turner had an iconic look, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth was so ravishing. Have you ever seen Gilda? I mean, you just can’t take your eyes off her and believe me I’m totally heterosexual.” (One believes.) “If I catch a glimpse of reality television my mouth falls open at the amount of filler, huge lips, fake cheekbones, and those giant teeth making them look like skulls.”

'I am very English. I love being English. That’s how I was brought up. That’s how everybody was brought up’ says Collins
Collins works hard at her looks, eschewing the sun, exercising, donning the occasional wig (she boasts her own line) and living off salmon, avocados and the odd glass of champagne. She rolls her eyes when women in their thirties patronise her by declaring that they hope they look as good at her age, scoffing: “Many don’t look as good now.” And she’s right. Make-up is a source of pleasure such that, when the cosmetics impresario George Hammer approached her to create her own range, she leapt at the opportunity.
The result, Timeless Beauty, is born of 60 years’ expertise. I would say: “Check out her demonstrating it on QVC”, but, no! Check out her adorning my features here, for Miss Collins deigned to give moi a makeover. Instead of my amateurish lip balm plus excess rouge, I was given the ultimate power maquillage. It was not really a popping-out-for-the-milk demeanour, but it sure knocked them dead in Claridge’s Fumoir when I popped in for some fizz.
“Make-up is part of the fun of being a woman,” our heroine decrees. “I am a feminist, but I enjoy being a woman. So many people consider that if you are a feminist and a strong, intelligent, intellectual woman, that it is frivolous and shallow to wear make-up. I think that’s totally wrong. In actual fact, I consider that quite a sexist attitude. Make-up makes you feel empowered and protects your skin. Considering how old I am – which we won’t mention, except everyone else does – I think I’ve done very well.”
Speaking of age… “I don’t even talk about it. I refuse to think about it. But that number is the equivalent of what 50 or 55 was half a century ago. It’s quite funny actually, some elderly man with no hair and a stoop will come up at a book signing and say, 'I used to love you when I was a little boy.’ That makes Percy laugh so much.
“Obviously, we grew up during the war so we didn’t have tons of sweets and butter, and we were still rationed in the Fifties. But my mother insisted that we took supplements: cod liver oil, something called Virol that was absolutely hideous, and we had to eat our greens.
“I find it extraordinary we’re saying that people have to be educated about how to eat properly. How come my grandmother knew that you had to eat your greens and not eat sweets all day? How come they knew and people today don’t?”

Cosmetic solution: Hannah Betts, after Collins's makeover
The message that comes across most strongly is that of discipline: self-discipline, not least, but also manners, the restraint of children, putting one’s back into things, action over introspection. It is a robustness that feels very English. “I am very English. I love being English.” It’s a Blitz spirit? “Well, that’s how I was brought up. That’s how everybody was brought up. Get on with it. We used to save string. We never had any garbage. Everything was saved.”
It is a small “C” conservatism with big “C” appeal. David Cameron is a professed admirer of her Spectator columns, and the night before our encounter she dined at the home of Michael Gove. Would she consider political involvement? “It’s too late now, darling!” she laughs, not remotely convincingly.
Where most would require rest in the wake of our laborious day’s interview/shoot/filming, Collins must pack for tomorrow’s jaunt to Barbados, where she and the faithful Percy will be taking her one-woman show.
We exchange Die-nasty air kisses and she exits on a cloud of her own fragrance, I Am Woman, an oriental aroma as ball-breakingly sexy as Alexis, as warmly feminine as Joan. In her wake, I feel rather bereft. While I am still in awe of the Collins phenomenon – this small and perfectly formed embodiment of glamour and energy – I really like her. A lot. Newly equipped with her face, I am now also craving one of her wigs.
*Pictures: Sven Arnstein. Hair: Alyn Waterman. Make-up: Peter Camburn/JC timeless beauty. Wardrobe: Chrissy Maddison 

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