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Forever Joan

The Star (Clove), 2 January 2003

Some things go on forever, like Joan Collins. At 68, with another youthful lover on her arm and still on stage, what more could Joan possibly want, asks Gyles Brandreth.

While leafing through the Collected Works of Sigmund Freud (as one does in anticipation of an assignation with Joan Collins) I came across the great psychiatrist’s famous letter to Maria Bonaparte.

“The one question,” he wrote, “which I have not been able to answer, despite my 30 years research into the feminine soul, is, ‘What does a woman want?’ “

Suddenly, I thought, “Perhaps Joan will have the answer.” She is all woman, after all, and she’s knocked about a bit, and, the thinness of her oeuvre notwithstanding, she is quite astonishingly famous.

Other than the Queen and her mother, no other living Englishwoman has sustained comparable international celebrity across five decades.

It is five o’clock in the afternoon and Joan is in cracking form. “What does a woman want?” she repeats, with a gurgle and a purr, in a mid-Atlantic accent, as we settle down, side by side, knee to knee. “I’ll tell you what this woman wants, Gyles. Cucumber sandwiches on white, smoked salmon sandwiches on brown, and tea, with milk and lots of sugar.

I need fuel. God, do I need fuel. The wonderful thing about the theatre is that it doesn’t put 10lbs on you like the movies or television do. You can be a bit robust on stage, so there is something to see from the back of the stalls. I eat everything.”

She also smokes, takes “a ton of vitamins” and exercises relentlessly. She is small, lithe, chic and, incredibly, 68 years of age.

Her eyes are awash with mascara, her lips are ablaze with scarlet gloss, but, at close range, she looks less the drag queen and more the star-about-town than you might expect.

“I look pretty OK naked”
Because she knows men don’t notice these things, and because, she tells me, “it’s what women readers like to know”, she shows off her ring, her latest present to herself, an emerald the size of a Penny Black (I am not exaggerating) set in a cluster of brilliant diamonds, and then takes me through her outfit.

“Shall I show you my Victorian petticoat? Isn’t it pretty? I’ve been into vintage for some time.”

As I am admiring her long, firm thighs, encased in proper, no-nonsense fishnet tights, I mention that, when I went to interview Jerry Hall, she gave me a glimpse of her breasts. Joan hoots. “Well, honey, don’t expect that of me.” Not surprisingly, Joan in her corset has stormed the front pages this week. “If you want to know, I look pretty OK naked.”

I am sure she does. Has she been asked to appear in the stage version of The Graduate, the West End hit in which a succession of mature beauties have been baring their all?

“I was the first one to be asked, but I felt it wasn’t my cup of tea, not at this stage of the game. Strip on the beach, not on the stage.”

Now that we’ve got her kit off, at least metaphorically, and the tea and sandwiches have arrived, I return to Dr Freud.

“Joan, what do you want - in life, in love, in a man?”

“In a man I want total compatibility. We have to like doing the same things.

   Joan and Percy at The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur with Tan Sri Francis Yeoh after their honeymoon in Pangkor Laut Resort
“I want a man with a sense of humour, who is kind, nice, accepts my family. He needs to be hard-working and he has to be able to handle Joan Collins the person rather than be intimidated by Joan Collins the actress.”

“No,” I say quickly, “It’s well-known that people are attracted to people of comparable attractiveness.”

Her lovers never last
“Really? That’s why Tara’s marriage didn’t work.” Tara, 38, is the eldest of Joan’s three children. The others are her son, Sacha, 36, and Katy, 29. That’s the other theory: that a person is attracted to someone who bears a resemblance to their mother or father. I think there could be something in it, in view of my present situation. Percy has got exactly the colouring my father had when he was young.”

Percy Gibson, 35 and very handsome, originates from Lima, Peru. He is the company stage manager on Joan’s new play and the latest in her long line of youthful lovers. Joan has been through four husbands and a casting directory of appetising juveniles (James Dean, Terence Stamp, Ryan O’Neal, just for starters).

They are not always gentlemen (“You’re a f…ing bore” said one of them, “And you’re a boring f…” rejoined Joan), they don’t always deliver (“How was my brother?” asked Shirley MacLaine, with reference to Joan’s momentary engagement to Warren Beatty. “Overrated,” said Joan), and they don’t always last. Indeed, they never last.

“One thing you don’t seem to want,” I say to her, “is a sustained relationship.”

“Oh, but I do,” she protests. “One always hopes it’s going to last, but I can’t predict what’s going to happen to Percy and me in five or 10 or 15 years’ time. For 13 years I sustained a relationship with Robin (Hurlstone, Old Etonian art dealer, now 43, and Joan’s last live-in lover). I think one of our problems was that it was hard for him to deal with my baggage, which is signing autographs, being photographed, going to parties.

“With Tony (Newley, husband No 2: eight years’ duration) and Ron (Kass, No 3: 11 years) I wanted the marriages to work. I wanted them to be good fathers. I chose them subconsciously – and I’m sure Freud would agree with this – because I thought they would be good providers. They were extremely successful when I married them. My first husband (the actor Maxwell Reed, 1940s matinee idol) we can forget. I was a teenager, at school his picture was under my desk, and he took my virginity. It was as simple as that.”

“One must always be in love”
The fourth husband, the Swedish singer Peter Holm, lasted only a matter of months, and cured Joan of the matrimonial urge. “Now I go along with Oscar Wilde,” she says. “One must always be in love. That is why one must never marry.”

What does she want in her children?

“Unconditional love, to give it and receive it. I want them to be independent, but, most of all, I want them to be happy. I think they are. Tara went through a horrid divorce, really bad, and we weren’t close for a long time. She had a protracted adolescence that started at 13 and ended at 29, but it’s OK now.”

What does she want in her siblings?

“Total loyalty. If ever I was desperate I know I could rely on my brother or my sister. When Tara first broke up with her husband, she turned up barefoot on my brother’s doorstep in Wandsworth with her baby and he was there for her. Jackie (her novelist sister, four years her junior) lives in Los Angeles, but, when it comes to the crunch, she’s there. That doesn’t mean you’re best friends. It means you’re family.”

Were her parents all she would have wanted?

According to Joan, Elsa Bessant, the daughter of a railway porter, was “the perfect mother – for her era. She was warm, cuddly, loving, totally domesticated. Her job was: look after Daddy and us. She had a certain fear of life. She was paranoid about locking the windows and the front door. She never lost her temper. She never let go. I think that’s why she died of cancer, age 56.”

She won’t retire”
Joan’s father, Joe Collins, was a theatrical agent. “I get my temper from Daddy. He had a lot of charm, but, with us, he was a disciplinarian. I don’t remember receiving one compliment from him, ever.

“I think my mother was totally faithful. My father was quite a naughty lad in his time. Daddy did his bit for heterosexuality, as I have tried to do mine.”

Joan has greasepaint in her veins. “My grandmother was one of the three ‘Cape Girls’, a variety act that toured South Africa. In 1910, when she was eight months pregnant with my father, she was still doing the splits. She was a jolly soubrette. My father’s sisters were in the theatre too. My Auntie Laila played opposite Jack Buchanan. I was brought up surrounded by people from the age of variety and music hall.”

This, of course, explains everything. Stage-struck and beautiful, she left school at 15, had a brief stint at Rada, became a B-movie starlet and has been strutting her stuff ever since.

She won’t retire. “What am I going to do if I don’t work? Go shopping? Watch television? Knit? What does a woman want? When I was 17, all I wanted was to be a very successful actress in the West End.”

What would Dr Freud make of Joan Collins? I think he would find her enormous fun and gloriously uncomplicated. Joan is an actress. She is not deep, literary or political.

“I don’t go in for introspection, I’m not religious, I don’t think about death, I can’t remember the last book I read and I know nothing about the new leader of the Conservative Party, except that someone called Smith can’t be all bad.”

She acknowledges that not one of her 55 films can be counted a classic, she knows that she is famous thanks to Dynasty, The Bitch, The Stud. She doesn’t want to play Medea or Lady Macbeth because she has no pretensions: “I want to enjoy myself and entertain people, that’s all.”

Her style, her spirit, her staying power are something to reckon with. Will she round off our session with a lightning summary of the secrets of her success?

“How many do you want?” she asks, not batting an eyelid (and, boy, does she have eyelids to bat).

“Five,” I say. She will give me whatever I want. I know that. She is the ultimate professional.

“OK,” she nods. “One, energy. Mine’s God-given. My mother used to call me Miss Perpetual Motion because I never kept still. Two, exercise. Use it or lose it. That’s true of everything. If you stopped talking for a week, your tongue would atrophy. Three, optimism. Cultivate it. Do you know the story of the twins who went into the shed full of horse shit? The first boy said, ‘Ugh, this place smells terrible.’ The second boy said, ‘Mmm, horse shit. There must be a pony here somewhere.’ Four, work, work, work. If you want to do something, do it for yourself. Nobody ain’t going to do it for you. Five, live for today.” Pause. “Remember, yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today is a gift.” Longer pause. “That’s why it’s called the present.” – The Sunday Telegraph

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