In 1955, when a shy 22-year-old actress named Joan Collins arrived in Hollywood from London to begin her contract with 20th Century Fox, she had some pressing concerns. One was how to avoid appearing star-struck during lunch at the studio commissary, where, on her first day, she spotted Lana Turner, Richard Burton, Susan Hayward, and Robert Wagner. Another was how to deal with the myriad come-ons from producers and directors, and even the Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who one day followed Collins down a hallway near his office and trapped her against the wall so he could tell her about his penis. (“I’ve got the biggest and the best, and I can go all night,” he informed her, brushing his mustache against her cheek until she wriggled free and took refuge in the publicity department.) Collins also worried about how she would fare after her ingenue years were over: Would she become a respected leading lady like her idols Vivien Leigh and Margaret Leighton? Or would she end up alone in an old-actors’ home, poring over yellowed clippings about movies that nobody remembered, if they’d seen them in the first place?
Today, as Dame Joan Collins shows me around her airy apartment in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, pointing out photos of herself with everyone from ex-fiancé Warren Beatty to Queen Elizabeth II, it’s clear that her concerns have eased. She mentions that this is just one of her several homes; there are others in London, New York, and the Côte d’Azur, and she rotates among them with her husband of almost 17 years, Percy Gibson, who’s three decades younger than she. (Of course, there have been several other husbands, too.) And although Collins jokes that her 70-year career has lasted long enough for her to make a whole lot of terrible movies as well as good ones, she’s rather pleased with her current work schedule, which includes a stint on the Emmy-winning hit American Horror Story, playing—what else?—a Hollywood grande dame; a one-woman stage show that’s set to tour in the U.K.; and an upcoming role on the television series Hawaii Five-0.
One subject I’ve been warned not to dwell on when we meet is Collins’s age, which is 85. Of course, she is the first to raise the topic, observing that ageism is the last prejudice that’s still considered acceptable in polite society. “People feel they can make fun of older people—even older people who look good,” she says. “Frankly, it pisses me off. You’re not supposed to say that someone has a big nose or frizzy hair or whatever. But you’re allowed to say, ‘She can hardly walk into the room!’ ”
Nobody’s saying that about the ever-sprightly Collins, who, on this afternoon, is wearing Chanel pumps, sparkly Kenneth Jay Lane earrings, and a print silk shirt that she tells me is “oh, nothing—like a copy of Versace that I got online.” Her playful wit and pouty scarlet lips remain undimmed, as does the suffer-no-fools glint in her eyes. For any interviewer sitting down with Collins, it takes some effort not to dive right in with 300 questions about Dynasty, the ABC series in which she starred as the scheming vixen Alexis Carrington from 1981 to 1989. If you were around during the ’80s or have binged on the show recently, chances are you have a favorite catfight scene or courtroom clash from the prime-time soap opera, which, in 1985, succeeded Dallas as the most-watched series in the United States. Alexis, dressed in a series of batwing ballgowns and fur coats, is the ultimate fearless man-eater, like some unholy hybrid of Mata Hari, Lucrezia Borgia, and the shark from Jaws.
Though Collins boosted the show’s ratings from the moment she debuted, behind a black veil and dark glasses on the witness stand in Season Two, she reminds me that she was far from the network’s first choice. “They wanted Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Jessica Walter,” she says. “They were waiting for Jessica until the very last minute, so they didn’t cast me until two weeks before we started shooting.” Collins created her own backstory for Alexis—a globe-trotting Brit whose ex-husband, the Colorado oil magnate Blake Carrington, had banished her from Denver after catching her in an affair. “Alexis had the affair because Blake was at his oil rigs all the time,” Collins says. “She’d been young and lonely, and now she wanted to beat him at his own game. And she succeeded in many ways. I think that’s what made the show so interesting and popular.” Something else that didn’t hurt: “Every single person on Dynasty was good-looking,” Collins says. “You wanted to see rich, good-looking people fighting with each other.”
What complicated things for Collins was the fact that her personal notoriety surged in direct proportion to Alexis’s. After her 20th Century Fox contract expired in 1962, Collins had continued to work regularly, but often settled for B-list roles and TV guest appearances. She had three children, moved back to England for a while, and paid the bills with trashy films like The Stud and The Bitch, both based on novels by her sister, Jackie Collins. Around 1984, when Collins noticed a helicopter hovering over her Beverly Hills garden because a paparazzo wanted a shot of her pruning her begonias, she realized that she’d become a big star. The gossip rags churned out reports that Collins was just as much of a drama queen as Alexis—a narrative that she says was gleefully fueled by the show’s producer, Aaron Spelling. Granted, “during that time, I was going through various divorces and remarriages and boyfriends and things,” Collins says with a coy smile. “I was in the public eye because my personal life was quite…full, if you know what I mean. But they pushed this idea: ‘Joan is just like Alexis.’ That was hurtful, because I’m not. I really am not. If I did the slightest thing—if I was in a restaurant and said, ‘Oh, this steak is a bit well-done, do you think you might cook it a bit less?’—it would be in National Enquirer the next week: diva storms out of restaurant because of overdone steak!’ Those things were printed all the time, and they came directly from the show’s offices.”
Collins remains proud of her portrayal of Alexis, not least because the character was one of several Dynasty females who refused to be defined by men. “We were really the first generation of women on TV to empower ourselves, in the way we acted and the way we dressed,” she says. She was also a pioneer in the quest for pay equity, constantly pushing to have her salary equal to her costar John Forsythe’s. She managed to get big raises, but Forsythe had been contractually guaranteed to earn more than the rest of the cast.
So what are Collins’s thoughts on today’s #MeToo movement? “Well, I could say, ‘Been there, done that,’ ” she observes. If you find yourself being harassed, she says, “This is what you do: You take your knee and you put it in the man’s groin, or you walk away. You don’t stand there frozen with fear.” Maybe that’s easy for Collins to say now, but it was trickier to actually follow through at a time when men considered it their divine right to touch a woman when and where they wanted. Collins is sure that she lost jobs because she refused to accept casting-couch overtures. She recalls one afternoon when she was ushered into what she thought was a meeting with a famous older producer, only to find herself in a bathroom—with the producer naked in the tub, asking her how badly she wanted the role. After she declined to join him in the bath, “he said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘25.’ He said, ‘25 is not young in this business anymore.’ And I thought, Oh, God, this old fart, sitting in the bath, is saying this? So I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry about that. I have to go meet my boyfriend,’ and I walked out.” Of course, the callback never came. “And I know I was perfect for that role,” Collins says. “The girl who got it was blonde and totally wrong for it.” She pauses. “I’ll tell you her name if you promise not to print it.”
Collins’s taste for big jewels and deep dish sometimes makes it easy to forget her rigorous classical training at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she enrolled at 16. Kathy Bates, her costar on the latest season of American Horror Story, had never met Collins but became aware of her serious chops as soon as the cameras started rolling. “Joan is a real actor, not some bullshit diva,” Bates says. “And on the set, she was a working stiff like the rest of us.” As for her style, Collins says that before she landed in Hollywood, she had little fashion sense and “wasn’t even attracted to glamour. In fact, I sort of abhorred it. I wore men’s plaid shirts. I was very pretty, so that sort of came through, but I had bangs and wore almost no makeup—just black eyeliner, because I wanted to look like the French singer Juliette Gréco.”
If there’s one area where Collins has shown an uncharacteristic lack of self-awareness, it’s in her marriages. While over the years she has confidently dated a stream of buff young hunks, from Ryan O’Neal to Jon-Erik Hexum, the saga of her multiple no-good husbands reads like another lurid soap opera, one that combines farce and tragedy with moments of outright horror. There was the Irish actor Maxwell Reed, who raped her on their first date in London after slipping a drug into her cocktail; Collins, then still a teenager, felt she should marry him anyway because he’d taken her virginity. “The guilt of a young girl in the 1950s,” she says with a roll of the eyes. (Not long after the wedding, Reed tried to persuade her to sleep with a Middle Eastern sheikh in exchange for a £10,000 payment.) Next, in 1963, came the actor Anthony Newley, who was less of a monster but more of a cheat, fathering at least one child with another woman as he and Collins were starting their own family. Newley was succeeded, in the 1970s, by the record executive Ron Kass, whose flaws included a cocaine habit that turned into a heroin habit, and a weakness for forging Collins’s signature on financial documents, leaving the couple hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. (Low point: when creditors in L.A. impounded their car and kitchen appliances.) The Swedish pop singer Peter Holm, whom Collins came to see as a “calculating sociopath,” followed, in 1985. Their divorce played out in a nasty court battle, during which Holm picketed Collins’s house in Beverly Hills in an attempt to wrangle a larger settlement.
Looking back on all of this, Collins doesn’t try to cast herself as a victim, nor does she spend much time analyzing her attraction to men who mistreated her. Maybe the relationships were partly an attempt to garner the love she never received from her distant father, a theatrical agent who, upon seeing his firstborn daughter at the hospital, joked to Collins’s mother that she looked like a half pound of mutton. In any case, Collins still believes in the institution of marriage and is convinced that she has finally figured things out with Gibson. “You know, I see all these Hollywood marriages, and there’s a pattern to them,” she says. “They all break up after four years, or 10. The passion wears off, and once that happens, something has to be there—friendship, and true love. It sounds terribly clichéd, but I do think that’s the way it is.”
In the U.K., Collins has supported some conservative causes, including Brexit, but today she’s not in the mood to discuss politics; when she calls herself “old-fashioned in some respects,” it’s with the assurance of someone who’s spent much of her life being tagged with adjectives like “saucy” and “free thinking.” (Her Playboy spread appeared in 1983, when she was 50.) Among the traditions Collins approves of: afternoon tea, good manners, home delivery of fresh butter from the milkman. Her health and beauty tips? Think Barbara Cartland with a dash of Jack LaLanne. Collins says you should eat lots of fruits and vegetables and sardines, but also cookies when you feel like it. Work out a few times a week, but steer clear of what she calls “no-pain, no-gain, Jane Fonda–type exercises. I think that’s stupid to do after the age of 40.” She adds that “having a husband who’s 30 years younger is very helpful.”
One key to Collins’s longevity, she believes, is her adaptability. Growing up in Britain during World War II, “I went to 13 schools,” she recalls. “I was constantly being taken from London out to the countryside, whenever bombs were falling.” She once counted all the homes she’s lived in and got as far as the number 52. “In fact, it’s a lot more than that, but there are 52 that I can remember.” As for dealing with hardships, “I have this great ability to put things out of my mind if I don’t like them,” Collins says. “And I’ve honed it to a skill.” The technique involves a combination of the Sedona Method (a “releasing” process that she studied in Arizona decades ago) and what sounds like plain old denial. “I don’t let things get to me,” she says. “I might rant and rave and get very upset for a short period of time, but I will not let it fester. Just get over it.”
At a time when pretty much all the movie stars that Collins used to see in the Fox commissary are either long retired or long dead, she is focused on several upcoming projects. There might be a new book to add to the 16 others she’s already written. Collins mentions that when she was working on her first memoir, Past Imperfect (1978), “Swifty Lazar told me, ‘We don’t want to know about how you met Laurence Olivier. We want to know who you fucked!’ And that became a book.” (Yes, you’d be well-advised to read it.) Since then, she’s published three more autobiographies in addition to six novels and several guides to beauty, health, and living well.
The next book might be another memoir. Collins says a lot has happened since she published the last one, in 2013. “So it’s time to bring everything up to date.”