Joan Collins

She has scarlet lips and toenails, a bouffant wig and a deep commitment to gossip and shopping. Then there’s her distinguished career in trashy films and literature. Is Joan Collins superficial? Nigel Farndale finds out

Dominating one wall of Joan Collins’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is Andy Warhol’s portrait of her.

In fact it dominates the wall opposite as well, which is one big mirror. It was painted in 1985 when, thanks to the success of Dynasty, Ms Collins had one of the most recognisable, and photographed, faces in the world.

The portrait is almost a collage of defining features: the jutting cheekbones, the black-rimmed eyes, the jammy-red pouting lips and, of course, the big hair. JC, as she is known to her circle, is sitting on a sofa in front of it, defying me not to notice how little age has wearied her. Today the main difference is the black wig; she isn’t wearing it. Her real hair is softer, straighter, mousier and, though it seems lustrous enough to me, she doesn’t like it.

‘Honestly, for me every day is a bad hair day,’ she says in her crisp, Rank Charm School English. ‘That’s why I wear hats all the time. It is. And wigs. My real hair simply will not do what I want. Besides, darling, I like big hair!’ Doesn’t wearing a wig make her feel vulnerable, though? ‘That it might fall off? Luckily, I have enough hair to pin it on to – so, no, I don’t feel vulnerable.’ She takes a sip of coffee and frowns.

‘Now I think of it, though, in the 1950s when I first went into the business, I was actually given a huge complex about my hair by hairdressers. They said, “You’ve got a tiny pin head and terrible hair. We’re going to have to put a wig on you.” They did! I was a teenager – imagine!’

You wouldn’t guess from what she is wearing that Joan is a 71-year-old grandmother: black clinging sweatpants, a turquoise shirt with its tails tied gypsy-style over her midriff and a black halter top that reveals a sun-weathered cleavage. In her ears are big silver loops and around her neck is an equally big diamond outline of a heart with an arrow through it and the letters P and J (we’ll come to those initials later).

She has a light, easy laugh. She is animated, making expansive gestures and widening her greeny-brown eyes to emphasise certain words. And she has good posture, as she proves when she keeps her back straight while waggling a sandalled foot at me, the nails on it extravagantly painted. ‘I broke my toe on a table leg a couple of days ago,’ she explains, ‘and had to have x-rays done this morning, which was why I was running late.’

In the past Joan has been quite frosty with the press, answering questions with a ‘Next!’ But today she is being disarmingly frank and funny – ‘I get totally drunk on long-haul flights,’ she says at one point. ‘Really! So that I can go to sleep.’

When she tartly says of Lauren Bacall, ‘She can be a bitter old bag,’ she claps her hand over her mouth like a Tourette’s sufferer. ‘No, I didn’t say that!’ Later, when talking about Liza Minnelli, she says, ‘She came to stay with us in the South of France ten years ago and I’ve never known anyone smoke so much. We had to fumigate the house. Oh, that sounds so bitchy! Shut up, Joan!’

And she almost slips into self-parody when describing her typical day in New York. ‘I go to movies all the time. And have manicures. And I totter over to Bloomingdale’s which is just two blocks away.’

She also goes to fashion shows, it seems, which turns out to be another reason – perhaps the real reason – she was running late this morning.

‘I bumped into Donald Trump at the Oscar de la Renta,’ she says. ‘”Congratulations on everything,” I said. And he said, “Congratulations to you.” And I said, “For what? I haven’t done anything recently.” He’s very charming that way. And, my God, is he successful. He’s like the king of New York. But I do find it curious that a man wants to go to fashion shows all the time.’ He might have been congratulating her on her new novel, Misfortune’s Daughters, I point out. ‘Have you read it?’ she says, her eyes widening. ‘What did you think?’

Hmm. As a prose stylist Joan Collins is never going to be mentioned in the same breath as John Updike or Philip Roth. But then, as this is the sort of book which has embossed gold lettering on the cover and features a ‘playboy tycoon’ who is happiest when riding ‘Arabian steeds on his father’s private island, or when making love to one of his many conquests’, I don’t suppose Joan Collins particularly wants to be considered a literary writer.

As for the dialogue, well, this line takes some beating: ‘It’s time to bop till we drop, paint the town red and live it up, my fair lady.’

So, what do I think? It’s bound to be a bestseller, I say. ‘I think it’s my best one by far,’ she says. ‘Pretty damn good. It’s bloody long as well. How long did it take you to read it?’ Read it on the plane coming out, I tell her, adding that I’m sure the autobiographical elements will grip readers. She squares her shoulders. ‘What do you mean?’ Well, the rivalry of the two sisters, competing for the love of the difficult father. (Joan’s sister, of course, is Jackie Collins, whose bonkbusters have sold more than 100 million copies. Relations between the two are said to be cool.)

‘Oh that,’ she says with a waft of her hand. ‘As far as Jackie and I are concerned, we have had times when we haven’t gotten along too well – gotten! I sound so American! – when we haven’t, you know, been the best of friends, but now we are. And we are quite close. Jackie is quite different from me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love her. We spent Christmas together last year. She’s a fantastic mother. Fantastic grandmother. She’s got hundreds of grandchildren. I shouldn’t have said that.’ There is a glint in her eye. ‘She won’t like that.’

How does Joan Collins feel about being a grandmother? ‘I rather revel in it. I just love those wee creatures.’ She shows me a picture of a three-month-old wee creature, a granddaughter. ‘Certainly I feel like a grandmother, but, the thing is, I don’t look like one. And I don’t act like one. I don’t sit around watching soap operas and knitting an antimacassar.’

Her novel includes the line, ‘The greatest gift you can give you husband is your virginity.’ Was she, I mean, did she? ‘Not me, no. I wasn’t. Unfortunately. Otherwise I wouldn’t have married the person I married. But it was very much the case in the 1940s and 1950s that a girl didn’t give herself away with a packet of chips.’

She married the late matinée idol Maxwell Reed when she was 18, but only because, she says, he spiked her drink and took advantage of her when she was 17. That was a lot of husbands ago. Percy Gibson, her fifth, now wanders in from the bedroom to say hello and goodbye because he is off out. He is a tall, trim American divorcé who runs a theatre company. He is also 32 years her junior.

The two of them talked about the age gap a lot at the beginning of their relationship but, in the end, decided it was just a social convention to worry about it and that if the roles had been reversed, no one would have commented. Her joke on the subject became, ‘If he dies, he dies.’

She has three children, two from her second marriage, one from her third. Sacha, from her second, is exactly the same age as her new husband. Was that difficult for her son to adjust to? ‘Like me, he thinks age is irrelevant. I know women in their eighties who have just got so much vivacity and energy and charm. And I know women in their forties who are dried-up old bags.’

Photographs of their wedding in 2002 filled 19 pages of OK! magazine, thanks to a lucrative exclusivity deal. Jackie Collins didn’t attend because ‘she had a deadline’, and Joan declined to have a prenuptial agreement. That same year Liza Minnelli married for the fourth time. Joan and Percy were guests. Hasn’t that given her pause for thought?

‘Not at all. Their circumstances were different. I remember guests were taking bets on how long it would last, though. I feel sorry for Liza, having myself had a vicious ex-husband angling for funds.’ She is, presumably, alluding to her fourth, Peter Holm, whom she now refers to only as ‘the Swede’.

Someone who has married as many times as Joan Collins must be an incurable optimist, I suggest. ‘Oh, I know it’s going to be right this time. I never was that sure before. Certainly not with the first one. I really didn’t want to do it and I begged my father the night before. I said, “Daddy, this is a terrible mistake. I know I’m not going to be happy.” And he told me I had to marry him.

“I didn’t know whether my second marriage [to the late actor and singer Anthony Newley] was going to work or not. I knew very strongly that I wanted to have children and I thought he would be a good father. As indeed he was, actually.’ Then he strayed? ‘Big time.’ Did that leave her disillusioned?

‘With men? No. With marriage, a bit. It left me extremely saddened. I was so upset, I did what a lot of people do in those situations. I did tit for tat. You’re going to do it, I’m going to do it. Which is not a good way to conduct a marriage. Not a good way at all.’

Does she fall in love easily? ‘No, maybe five times in my life. But it’s a long life. I do get crushes. Whether it’s men or women or babies.’ Pause. Smile. ‘I’ve never been much of a one for dogs.’