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.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.