Lorna Hogg caught up with the Grande Dame when she opened a recent exhibition of her gowns at the Newbridge Silverware’s Museum of Style
As the song goes, `there is nothing like a dame,’ and there is certainly nobody like this one. Dame Joan Henrietta Collins is possibly best known for her 1980s role of Alexis Colby, in Dynasty. In which she proved with with style and glamour, that older women could be smart, sexy and sassy. Now, at the age of 82, she is pushing the accepted expectations and boundaries of age even further, exemplifying her philosophy that age isn’t important – how you look, feel and behave that counts.
Joan recently visited Newbridge Silverware’s Museum of Style for the opening of a collection of of her gowns, which were on display until November 8th when they went to sale in Beverley Hills. Neither they, nor she, disappointed. The gowns – the epitome of glamour, including a couture halter neck, a white fox and mink cape, a beautiful Nolan Miller, (the `Dynasty’ costume designer) creation and costume jewellery epitomised Joan.. So, we start by asking – just how does a style icon survive?
Joan can be feisty at interviews, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She is also warm, funny and a great raconteur – with a stock of pithy one liners. Elegant in a white suit of her own design, which she wore to receive her recent Damehood from Prince Charles, she is a believer in full on glamour. ‘I really believe that you’re as young as you look, feel and act’. This however, doesn’t happen without some effort. ‘A style icon’ needs discipline. ‘I walk, eat no junk food and exercise.’ A believer in ‘use it or lose it,’ she also has a regular trainer, swims and religiously protects her face from the sun. However, there’s no sense of deprivation or faddiness here. Everything, from exercise to chocolate, is enjoyed in moderation.
Joan is a firm believer in make up – she has been known to lean forward and ask if lightly made-up female writers are wearing any. ‘I love style and fashion. I was born into the wrong era. I would have loved to be in the Twenties and Thirties or the eighteenth century – I love the way women looked then. I always say – accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Dress to accentuate your good points, but don’t follow fashion slavishly.’
Designers she loves include Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, all of whom produce ageless style. Not a fan of skinny, she points out that there is a pressure on young women to look as thin as possible. ‘I know from some of my actress friends who weigh maybe 8 stone who have been told to lose weight.’ She also feels that too many women look ‘as if they haven’t bothered’. That’s not Joan’s style. ‘Make up protects your skin’. She has revealed that a full face takes her about half an hour to apply – and it’s no secret that she loves wigs. She knows what she is talking about, and has even written the book. Several, in fact, and she clearly researches and practices what she preaches.
Joan was born on May 23rd 1933 into a comfortable North London lifestyle, elder sister to author Jackie, who recently died from breast cancer, and brother Bill. Her father was a successful theatrical agent, and her mother a glamorous supportive homemaker. ‘I grew up surrounded by elegant, glamorous women. I had eleven or twelve aunts who were always beautifully groomed and made-up.’ She admits however, that it was a slower, era, and that such a world has gone ‘it’s faster, more complicated now – life is more difficult.’
So, which actresses does she particularly admire? ‘Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Sian Philips.’ Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are also on her list. Any younger actresses? She pauses – ‘Throw out a few names – you’re asking the questions – I can’t do all the work,’and grins. Does she admire any of to-day’s public figures? ‘Haa..‘ – a derisory snort answers that one.
Her own youth was a world in which female beauty faded quickly. Her father advised her to make a much money as she could before 23, when she would be ‘all washed up.’ However, Joan’s natural glamour, helped by training at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, brought a contract with the Rank Company. She appeared in Land of the Pharaohs’ in 1955, and Island in the Sun in 1957. She also appeared in the last of the famous `Road’ films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope – The Road to Hong Kong. Hollywood brought work with actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas, and TV appearances ranged from Starsky and Hutch’ to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Her personal life, various colourful love affairs, including one with a young Warren Beatty and especially her four previous marriages, were ever bit as dramatic and challenging. However, her second, with Anthony Newley produced Sacha and Tara and her marriage with Ron Kass brought Katy. Joan is now a proud granny of three grandchildren, whom she obviously and proudly adores. Love has finally triumphed all round. As she has said, ‘I’ve kissed a few frogs, but now I’ve found my Prince’.
In 2000, she met theatrical company manager Percy Gibson on an American tour. Friends at first, she now calls him ‘my soulmate, best friend and lover..’ They have been married thirteen years. He has acted as her theatrical director, looks after their four homes (in London, New York, St. Tropez and Los Angeles) travels with her, and is an all round Prince Charming. Oh yes, and he is 32 years her junior. Joan’s best riposte to comments remains – ‘So if he dies, he dies.’
Absurd though it sounds to modern ears, in the 1970s, an agent advised Joan, whose career was stalling in her thirties, to ‘give up, go back home and look after her children’. Her response? Starring in a 1978 film The Stud, based on one of sister Jackie’s books. The film The Bitch followed, and views of Joan sexily perched on a swing started to change producers’ views of the `older woman’ She was offered the role of Alexis Carrington to add some sparkle, to TV show Dynasty, network rival to Dallas. Joan played the character, not in the visualised demure tweeds and pearls, but as a sophisticated, well travelled and forthright woman of the world. Worldwide fans loved it.
‘Alexis was tough, and behaved exactly in business as men do. In fact I kind of based her – a lot of her on Donald Trump’. That toughness, clad in sumptuous designer wear from Nolan Miller, brought Joan a Golden Globe in 1983 and later, an Emmy nomination. Interest in her personal style inspired a series of lifestyle books, and Joan honed her own skills as an astute negotiator of contracts and a business woman.
Never one to stay still for long, since Dynasty ended she has kept busy. From that stylish Cinzano advertisment, in which Leonard Rossiter invariably splashes her drink over her, to appearances in popular series such as Benidorm, Footballers’ Wives and The Royals, she has kept working. She has played in Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde theatre productions, in Dick Whittington panto, in her own one woman show, and has a cameo role in the new Absolutely Fabulous film. Then there are her books – Prime Time was her first novel. She has now written six of those, plus many lifestyle books, and memoirs, achieving 50 million in worldwide readers. A regular correspondent for the upmarket London magazine, The Spectator, and occasional guest columnist on some Fleet Street dailies, she also has her own make up line.
Her theatrical work brought her an Order of the British Empire decoration in 1997. However, it was her considerable charity work, ranging from the International Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities to Fight for Sight and The Shooting Star/Chase Charity, that brought recognition with the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire award earlier this year.
Joan has worked hard for her success, and now enjoys it with her children and grandchildren It could not, however, protect her from the pain of losing her sister Jackie, whom she has described as her best friend. Until recently, Jackie kept her diagnosis of cancer a secret to protect her family. Joan steadfastly refused to discuss this in press interviews. However, the loss is still visible when the topic is mentioned, and Percy swiftly and protectively changes the subject.
Focusing on the future helps, and she brightens at the plan for a new film project in Ireland. It’s called The Time of their Their Lives. It’s a buddy movie, based on older women and Pauline Collins and Franco Nero are involved’’ She has described it as a combination of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Thelma and Louise and looks forward to another visit to Ireland. She has come here since days of friendship with film director John Huston. It turns out that Irish actor Liam Neeson is ‘a good friend and very nice man too.’ So, not even Alexis Colby could fail to be enthused at the prospects ahead..