Dame Joan Collins, Dr Sigmund Freud, & the 5 Secrets of Success

Happy birthday Joan Collins – 85 today!

As you would expect, I am an admirer of Joan Collins.  She’s feisty, she’s fun, and, as you will discover if you read on, she is not frightened of being forthright. 

She’s a shrewd cookie and a wise old bird.  If you’ve not got much time, cut straight to the final paragraph and read her 5 Secrets of Success.  They’re bang on the money in my book.

Made a Dame in 2015 for her services to charity, happily married to Percy Gibson since 2002, Joan Collins is a star who delivers in the way you hope a star would.  A few years ago, when I introduced her at a literary lunch, she got a standing ovation as she came into the room, a second when she got up to speak and a third when she sat down.  The only other person I have seen achieve that is Margaret Thatcher.

When I last went to interview Joan, by way of preparation for our encounter, I dipped into the Collected Works of Sigmund Freud and 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 thirty years research into the feminine soul, is, “What does a woman want?”’

I thought, ‘Perhaps Joan will have the answer.’   She is all woman, after all, and she’s knocked about a bit, and she is quite astonishingly famous.  Other than the Queen, no other living English woman has sustained comparable international celebrity across nearly seven decades.   Her first claim to fame was aged 18, in 1951, appearing in Lady Godiva Rides Again and being voted ‘Most Beautiful Girl in Films’ by the British Photographers’ Association.

Picture the scene.  It is five o’clock in the afternoon and we are ensconced in a third floor suite at the Athenaeum Hotel in London’s Piccadilly.   Joan is in cracking form.  ‘What does a woman want?’ she repeats, with a gurgle and a purr, in a mid-Atlantic burr, 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.’

She is small, lithe, chic.  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.   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, a 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.  She is sporting a black fedora (‘I did my hair this morning, but I’ve been running around doing 94,000 errands so now it’s a wreck’), a stripey off-the-shoulder T-shirt top, and a black leather skirt.  ‘Shall I show you my Victorian petticoat?  Isn’t it pretty?  I’ve been into vintage for some time.’

Once 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.  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.’This, I think, is a revealing remark.  Joan is quite conscious of what we might call ‘the Collins effect’.   In fact, I find her surprisingly normal, and only a little intimidating.  Could it be that she over-rates the awesome nature of the Joan Collins persona because she spends a fair bit of her time in the company of acolytes who play up to it?  I am about to raise the issue with her when, mouth full, and sotto voce, she takes the conversation in a different direction by adding her final requirement of an ideal man.

‘He has to be good-looking,’ she whispers.  ‘I toss that in casually, but I have to, if I’m going to be honest with you.  I like a good-looking man.  Is that shallow?’

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

'Really?   That’s why Tara’s marriage didn’t work.’  Tara is the eldest of Joan’s three children.  The others are her son, Sasha, and Kate.  ‘Katy and her boyfriend look very similar.  They could be brother and sister.  But when I look at Sasha’s girlfriends, they’re quite similar to me, dark and bosomy with light, large eyes.  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 is very handsome and originates from Lima, Peru.  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.

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

‘Oh, but I do,’ she protests.  ‘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 [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.’   The fourth husband, Swedish singer Peter Holm, lasted only a matter of months.

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 thirteen and ended at twenty-nine, but it’s okay now.’

Were her parents all she would have wanted?  

According to Joan, Elsie Bessant, 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.’  Joan father’s, Joe Collins, was a theatrical agent and colleague of Lew Grade (his clients included Roger Moore, Peter Sellers, Vera Lynn).  ‘I get my temper from Daddy.  He had a lot of charm, but, with us, he was a discipliniarian.  I don’t remember receiving one compliment from him, ever.  If I’d had more approbation from my father I’d have been even more successful – in which case I’d have been f---ing impossible.’   When the cackling subsides (Joan enjoys her own material: she has an enviable sense of self-worth), she says, still smiling, ‘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 is evidently the child of her parents and of her time.  She talks nostalgically of life in London during the Second World War.  ‘I remember the air-raids, Nanny zipping Jackie and me into our siren suits and taking us into the bowels of the underground which was always jolly, people with mouth organs, singing songs.  I remember coming back to our flat in Maida Vale on the day it had taken a direct hit.  We moved in with my aunt near Marble Arch.  We were evacuated to the country.  We were like gypsies.  That’s why I’m incredibly adjustable.’

Joan has greasepaint in her veins.  ‘My grandmother was one of the three “Cape Girls”, a variey 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 Lalla played opposite Jack Buchanan.  I was brought up surrounded by people from the age of variety and music-hall.’

This, of course, explains everything.   If Joan has been promiscuous, is self-absorbed and professionally charming, it is because it goes with the territory.  She is a trouper, always was, always will be.   Stage-struck and beautiful, she left school at fifteen, 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 TV?  Knit?’

What would Dr Freud make of Joan Collins?  I think he would find her enormous fun and gloriously uncomplicated.  As he said, when questioned about the significance of the huge Havanas he liked to smoke, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

Joan is an actress.  She is not deep, literary or political.  She acknowledges that not one of her fifty-five films can be counted a classic, she knows that she is famous thanks to Dynasty, The Bitch, The Stud  and those splendid Cinzano ads in which she costarred with Leonard Rossiter.  She is also famous for being famous. 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.’

If we admire her (and I think we do) it is not because of what she has done, but because of what she is.  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.

‘Okay,’ she nods.  ‘One, energy.  Mine’s God-given.  My mother use 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.’ 

Gyles Brandreth