The main difference between Joan Collins and Alexis Carrington Colby is that Joan Collins has a bedroom. “I’m so sick,” Collins says, rather dramatically, “of humping in the office or on the sofa or in the living room. Next season, I get a bedroom, and I’m so happy.”
Collins sort of tosses off this line — very casual, very cool. She lights a cigarette and crosses her legs with a flourish. She’s dressed in a jogging outfit, a scarf around her head and an awful lot of eye makeup. It’s the Hollywood Star at Home look, and Collins does appear bigger than life. Her walk isn’t so much a walk as a strut: all grace and projection and “here I am.” Her manner is polished, studied. It’s as if she’s constantly aware of an invisible camera; as if, after a lifetime spent in show biz, she expects every eye to be trained on her.
Joan Collins is definitely a star. She wears massive amounts of jewels, and her house is full of ersatz deco furniture and columns painted to look like marble. It resembles Alexis’ penthouse on Dynasty. Undoubtedly, next season’s bedroom will also resemble Joan’s. And, just like Alexis, Collins is divorced and has a much younger boyfriend, a “Swedish businessman” named Peter who, at this moment, is stretched out by the pool, getting what looks like the perfect tan.
But there is no time to soak up the scenery. Joan Collins is on a tight schedule — from three to five, she’ll do a photo shoot, and the problem at hand is, what to wear? This, apparently, is something of a major decision. “I’m a Gemini,” Collins explains, “and I believe in astrology. I know I’ve got two, three, four, even five sides. I therefore have a wardrobe that’s extremely eclectic. Everything from funky sport clothes to jeans to outrageous things to very high chic to over-the-top glitzy glamour. If you saw my wardrobe, you’d say it’s very hard to know what the woman who has this closet is like.”
Collins is explaining all this to the photographer, Raul Vega. He wants to photograph her in a black leather motorcycle jacket, black leather miniskirt, black leather boots and several heavy chains. He has laid most of these items on an overstuffed gray ottoman, which Collins is eyeing with obvious disdain. “That isn’t my image at all,” she says, picking up a chain. “Evening. Elegant. Sexy. That’s my image. And that’s Alexis’ image.”
Some haggling ensues, and Joan heads upstairs to her bedroom, her hairdresser Dino in tow. Collins knows her image. And she knows Alexis’ image. There is little difference. In fact, Alexis and Joan are so closely linked they even share the same taste in food: baked potatoes with caviar and sour cream. And so, when Joan Collins says a black motorcycle jacket does not fit her image, she knows what she’s saying. “Evening. Elegant. Sexy,” she says again, suddenly swirling on the staircase. The delivery is pure Alexis, and Collins knows it. “All right,” she laughs. “I’ll put on the bloody jacket. Hell, I guess image isn’t everything.”
There is this word. You hear this word a lot around the Dynasty complex whenever the talk turns to Joan Collins. The word is fabulous. Fabulous is the word at Dynasty: The clothes are fabulous. The plot is fabulous. The entire show is fabulous. And Joan — well, Joan is the most fabulous of them all.
Sitting in her dressing room in full makeup (thick blue eye shadow and pink, pink lips) amid pictures of her three children (“my own dynasty”), a poster of costar John James (a.k.a. Jeff Colby) and many, many photographs of herself. Joan Collins transcends normal TV stardom. She is completely fabulous in her own right.
What makes Joan Collins the personification of fabulous, and so perfect for Dynasty, is her own history. Born in London roughly fifty years ago, Collins flirted with the idea of becoming either a private detective or a fashion designer before deciding to become an actress. “I wished I was a boy during puberty,” she says now. “I hated the whole idea of becoming a woman. I was quite keen to become masculine. At least when I was acting, I could play a part.”
At fifteen, Collins entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and shortly afterward made her movie debut opposite Laurence Harvey in I Believe in You. But as she reports in Past Imperfect, her autobiography, her main interest at the time was losing her virginity. “My knowledge of sexual matters, let alone sexual functions, was negligible,” she writes. “I had a vague idea that something was put somewhere, but where and how was a giant mystery.”
Curiosity on the subject led Joan to her first husband, English actor Maxwell Reed. This charming person asked her out, slipped a drug into her drink and then raped her. “‘Did you like it?”‘ Joan writes him asking her of the experience. “It hurt — it was horrible — degrading and demeaning — and that thing he wanted to put in my mouth — my stomach turned over….”
Joan married Reed anyhow, and her career really began to heat up. Dubbed “Britain’s best bet since Jean Simmons” and “Britain’s answer to Ava Gardner,” she was working constantly, and Hollywood quickly decided to import her. While under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, Collins was featured in a seemingly endless stream of instantly forgettable films and a great variety of pinup pictures. “I didn’t know,” she says, “that as a contractee, I would spend most of my time in a stills gallery dressed as an Easter bunny or a Thanksgiving turkey, or as a big valentine.”
Joan Collins did have other, shall we say, more romantic adventures in Hollywood. Eventually divorcing Maxwell Reed. Joan cavorted with a string of available (and unavailable) men, including Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney; Nicky Hilton, who had been married to Elizabeth Taylor; and Richard Burton, who tried and failed to seduce Joan while they were shooting Sea Wife. Sex, Collins writes in Past Imperfect, “was the best indoor sport going, and that included poker, Scrabble and charades.”
In 1959, Collins met Warren Beatty. Actually, she first spied him across a room — he was dining with Jane Fonda at an Italian restaurant. Primarily, she noticed his “spots.” The acne, however, wasn’t much of a deterrent, and Beatty and Collins began a much publicized affair. “He was insatiable,” Collins recalls in her book. “Three, four, five times a day, every day, was not unusual for him, and he was also able to accept phone calls at the same time…. I had never known anything like it, and although it was exciting for the first few months, after a while, I found myself feeling somewhat like a sex object. ‘An oyster in a slot machine,’ I said wearily.”
Collins became pregnant with Beatty’s child, but had an abortion. They even talked about marriage — Beatty hid an engagement ring in a carton of chopped chicken liver — but the relationship didn’t take, and Joan went off to make The Road to Hong Kong with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Next in line — with Collins, you sort of picture a long conga line of men dancing through her life — was Anthony Newley, whom Joan did marry, despite knowing of his penchant for very young girls. During their seven-year marriage, Collins didn’t work much, preferring to play mom to her two kids by Newley. She did, however, star in her husband’s erotic autobiographical film, Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness?, a movie that dramatized Newley’s predilection for young girls. Fed up with her marriage, Collins had an affair with Ryan O’Neal. Eventually, Collins and Newley were divorced.
But not before the start of her next affair, with Ron Kass, then president of Apple Records. Her initial attraction was heightened by the fact that Kass’ birth date, March 30th, was the same as that of two of her former lovers, including Warren Beatty. They married and had a child, Katy, and Joan began, once again, to get ambitious. She had been stuck doing horror films and TV cop shows when a plan occurred to her. “I was in Starsky and Hutch,” Collins recalls, “and I felt this was not how I was going to end my career — doing TV, being herded around and hearing ‘Joan who?’ I thought I was a better actress than I was given credit for, and it was then that I thought of The Stud.”
The Stud was a novel written by Joan’s younger sister, Jackie. It was mildly pornographic, but that didn’t bother Collins; she knew it was also wildly commercial. After a year of shopping The Stud around, backers were found, and the movie, produced by husband Ron and her brother-in-law, was made. Known primarily for a famous sex-on-a-swing shot, The Stud became a cult favorite. Collins followed it up with The Bitch, based on another book by her sister. “From then on,” Collins says matter-of-factly, “I deliberately exploited myself. Totally. I’m totally aware of how I exploited myself. I did every single kind of publicity there is. But I was still ‘Joan who?’ in America.”
Well, not exactly. Esther Shapiro, the executive producer and creator of Dynasty, had always been a fan of Collins’. So when the part of Alexis — Blake Carrington’s scheming, beautiful, powerful ex-wife — was written into the show after the first season, Collins was Shapiro’s first choice, even though Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch were also considered. “I had never seen or heard of Dynasty,” says Collins. “I had just moved back to England, but I realized it was a plum role, and I took it.”
And isn’t it all just so fabulous the way it ended up? Still, after diamond rings in chicken liver, drugs in drinks and a porno-writing sister, Dynasty might seem a tad anticlimactic. Except, of course, for one thing: Collins, via Alexis, is now truly a star, and millions find her fabulous every week.
“Collins,” James Wolcott wrote in New York magazine, “is the sort of woman who seems born to swing from chandeliers as geysers of freshly popped champagne flare in tribute.”
“I don’t know,” Collins says in response to that characterization. “I don’t really spend a lot of time sitting around analyzing myself. But I can tell you one thing: I spent too much of my career thinking everyone knew better than I did. These days, I realize I know a lot more than anybody else.”
Dum ta da, dah dum ta da.
Press Esther Shapiro’s doorbell, and that is what you’re likely to hear: Dum ta da, dah dum ta da. It’s the opening theme music from Dynasty. “Forgive my doorbell,” Shapiro says, sheepishly. “It’s so corny, I can’t bear it.”
But Shapiro has a real weakness for corn. Dynasty was, after all, her idea. She had been the person in charge of such “quality” miniseries as Masada, The Women’s Room and Friendly Fire. When ABC said, “Do whatever you want,” her first thought was to imitate the BBC serial I, Claudius. “I thought,” she says, “‘Let’s do something for fun and fantasy.’ And Dynasty was more revolutionary than you’d think, because popular wisdom had it that no one watches shows about the rich and no one watches shows that feature unsympathetic characters and no one watches shows that feature middle-aged women as stars. I said, ‘Screw that. We’ll set it on its head and see what happens.”‘
Dynasty‘s first year was not a huge success, but there were some, well, moments, and when the season culminated in a murder trial — Blake Carrington, in a fit of violence, had killed his son’s lover — there was a real moment: the appearance in the courtroom of the Woman in the White Suit. It was the last shot of the season, a perfect cliffhanger.
“Everyone said, ‘Oh, Esther, that’s so corny, it’s so Thirties,”‘ Shapiro recalls. “And I said, ‘Why the hell not? This is the Thirties — or haven’t you noticed?’
“But the truth is, I hired an actress for the day and put her in a white suit, a hat and a veil so that I would have more time to convince everyone of Joan.” Joan Collins was to become, you see, the Woman in the White Suit. The veil would be lifted slowly, and there would be Alexis Carrington, portrayed by Joan Collins. But there were problems. “Joan was older,” Shapiro says, “and the reaction was strong against her. People felt her accent would not be understood, and they thought she was over the hill. But I thought she was the only person for the role. She has humor, and I felt the part could not work without humor. And Alexis had to be — and Joan is — a great beauty. And you had to see something other than a monster. I realized when I started this show that if you could make them fascinating enough, you could write unsympathetic characters.”
During her first six months on the show, the ABC publicity department couldn’t sell Alexis to the press, but she caught on with the public regardless. Alexis was so deliciously evil: strutting around Denver in furs and veils, leaving havoc in her wake. She was not remotely realistic, but was indisputably (what is that word?) fabulous nonetheless, and she made what Esther Shapiro likes to call a “lifestyle statement.”
In fact, the whole show started to make a lifestyle statement. Somewhere around the time Alexis first appeared, Dynasty became a concept. This is no joke. Next year, Shapiro and company will be perpetuating the Dynasty image through a line of boutiques that will feature, among other things, men’s and women’s clothing, a line of luggage, perfume and sunglasses. “We aren’t going to get too carried away,” Shapiro reports. “I mean, how many $25,000 diamond Dynasty tiaras can you sell?”
Shapiro is only half kidding; it’s clear that all this Dynasty-as-concept stuff is quite real to her. She is, for instance, writing a Dynasty fashion book, which will feature “sketches of the clothes and photos of the stars wearing them, along with my commentary. We’ll have a picture of Joan in her hunting-for-Steven suit, and the caption will read, ‘What to wear when looking for your son in the Java Sea.'” Shapiro laughs. “We take this very seriously, even if it is entertainment.”
And they spend money seriously. The show budgets $15,000 an episode for clothes. The Dynasty set cost $600,000. And Joan Collins is reportedly paid about $45,000 per show.
But it’s all worth it. The show is a major hit, and Joan is its biggest star. The name Alexis has jumped into the top twenty (from the low nineties) as a popular name for newborn girls, and Joan says that in a recent public-opinion poll in England rating the world’s most powerful women, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came in first and Joan Collins, second.
Nevertheless, Esther Shapiro is still defensive about Dynasty. “The minute you do anything that deals with women’s fantasies,” she complains, “it’s suddenly trash and garbage, and male network executives, whose only claim to fame is that they’ve gone to Yale and pee standing up, think they know everything. And they put the show down.”
Joan Collins is upset. “I want to know who took these pictures.” Collins is staring at the National Enquirer, at some supposedly exclusive shots of her and Dynasty costar Michael Nader, who plays Alexis’ boyfriend, Dex Dexter. Because of the plot twists and turns, Dynasty has a closed set. That’s why these published photos are so scandalous. They purport to depict a “hot sex scene” — Alexis and Dex about to embrace in a sudsy Jacuzzi.
Collins’ outrage seems a bit forced. She does, after all, have a wall full of magazine covers, all featuring her, across one side of her den at home. Most of these are Enquirer-esque, with titles like Tit-Bits and Screen Stories. You get the feeling Collins scans the Enquirer week in and week out. “Someone is always showing it to me,” she says as an explanation. She looks down again at the Jacuzzi photos. “Well, at least my hair looks good.”
Collins stares in the mirror. We are in her dressing room, and her hairdresser is late. This is rather upsetting, as Collins’ hair, which she has referred to as “the bane of my existence,” is standing straight up and out at many strange angles. Collins shakes her head and makes a face. “You have to take care of your hair,” she says sarcastically, “and I want mine to look exactly like this.”
She has been so busy lately that there just hasn’t been time for proper hair care. Last weekend alone, Dean Martin held a roast — his first in five years — honoring Joan Collins. Most of the jokes were in a predictably vulgar vein (Phyllis Diller: “Joan Collins has whitecaps in her water bed”). Later that same day was the Golden Globe Awards; Dynasty won for best dramatic series, and Collins was heard to say, “There’s nothing worse than dirty diamonds.” Madame Tussaud’s in London informed Joan they wanted a wax figure of her, and Playboy called to say her nude photo spread was a smash success.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Collins says. “I’m so busy, but it’s all interesting. Take the roast. It’s interesting to see how people see you. It’s not the way I see myself, but I can see how people see that. Because I’m not a retiring violet. I make no secret of the fact that I go out with men.” She pauses. “And I’m not going to stop.
“But I accept that people see me as notorious. I’m very… . . . outgoing, and I love to dress up to the nines. I know I get a lot of attention. It’s like this: I love to work, but I also love to play. I go out to dinner at least twice a week, and I go to parties at least that often as well. I work two or three days a week, all day long, and after that, I will not go home and sign checks.”
There is a knock at the door. It’s the Dynasty hairdresser, and Collins scolds her. “Didn’t I have an eleven a.m. hair call? I’m busy now.” A new time is set, and Collins continues. “You know,” she says, “I didn’t set out to be any of this. I didn’t set out to be an over-forty sex symbol. But I’ve always had a very good inner voice, and I also believe that the person who has never made a mistake never accomplishes much.”
Collins’ philosophy has served her well. She’s been in this business about thirty-five years, which says a great deal. She’s a strong believer in positive thinking. It was this belief that pulled her through when her daughter Katy was hit by a car three and a half years ago. The doctors maintained that Katy would be a vegetable for life, but Collins refused to accept the prognosis. She left her career to work with her daughter and found therapists to help. “I have a very thick skin. I think you can basically do anything you want to do. That came to me with Katy. I refused to allow myself to see how bad the situation was. And she is a miracle. She recovered, and that is a bloody miracle.”
Collins’ voice softens when she speaks of Katy; she loses her Alexis Carrington Colby edge. “I just don’t want negativity in my life,” she says. “For instance, I don’t believe in getting sick. I never have a cold. Diseases occur when people think in a negative way. I just believe I’m not going to get a cold. I can be around people who are sneezing and have the flu, and I won’t get sick because I think, I’m not going to get a cold.”
Certainly not now, anyway. Collins’ hairdresser is about to perform miracles, and, in a few minutes, a photographer from US magazine will arrive. He is shooting a story on assistants to the stars, and Judy Bryer, Collins’ all-purpose assistant (and fellow Gemini!), is going to be featured. Joan has agreed to guest-star in the photos.
So, hair beautifully transformed into a pouffy do, Joan Collins poses next to her friend. “What’s this?” she says to the photographer. “Are you shooting from a nice low angle so you can get our double chins?”
The photographer doesn’t respond. They have worked together before. “She’s your pal in this photo, Joan,” he says.
“My God,” Collins says, “what do you want me to do? Touch her tits? What do you think this is, Dynasty dykes?”
Joan Collins’ favorite measurement has to be twelve inches. When you see her from that distance, she really does look beautiful. But from any closer, she looks a bit… rough. Her makeup is like a mask: Her skin is heavily covered with beige foundation, her eyes are exaggerated by thick shadow, and her lashes stand out like awnings.
Joan Collins is sitting by the pool. She is dressed like a cycle slut — black leather jacket and all — and she is about to have her picture taken. The session is not going well. “My days of torturing myself are over, boys,” Collins says. She has already nixed several of the photographer’s ideas. He wanted her to recline backwards, draping herself over a chair, but Joan refused. “I don’t want to do any kinky weirdness. You have your fun with your models.”
And then there was the water suggestion. Joan would wear a tight, low-cut camisole and a diaphanous petticoat while walking around the shallow end of her pool. The skirt would float around her like a lily pad, a la La Dolce Vita. Joan said no go. “I’ve never had any photographer have so much trouble taking a picture of me,” she says, after finally settling on the black leather get-up. “It’s bad enough that I have to wear this outfit.”
But Collins looks terrific in all this black leather, and she knows it. “My kids’ll love this shot,” she says, and, just on cue, daughter Katy, a pretty blond with a soft English accent, walks in. “What are you doing?” she asks. “I’m doing a photo shoot,” Mother replies. Katy nods.
“All right, Joan,” the photographer says. “It’s just you and me.” Collins tilts her head, perfectly, chin up, showing a perfect three-quarter angle. “Give me that eye contact,” the photographer says. “That’s nice. Good. Clench your fist. Turn your face a little. Nice. Good. Hair? How’s the hair?”
Dino runs over with a teasing comb, and Joan says, “Don’t labor under any misconceptions that this is comfortable.” But she poses on and on, changes into a black-sequined evening outfit much closer in style to Alexis, rearranges her body a hundred different ways, smiles and pouts and sizzles at the camera and, all the while, remains a pro. A real star.
When it’s over, two hours later, the photographer’s crew applauds. “Oh, my,” Collins says, obviously pleased. “You will kill the baddies, won’t you?” But there’s no time for pleasantries. A mobile fitness center — a huge van — is here to work Joan out, and she must fly. So, it is quickly upstairs to her bedroom. “What a life,” Collins says. “But I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Now, is that fabulous or what?