If I had a granny haircut,” says Jackie Collins, running a hand through her glossy dark mane of hair, “and little glasses and looked hideous, I’d probably be taken a lot more seriously.” She sighs. “But if you’re vaguely attractive and you write, people say, ‘Who does she think she is?’ They look at the picture on the back of the book and criticise that. It’s a snob thing.”
Nothing about the picture on the back of Collins’s latest book, The Power Trip, makes one think “granny”. Heavily made up and wearing a lot of gold jewellery, she is showing more than a hint of cleavage. In the photograph, she looks about 50, maybe younger. In fact she is 74. In person, she looks older than in her picture, but not as old as she actually is. We meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a couple of blocks away from her house. Collins, who is, of course, the younger sister of actress Joan, drives herself up to the front door in a Volkswagen Phaeton saloon and gets out, dressed, as always, in a trouser suit and lots of Cartier jewellery.
Collins, who has sold nearly 500 million copies of her books worldwide, has just written her 29th novel. The Power Trip is about a Russian billionaire and his supermodel girlfriend, who invite five powerful couples on a yacht trip that goes horribly wrong. As with all her novels, this one features lots of glamour, drama and sex.
Taking a seat in the outdoor patio of the Polo Lounge, she quickly scans the neighbouring tables. “It’s always fun to come here,” she says. “Last time Elton (John) was here. I think he’s in the south of France now.”
A chic blonde woman of indeterminate age passes the table. “You look fabulous,” she tells Collins, adopting the traditional Beverly Hills greeting. “Thank you,” says Collins, adding sotto voce: “I have no idea who that was.” After another two women follow suit, word for word, Collins turns inwards, trying to hide. “I don’t dare look up any more, all these women look the same. Why do they inject their lips? They look like two big worms.”
‘I WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER GIRLS’
Jackie with sister Joa
Her ability to skewer the women of this city was of course best exemplified by her bestseller Hollywood Wives. Although Collins still sounds very British, she has lived here for most of her adult life.
Has she never been tempted to become one of them? “No, never,” she says adamantly. “I can’t imagine anything worse. If I filled my days with doing all that stuff for myself, I’d never have time to write.”
She loves living here, though, because “there are so many bizarre characters and so much material for my books. Also, Americans are very friendly and they want you to succeed. In England people can be a little acidy. You feel they want you to fail”.
This is classic Jackie Collins, the combination of the down-to-earth with the almost unreachably glamorous. In her books, she uses a similar technique. “I always include ‘rags-to-riches’ characters,” she says. “Like Lori in The Power Trip. She comes from nothing. Her mother had to screw the cable guy to pay the rent.”
The middle child of Joe Collins, a showbusiness manager, and his wife, Elsa, Jackie was brought up in a basement flat in Marylebone Road. “We weren’t an affluent family,” she says. “My father was a bit of a chauvinist. Like other men, he was always putting women down.” She went to Francis Holland School but found it hard to fit in. “I wasn’t like the other girls, I had one friend a couple of years older than me who taught me everything I know. And the rest of them were just bloody idiots, stupid little girls.”
Collins says she was mostly ignored by her parents. “When I was born they really wanted a boy. Eventually my brother was born and Joan was a movie star so they never noticed me. As a middle child you can get away with murder. I never had to do homework. It was only when I was thrown out of school that they realised I existed, and then it was like, ‘Hollywood or reform school: get out of our lives.’ So I went to join my sister in Hollywood.”
‘MY SISTER IS SOCIAL, I AM NOT’
She is, she insists, still very close to Joan. “We are the best of friends, I know a lot of people think we’ve had problems but we never have. They see two successful sisters and that’s what they assume. I’d probably never have got to Hollywood without her and then I think I repaid her by giving her The Stud, which I wrote the screenplay for. It brought her career right back, it got her Dynasty, too.
“We’re extremely different,” she continues. “She’s very, very social, I’m not. At parties, she’ll be on the dance floor whereas I’ll sit and observe. Now Joan has this amazing husband Percy, who is so great. She’s so lucky to have found him.”
Collins has been married twice, first to Wallace Austin, who was “a drug addict and bipolar”. They had a daughter together but divorced when she was 26. Next she married a nightclub owner, Oscar Lerman, 20 years her senior, who was “fantastic”. They had two daughters and she remained married to him until his death from cancer in 1992. Later she became engaged to a friend of her husband’s, Frank Calcagnini, but he also died of cancer.
Collins has a solidly conventional streak. “I have a very moralistic side,” she says. “I was married to Oscar for 26 years. He was, I presume, faithful to me and I was faithful to him because I very much believe in that if you’re married. My father was a philanderer so I don’t buy into men being allowed to screw around. If a man screwed around on me and we were in a committed relationship I would end it there and then. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Women don’t get that.”
I had expected Collins to be imperious and impatient, with a low tolerance level for interviews. In fact she is warm and relaxed, suggesting coffee long after our allotted time is up. A shameless name-dropper with a mischievous streak, she pours out her stories randomly.
“I was having a party one night and I invited George Michael and I called him up to give him directions. I said to him, ‘You know the park in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel?’ Well, you remember the scandal [when Michael was arrested there for “engaging in a lewd act”]? So he said, ‘Yes, actually I do.’” She claps her hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, what have I said?”
When she first arrived in Hollywood, Collins tried to establish herself as an actress, with limited success. “I didn’t really want to act. I only wanted to write.” It was Lerman who persuaded her to complete her first novel, The World Is Full of Married Men, published in 1968. “He was the first person ever to encourage me. My parents said, ‘No one’s ever been a writer in the family, you can’t do that.’” The reaction to the book’s publication was nuclear. “An MP took out a half page in The People newspaper and said, ‘This is the most shocking book I have ever read.’ I’m sure that helped sales. Then Barbara Cartland said, ‘Miss Collins is responsible for all the perverts in England.’”
Did she realise at the time that she was going further than almost anyone? “Yes, I did. I wanted to write something that was honest about women and men and relationships. What I wrote was way out there, it was way before they had what they call the bonkbusters of the ’80s. I was annoyed when I got shoved in with them. I don’t like being lumped in with anybody. I like to think I stand on my own.” After her first book, she never looked back. “Once I was published that was it. I was on an express train. And I’ve been on it ever since. Enjoying every minute.”
Lucky Santangelo has become Collins’s best-known character, featuring so far in seven of her books. The “dangerously beautiful” daughter of a gangster, she is, Collins says, “the woman I would like to be in another life. She does it her way and takes no shit from anyone”.
‘Shakespeare bored the crap out of me’
Occasionally, she finds herself channelling Lucky. A few years ago she was held up at gunpoint. “I was with Joanna Poitier, Sidney’s wife, and we were in her driveway. I turned and there was a masked man with an Uzi and he said, ‘Don’t move, bitch, or I’ll blow your f****** head off.’ There was so much hatred in his voice that I thought, ‘He’s going to kill us anyway.’ So I got the car into reverse and took off. I still don’t know how I did it. I was writing Lucky at the time so it was a total Lucky moment.”
She is often contacted by women who claim her books have changed their lives. “They love my strong heroines. I get so many tweets and letters from women who say, ‘I broke up with my boyfriend and normally would go and lie on the floor and cry but I read Lucky and I went out and I got it all together. You gave me courage, you gave me strength.’”
Those who criticise her the most, she believes, have never read her books. “I never said I was a literary writer. I’m a storyteller and I tell stories my way and I think people relate to that. To be literary you have to have huge boring descriptions and use long words that nobody understands. Shakespeare bored the crap out of me. I much preferred Dickens.”
A savvy user of social media with a huge Twitter following, Collins nevertheless still prefers to write in long-hand. “I sit there with my black felt pen and yellow legal pad and my pen just flies across the pages. I have no idea what is going to happen to any of the characters.” Although she has become immensely wealthy, with a Beverly Hills mansion which is “so big that the gym is a block away”, she was none the less incensed when The Sunday Times included her on its Rich List, putting her net worth at $93 million (£60 million).
“Who do you have to f*** to get OFF The Sunday Times Rich List?” she fumes. “It’s so ridiculous. Your kids read it and believe it. I said to them, ‘Sorry, I wish.’ I don’t know how they figure it out, anyway. Out of every $100, you’re paying 15 per cent to an agent, 15 per cent to a PR and manager, you’re paying 50 per cent to the government so you end up with $20. And then you’ve got to live and pay for your house and your assistant. I’m not pleading poverty by any means but that was so ridiculous and insulting and annoying.”
Collins lives alone in her mansion, like a “cool bachelor”. “I have a couple of people I see on occasion. Fortunately they don’t live in LA.” She once said she had been in love five times in her life. I ask if that included Marlon Brando, whom she met as a teenager at a Hollywood party. “No, he was just a schoolgirl crush.” So is it true they spent a night together? She laughs. “We had more than a night together. He was fun.”
She insists that she buys into no part of the Hollywood high-maintenance lifestyle. “People here are so obsessed. They go to Pilates, the gym, the dermatologist, the nutritionist. They have facials, two manicures a week. I could go on and on. I had Botox once — I hated it.”
Salons, in her view, are a waste of time and money. She shows me her hands with glittering pale-pink nail polish. “This morning I noticed my nail polish was chipped and I thought I couldn’t meet you for lunch looking like that so I did my nails myself. It took 10 minutes. It would have taken an hour in a salon.” She has the same attitude towards clothes. “I don’t have to worry about what I wear every day because I always wear the same. I’ve got my dressy jackets and my daytime jackets.”
Instead of filling her time with self-maintenance, Collins admits an extreme television addiction. “I have four TiVos [a DVD player-like gadget that allows recording of TV shows] in my bedroom. I’m constantly trying to catch up, it’s like homework. I watch everything: reality shows, Gossip Girl, 90210.... Once in a while I will take a Sunday and I will not get dressed and I will lie on my bed all day and watch TiVo. I will not feel guilty about it.”
Now she is working on a book about Lucky’s early life as well as a Lucky Santangelo cookbook and a book of photographs. And she is also thinking about an autobiography: “When I think back on my life, there will be some stories to tell.” As if that is not enough, she is still planning to write a novel a year. “I don’t want to stop writing until I run out of stories. And I’ll never run out of stories.”
As to how she wants to be remembered, Collins says she has given it careful thought: “On my tombstone, I want to have the words: ‘She gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure’. She chuckles wickedly. “Take that as you will.”
Helena de Bertodano
(The Daily Telegraph)
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