Femme fatale, feminist, fashion icon … Dame Joan Collins has been an inspiration for seven decades. How does she do it? …
I have Darina Allen to thank for my introduction to the never-a-dull-moment world of Dame Joan Collins. Some 20 years ago, having completed a three month certificate course at Ballymaloe Cookery School, I applied for a summer job in the south of France. My employer, Dame Joan Collins, remained a mystery until the last possible minute, at which point I whooped in delight. Dynasty, in which she starred and received a Golden Globe, Emmy and People’s Choice awards for her portrayal of Alexis Carrington, was one of my favourite TV programmes – so much so I even named our Irish terrier Dex Dexter after one of the cast members.
Some might say this fortuitous job was evidence of the law of attraction: I spent my formative years watching black and white movies and reading about Hollywood stars. In retrospect, the experience was another unofficial post graduate education – the opportunity to learn from a true professional why and how she has such star power.
In her memoir The World According To Joan, she says, “With classic outfits, excellent grooming and a strong sense of self, practically any woman can become, if not a charismatic Hollywood goddess, then attractive and worthy of admiration and some envy for her unique style.”
Having worked with Dame Joan for almost two decades on both a part time and full time basis (I called her “JC”), I’ve distilled what I observed at close quarters into eight rules, as follows …
Main featured image via @joancollinsdbe
Find Your Own Style
Collins is a self confessed shopaholic and fashion lover, though she does not follow trends slavishly. I’ve accompanied her on shopping sprees from Selfridges to St Tropez and witnessed firsthand how adept she is at mixing high street staples with bespoke pieces, while staying true to her own aesthetic. Glamorous, playful and sparkling are three words to describe her style often associated with maximalist 1980s dressing. Arguably she and Nolan Miller – the costume designer on Dynasty – created a signature look of pared back suits with defined shoulders and embellishment that was synonymous with the decade, and which has recently undergone a renaissance.
She knows her body: whatever she is wearing will either accentuate Collins’ fabulous legs or her enviable embonpoint. She favours square necklines, long sleeves, peplum waists and sequins – lots of sequins!
Collins also loves white and knows that it brightens the complexion and wears the hue on important occasions. For the Met Gala in 2019 she was dressed in a white frou frou Valentino gown by Pierpaolo Piccoli channelling the gala’s Camp theme. Last month, she chose a white feather and sequinned Jenny Packham gown to a charity ball, and when she was presented with a damehood for services to acting and charity by Prince Charles, she wore a knee length white suit with a Philip Treacy hat to the investiture at Buckingham Palace.
A committed royalist, Collins has been vocal in her admiration of the Duchess of Cambridge’s “recessionista chic” and like her, often recycles outfits giving them a new lease of life by using different accessories. She especially favours rhinestone and diamanté earrings which are so flattering when they catch the light. Favourite accessories are by Kenneth Jay Lane and Alexis Bittar or from jewellers Butler & Wilson.
Collins was voted the most beautiful girl in the world in 1958 and has remained a knockout for seven decades. While she’s written The Joan Collins Beauty Book, launched her own “Timeless Beauty” brand on QVC and been a recent Charlotte Tilbury ambassador, central to Collins’ allure is her effervescent joie de vivre and her trademark make-up. Base not Botox, skill not surgery are the tenets on which her beauty routine rests.
“If I was shipwrecked on a desert island, lipstick would be the one thing I’d want,” she has said. She favours a smokey eye and strong lip – preferably red. On hand for press appearances is her longstanding make-up artist Alyn Waterman, who says: “Before doing her make-up for an event, Joan always starts by making sure she hasn’t got puffy under-eyes. She soaks cotton pads in a bowl of ice, then lies down and places them over her eyes for a few minutes.” Other tips include using silver eyeshadow in the middle of her eyelids, to give her eyes a brighter look.
Seize the Day
I’ve interviewed Collins several times; for a feature in Coutts magazine, she told me: “I do not tolerate fools lightly, I can’t stand being bored or being around bores and I try to live each day to the utmost with passion. I want every day to be a mini lifetime in which I achieve something and enjoy something.”
This translates as having a very full diary – planning regular activities (virtually or in real life) with friends and family and always doing some form of exercise whether it’s stretching, walking or dancing. No wonder her mother called her “Miss Perpetual Motion”; her one-time fiancé Warren Beatty called her his butterfly.
Collins has many interests including Scrabble and she is a formidable poker player. It’s easy to see the correlation between staying active and mentally agile and being young at heart. As she so rightly said, “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine.” Just for the record, she’s 88 but has the energy of someone decades younger.
Read As Much As You Can
“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my first coffee,” was one of the few unofficial rules I recall in my tenure chez Joan and who can blame her? Central to this morning ritual was reading the Daily Mail from cover to cover. She devours glossies (and was one of twelve “Women of the Year 2021” as selected by Harper’s Bazaar), is a regular contributor to The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Lady and The Times among others, and a voracious reader. Biographies and thrillers are favourite genres (when she travels she often brings stronger light bulbs so she can read properly in hotels). Like her high-low fashion choices, she reads everything from bestsellers to obscure art monographs. In this way, Collins is always up to date, as au courant with society gossip as she is with politics, which is probably why she is never short of conversation, or a pithy judgement on most subjects. Most recently she slammed cancel culture “for closing down debate” and weighed in on the Chris Noth scandal. “Who knows what he did? I know him, and I’m not going to judge him, because who knows who these women are? But his career is wrecked, absolutely wrecked, in doing what he did.”
Keep a diary
Collins has been a diarist from the age of twelve, and this childhood love of writing has evolved – she is an established author with 19 books to her name including two autobiographies (Past Imperfect and Second Act) seven lifestyle titles as well as novels such as the bestselling Love and Desire and Hate. I’ve been on the sidelines when she writes (long hand, in pencil) and her latest book My Unapologetic Diaries (published by W&N in trade paperback, €14.99) documents her life between 1898 and 2009, the entries for which she dictated in real time into a mini-tape recorder at the end of the day. Whether it is an encounter with a superstar or a member of the royal family, Collins is honest. She describes one party as “a complete crush of hags, facelifts and ancient old men in flashy suits”. Catherine Deneuve is “stuck up” and “a bitch”. Special revulsion is reserved for those with bad plastic surgery – in Collins’s eyes, “almost a moral failing”. Ardent fans will love it, others have found the timelines dubious and the constant name dropping tedious.
“I don’t deprive myself – I eat chocolates, cookies and nuts: I drink wine and the occasional vodka tonic,” Collins has said. I can definitely testify this is true; I called her food preferences the C-food diet (croissants, chicken, caviar, cashew nuts, chocolate …). Like most women who look good, Collins is not on a diet per se, rather she eats and drinks in moderation and enjoys nutritious food at home and in restaurants. In her Little Black Book, (which is not so little), Craig’s in LA, The Wolseley in London and Club 55 in St Tropez are favourite restaurants which are fascinating for people watching too. She’s also a friend of the A-list nutritionist Gabriela Peacock (read her recent book 2 Weeks To Feeling Great) who endorses intermittent fasting.
Get Over It!
If you watched the recent feature-length documentary This is Joan Collins (directed by Clare Beavan, BBC2) in which Collins narrates her life story against a backdrop of rarely seen home movie footage, you will know that she talked frankly about her rollercoaster marriages to Maxwell Reed, Anthony Newley, Ron Kass, Peter Holm and Percy Gibson. While many said it would never last, she and Percy celebrate 20 years of marriage in February this year – I was at their wedding in Claridge’s – a fun-filled event when the bride wore a lilac ensemble by Nolan Miller.
Collins has certainly had her share of relationship dramas. Rather than being diminished by, or dwelling on, emotional turbulence she has remained positive and upbeat, astute and clear thinking. She moves on and has said her motto is “just get over it”. Comparing herself to an ostrich “with my head in the sand”, Collins said she was able to get through “a lot of things that have not gone well” by “waking up the next morning with a smile on my face” when interviewed on Women’s Hour recently.
Be a Radiator
Collins is a loyal friend. Tracey Emin, Julian Clary, Christopher Biggins, Michael Caine, George Hamilton and Piers Morgan are some of her starry inner circle as are former publicists, directors and assistants. Contrary to the supposed sibling rivalry, she was also very close to her sister Jackie and together they were fun and fabulous – the epitome of that iconic Annie Leibowitz photograph of the duo in the back of a limousine which I always admired in her home in St Tropez.
Collins definitely believes in surrounding herself with positive people and edits her acquaintances. “There are two kinds of human beings. There are drains and there are heaters. Some people drain you and some people warm you. If people become too much of a drain, I say, ‘That’s it. Time to say goodbye’.”
For more tips on how to channel your inner Joan Collins follow this link.
Joan and Penny pictured at Le Sénéquier, St Tropez.
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