Jackie Collins: Confessions of A Playgirl

Porter Magazine
November 2014
I’m waiting at the gates of Jackie Collins’ Beverly Hills mansion, fighting off the overeager attentions of her pet dog who, with one green eye, one blue, somewhat resembles David Bowie. I’d always fancied she might keep a pet panther. After all, the creature is her own personal motif stamped pointedly on all her books and her letterhead: Collins believes she was one in another life. The mutt aside, the experience is British royalty. For anyone who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, her pacy doorstopper novels The Stud, The Bitch, and Chances which introduced Mafia princess Lucky Santangelo, were a rite of passage; windows into a steamy world of lust, money, power, revenge, and which starred her older sister Joan, but with much, much more sex.

After a few minutes, Collins makes her dramatic entrance: she descends regally down the steps, her dark auburn hair in a gravity-defying blow-dry, her arms outstretched as if I were a long-lost member of he family. She fusses about my travel arrangements, my stamina in the LA heat (it’s 100 degrees outside) and my nightlife plans while I’m in town, punctuating everything with “darling”, in a tone, at once both maternal and conspiratorial, that suggests this is just the preamble to much juicier subjects that await.

She sweeps me into her living room. Distinctive features of the space include a fully operative beige marble bar, a copy of high-end transvestite magazine Candy on one of four corner coffee tables, and French windows at the rear which open onto a swimming pool that was, she says, inspired by David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash. “I saw the painting, which was millions and millions of dollars, and thought ‘I want that swimming pool’. So I built the house around it.” Collins bought the place in 1989 re-designed it; not long after she acquired a second mansion next door, which she rents to “lovely” Al Pacino. At the far end of the pool there there is an outhouse, containing a gym, cinema and her assistant’s quarters. She sometimes writes here when she gets bored of the seven other desks, including two hand-crafted in Paris to her exact specifications, dotted around both wings of the house. “This,” she announced, “is the house the Hollywood Wives built,” referring to the 1983 novel she wrote soon after moving to LA from her native England. It sold 15 million copies – her most successful ever – and she hasn’t stopped writing since.

Her career has spanned five decades and 30 novels, all of which have appeared in The New York Times bestsellers list with total sales of half a billion books. And, at 76, she is as prolific as ever, currently 80,000 words into a new Santangelo family saga (due to be released in April 2015), the page-turning, Italian-American gangster series she began with Chances (1981), followed by the likes of Lucky (1985) and Vendetta:Lucky’s Revenge (1996), and revised for Confessions of a Wild Child in 2013, a prequel about Lucky’s teenage years which cannily embraces a new generation of Collins acolytes.

“The new book is going well,” she says, perching on the edge of a luxurious putty-colored sofa. She is dressed in full Jackie Collins uniform: a sleek, cream-colored day tuxedo jacket with pearlescent trim, black T-shirt and slacks. “I should have a line of jackets,” she says of her renowned taste for power tuxes, “I’ve noticed that, if I go to a premier in a jacket with some kind of fabulous embellishment on it, the next thing I know one of the big designers have copied it.” She looks a little peeved. “I like to wear very simple clothes. I dress what I have with jewels.” The glamour of her aquamarine stone necklace and diamond-specked hoop earrings is offset by her footwear: a pair of Puma running shoes. Collins categorically disapproves of older woman in heels. “I think they make them look ridiculous. They only look great on twenty-something girls.”

Her conversational manner is bawdy, forthright, camp and elegantly brusque. She is exceptional with an off-the-cuff sound bite. In person she has the same sharp sense of storytelling clarity that has made her one of Britain’s best-selling cultural exports since her 1968 fiction debut, The World is Full of Married Men set in the swining ’60s London, which appalled her father and lit the touch-paper of female sexual fantasy in precisely the way E.L. James did so many years later with Fifty Shades of Grey. Although Collins notes one important difference: “My heroines kick ass. They don’t get their asses kicked.” Of that other direct Jackie Collins antecedent, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls she says, “It’s not my favorite,” in a manner that intimates she doesn’t really do dowdy women.

Collins is the master-creator of headstrong heroines and their voracious erotic lives. In her second novel The Stud (1969), Fontaine Khaled is a nymphomaniac nightclub owner married to a rich but boring Arab businessman. Collins wrote about empowered, rich and sexy women before mass-market popular fiction was considered ready for them. Her early work happily coincided with the introduction of the birth control pill and ascent of feminism. “When I started writing, nobody talked about blow jobs. I was banned everywhere. My publisher asked me to take out all four-letter words because we’d be banned in Australia, where we were banned anyway. I wrote a book called The Love Killers where all the prostitutes in New York went on strike. A year after the book came out all the prostitutes in New York went on strike. I am before my time with writing,” she says with pride. She was often vilified for the salacious, sexual content of her novels. She recalls one appearance of British television in the ’80s, when a rival writer on a chat show called her vulgar. “Barbara Cartland said to me, ‘Oh, Miss Collins, your books are filthy and disgusting and you are responsible for all the perverts in England.’ I pause for a few moments and said, ‘Thank you.’”
Collins’ life has been – to some extent – as racy as her own fiction. Brought up in London, the younger daughter of South African-born theatrical agent Joseph William Collins and British dance teacher and nightclub hostess Elsa Bessant, she was a wild child from the start. She was expelled from her independent day school at 15, for taunting the local flasher on her way to tennis lessons – “That, and playing truant all the time” – and youthful conquests included a 29-year-old Marlon Brando.

Like her sister Joan, who is four years her senior, Jackie started out acting in B-movies in the ’50s, and TV shows like The Saint in the ’60s. But she was a half-hearted actor; she had always wanted to be a writer. It was Tramp nightclub owner Oscar Lerman, whom she married in 1965 after divorcing her first husband, the drug-addicted, manic depressive Wallace Austin, who encouraged her to write. (She was married to Lerman for 27 years until he died of prostate cancer in 1992.)

It was her move with her husband to Los Angeles at the beginning of the ’80s that sparked her Hollywood series. Hollywood Wives drew inspiration form the real-life machinations of the entertainment industry. Elaine Conti, for example, is a ruthlessly ambitious Beverly Hills hostess, with a shoplifting habit, constantly maneuvering to keep her actor husband’s career on top. The VH1 series Hollywood Wives and Hollywood Exes are a homage to her opus. Collins’ work can be considered prescient of the reality age. “I think that that’s the attraction of my books, that people loved saying ‘Who was that?’” she says. Both Marc Cherry, the executive behind Desperate Housewives, and Darren Starr, the brains behind Sex and the City have acknowledged her influence. There are echoes of Collins’ work in everything from Nashville to The Sopranos with its portrayal of powerful Mafia women; in the Santangelo series Lucky went on to be a female boss who runs a Las Vegas casino. These days, even the British establishment has finally acknowledged her influential output: in 2013, she collected a OBE on her home turf, piquing the Queen’s interest. “She said, ‘I understand that you’ve written many books, Miss Collins.’ I said, ‘Yeah, not bad for a school dropout!’”

Like that other queen, her current workload is astounding for a woman of her age. On top of the new novel, she has just released The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook, is scripting a six-part satire of reality TV, The Bitches of Beverly Hills, While continuing to work on her memoir, Reform School or Hollywood. She’s also negotiating three screen adaptations of her novels, including an updated edition of Hollywood Wives. All this, while avidly updating a social media presence that keeps her in contact with her legion of adoring readers. Offline, she always writes longhand. Each Friday she sifts through the hundreds of requests for signed photographs and hand-inks a message to them all. “I call it my homework,” she says, smiling. Her Twitter and Pinterest accounts are an extension of the real Jackie. “You should go to the Pinterest. I have 250 of the most gorgeous men you have ever seen in your life, filled under ‘Smokin’ Hot’.” Gerard Butler is her current favorite. “There’s another one called ‘Exposed’, where everybody’s naked.” Of course there is. “I went to Australia last year and so I called that one ‘Going Down…Under’.” She spells out the dot, dot, dot.

She has compared her life in her seventies to that of a playboy bachelor, although today she plays her romantic cards close to her chest. When we chat about men in her life, she unconsciously touches a magnificent rock on her wedding finger, the engagemtnt ring given to her by her last great passion, LA businessman Frank Calcagnini, whom she met two years after Lerman’s death, and who himself died of a brain tumor in 1998. Her love life has been marked by three bereavements: her first husband, Austin, eventually committed suicide. I wonder if she keeps herself so busy now to keep grief at bay. But Collins has always been ruled by a pull-yourself-together philosophy. “Look behind you,” she orders, pointing to a silver picture frame. “That’s my husband Oscar and next to him is my fiancé Frank. They were both young, vibrant, fantastic men. I have pictures of them everywhere. If you don’t have love in your life, what do you have? You can’t just have a career. You have to have people who care about you. People whom you care about. I have close friends whom I love dearly. I have very close family.” She has three daughters: Tracy, 53, with Austin, and Tiffany and Rory, both in their forties, with Lerman. “I have two fantastic men in my life whom I loved dearly, whom I lost. I celebrate their lives. I don’t mourn their deaths.”

Still, it was tough to date in the early days, she says, after Calcagnini’s death. “I remember a man coming up to me a week after my fiancée died and he actually had the balls to say, ‘When will you be ready to date?’ I just looked at him in amazement.” She raises an eyebrow. “I’m not a cougar – I don’t like younger men – but if I did, I wouldn’t bring them out with my friends and pick up the bill for them. It’s a little cheesy.” So how might a man ask Jackie Collins out now? “Very, very carefully,” she laughs. “A powerful woman? An alpha woman? I think it is frightening to some men. So you have to sift out somebody who is not going to be threatened. I can remember one man saying to me that it’s the one with all the money who’s the boss in the relationship. That’s always been the men, hasn’t it? Now it’s the women who are successful. It’s a special kind of man who can be with an alpha woman. Women have done it all their lives.”

The power play between genders is Jackie Collins’ specialist subject. Where most of us see a red-carpet shot of a rich and successful couple, she sees a narrative. “I love when you see a premier on television and you see the movie-star guy, and there’s this woman standing two steps behind him, looking at him adoringly, and you know she hates his guts. She’s thinking, ‘Why isn’t it me up there?’ It’s the new breed of Hollywood Wives – they all want to be producers, they all want to be actresses, they all want their own reality shows. Look at Clint Eastwood’s wife,” she adds, referring to reality TV series Mrs. Eastwood & Company. “She wanted her own show and lost a marriage.” Collins always has her ears pricked on the global gossip vine.

Even though women have achieved something closer to equality, in America at least, Collins remains unconvinced of the way female stars like Jennifer Lopez and Madonna have revised tradition and dated men significantly their junior. “Can you imagine? She’ll say, ‘Let’s watch an Elizabeth Taylor movie,’ and he’ll say, ‘Who?’ Good luck to them, but it’s like the old man with the young blonde – eventually it becomes another cliché.” She thinks about this for a moment. “there are expectations. One is my sister Joan and Percy [Gibson, 32 years Joan’s junior]. Percy is the most fabulous man. He’s half Latin, half-Scottish, but his Latin half is dominant and he has made her so happy. They’ve been married 13 years, after everybody said it wouldn’t last. In some ways she has more energy than him.”

Despite the media’s historic attempts to ruffle feathers between the siblings, Collins remains close to her sister. Their relationship has always functioned on the equal footing, as famous as each other for their respective, iconic contributions to the ’80s. In 1978, Joan played Fontaine Khaled, appearing nude at the age of 45, in a TV adaptation of The Stud that scandalized viewers with its notorious pool orgy scene. Of contemporary sister acts, she doesn’t think any are quite ready to steal her and Joan’s tiaras. Not even Beyoncé and Solange? “Hmmm. The power balance is different in their relationship. Solange is very talented, too. But she hasn’t had that one thing, that Hollywood Wives moment.” The Minogues? “Yes, Dannii and Kylie, I love them. And the Olsen twins, of course, they are equally successful, with now the third sister coming up, Elizabeth. Which is nice, because people always want to pitch sisters against each other. What is that about?”

Collins likes to keep herself abreast of LA culture, as stimulus for both work and life. Her favorite restaurant is Craig’s, a regular Jennifer Aniston haunt not far from her home. Her favorite rapper is Lil Wayne. “And Drake. I adore Drake,” she gushes. She also keeps a half-matronly, half-gossipy eye on the shenanigans of the next generation. “I love Justin Bieber. I’m sorry,” she giggles. “I think he’s got a great voice. Yeah, he’s gone off the rails, but everybody goes off the rails. He’ll get back on track. Miley’s going to be a huge star. She’s got over being a Disney Star; she’s come right over that. Not many do.” But a special fondness is reserved for the woman she thinks of as a perfect fit to play Lucky Santangelo. “Angelina Jolie – she’s incredible, she’d make a great Lucky. I love her movies and the way she conducts her private life, too. She and Brad just sail through it with all those children, paparazzi everywhere, but they are always very polite. So classy. Whenever anyone tries to put her down I’m always amazed and think they’re just jealous. Yes, she was wild,” she says with a note of relish, “but if you don’t have a wild past, then how can you have a smooth future?”

I ask if she’s used that particular aphoristic nugget on the page before. “I have not!” she cries. “I must write it down and remember it for a book.” She must. It is the perfect motto for her je-ne-regrette-rien approach to life. Her only sadness is that her mother Elsa died in the late ’60s and never got to witness her success. “I wish she had been around to see it. She saw Joan as a movie star, but she never even got to see me publish my first book,” she says, thoughtful for a moment. Perhaps this, like the deaths of her husbands, is something she could come to terms with in therapy? She slaps her thigh suddenly, I fear I’ve caused offence. “I just don’t believe in it! I don’t believe you become what your parents instill in you. I think you become what you want to be. You have to seize control of your own life,” she continues, shaking back her mane. For a moment, she reminds me not of a panther, but of a defiant stallion in one of her novels. “My father was very strict, very chauvinistic. I got over that. And so you make yourself. You make your own success. I sometimes do inspirational speaking because I have a message,” she concludes, flashing another conspiratorial smile. “I say, ‘Girls can do anything.’” It is the message she has always preached, right from the start.