In April 1981, the first season of the ABC prime-time soap opera Dynasty ended with a cliffhanger so juicy and over the top that it helped propel the show from number 28 in the ratings into the top 20 for its next season. Multimillionaire oil magnate Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) was on trial for the murder of the former lover of his gay son Steven (Al Corley)—thinking the two men were kissing, Blake roughly and fatally pushed them apart. A mystery witness was called to testify at the trial. Who was this new character, an apparently glamorous woman whose face was obscured by a giant hat?
Gay characters, and especially plots about homophobia, were rare on 1980s network TV, so the show had already drawn a queer fan base. But when the second season began in November 1981, finally revealing that the mystery woman, Blake’s ex-wife Alexis Carrington, was played by British actress Joan Collins, a queer icon was born.
Collins, who is now 89, sunk her teeth into the role with obvious relish: Alexis was a cold, manipulative, take-no-prisoners woman, tough as nails, recalling the scheming women of the melodramas of yesteryear. Gay men loved her, drag queens dressed up as her and she appeared on the cover of magazines everywhere, from Newsweek to Cosmopolitan to Vanity Fair, even posing nude for Playboy magazine. She was 50 at the time and Collins declared that appearing in dishabille in the famous magazine was her way of proving women over 40 could still have sex appeal.
Collins’s acting career began in the 1950s. She knew from a young age that she wanted to act, both on stage and screen, and as a teenager, she studied at the legendary Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. (The desire for fame seemed to run in the family—her younger sister Jackie grew up to be a bestselling writer of outrageously oversexed novels.) While appearing in a range of films, from period pieces like Esther and the King (1960) to low-budget horror like Empire of the Ants (1977) to sexploitation films based on her Jackie’s blockbuster books (1978’s The Stud and 1979’s The Bitch), Collins would also guest star on numerous TV shows, including what many consider the greatest episode of the original Star Trek series, 1967’s “City on the Edge of Forever,” in which she had a tryst with Captain Kirk (William Shatner). She also played The Siren, a villain on the 1960s television campfest iteration of Batman.
If her career choices, which reached their apex with her eight-season turn as Alexis on Dynasty, seemed over the top, they reflected Collins’s own personal life. She has been married five times, acknowledging over the years that landing a reliable romantic partner was a challenge. Her first marriage fell apart after her husband, Maxwell Reed, tried to sell her for a night to an Arab sheik. She had multiple affairs, most notably with Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney Chaplin, as well as Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty (who apparently asked for her hand in marriage while simultaneously insisting she get an abortion). She married Percy Gibson in 2002 and has three children from previous marriages.
If not quite competing with her sister, Collins has written numerous books, including memoirs, fiction and collections of beauty tips. Her career as an author became something of a soap opera itself when, in the 1990s, Random House sued her for $1.2 million after she submitted manuscripts for two novels, for which she had been paid an advance of $4 million. The publisher claimed that her submissions were unpublishable. Collins emerged victorious from the ensuing court battle, with Random House forced to pony up $1 million.
Collins was also made a dame by the recently late Queen Elizabeth II for her extensive charity work in the United Kingdom.
Collins’s latest book, My Unapologetic Diaries, is a titillating and whimsical documentation of the years 1989 (just as Dynasty was winding down) to 2009. Collins offers up her frank opinions on fashion, celebrity and how the tabloids, which were the main feeders of celebrity scandal before social media, were obsessed with her. She doesn’t hold back on describing the dark side of showbiz: she jokes how, after she is shocked to see a roach at an upscale restaurant she’s eating at, she ponders hiring the insect as her next agent.
Collins spoke with Xtra from her Los Angeles home.
Reading your diaries, I got a real sense of how incredibly social you are. You’re always going out on the town, going to restaurants and parties. This must be part of the reason you bond so well with gay men.
What else do you do when you’re not working? I mean, I’m not a painter. I do fabulous flower arrangements. In fact, I just posted photos of one on Instagram. It was the arrangement I did for Christmas. I’m not one to sit around twiddling my thumbs, if you know what I mean. I love the theatricality of restaurants, and I have a lot of friends. We have quite a few times when we have people over here. I like it. I never analyzed it in terms of my gay friends. I’ve had gay friends forever. My mother had gay friends. My mother had two dressmakers who were gay. They were hilariously funny. This was when I was 13 or 14, and they made dresses for me, too. I designed dresses for my aunt. I still design a lot of my own stuff.
The beginning of the book is a bit agonizing because you were trailblazing in terms of getting equal pay for starring in Dynasty, but then you didn’t ultimately get more money because they cut your episodes in half.
Isn’t that astonishing? Isn’t that just the pits? I just could not believe it. First of all, ABC had decided they hated the show. It was a huge moneymaker for them for eight or nine years, and while the ratings were falling a bit, it was still a hit. New people came in at ABC and they hated the show. They wanted to destroy it. They started taking people off and putting them in the spin-off The Colbys. They took many of our best actors who went over to The Colbys for an episode or two. It felt so disloyal. We had this great show and they were ruining it because the public became confused. Then they put The Colbys in our time slot. But you know, you can’t be cock of the hoop all the time—that’s an English expression.
I understand they also stiffed you on the residuals for the reruns.
I’m sure many think I’m making loads of money from Dynasty, but we all had to give up on any residuals, because they said that this show will never make any money, because serials don’t work in reruns. It became one of the biggest serials of all time in reruns. Whenever I bump into old cast mates, we all go on about it. They made us sign away our rights, which I didn’t want to do. The lawyer came into my dressing room and he said—does it sound like I’m whingeing? Because I don’t want to sound like Prince Harry, you know.
No, no, no …
… because I’m giving you the actual facts. The lawyer said, “You have to sign this, you have to give away all your rights.” I said, “I don’t want to do this.” And he said, “You’re the last one we’ve asked.” He said they’d all signed, so I said I don’t really have any choice, do I? They gave us three episodes of money. Nothing else.
Amazing they could get away with that. You kvetch a bit about the British tabloids, which is understandable….
Oh no, I don’t kvetch about the tabloids. I’m not Prince Harry. I just did say that it was certain people who would put out horrible, untrue stories about me. “Joan slips on her way into a restaurant and everyone cheers!” Absolute lies. I wasn’t happy about those, because they wanted to paint me in real life as the Alexis villain bitch. It comes with the territory. I’m not a person who sits around with her mouth shut. I will point out when I think it’s unfair, when you’re painting me into a corner, and that’s unfair. There was a time when they were trying to portray Linda [Evans, who played Krystle Carrington on Dynasty] as Saint Linda. Because the public loves that.
One of the revelations for me was that Aaron Spelling [the producer of Dynasty, as well as, later on, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place] was not such a loyal person.
Well, he was very loyal at the beginning. He fought for me to be Alexis. ABC did not want me. They wanted Elizabeth [Taylor], they wanted Sophia [Loren], they wanted Jessica Walters. They were all arguing and holding out for money. They finished the first season with a woman walking into the courtroom with a big hat. So he was loyal in the beginning and a good friend. But you know, he was also a producer. [Laughs.]
Show business has changed. You’ve been so remarkably resilient. What advice do you have for young people today who aspire to be actors?
Don’t. [Laughs.] It’s a very tough profession. My father was an agent, and when I wanted to be an actress, he said, “You have to understand that nobody’s going to do anything for you, you’re going to face tons and tons of rejection. And if you have a career, it may last only three or four years, and you have to be tough. You mustn’t let it get you down.” So that’s what I would say. But I’ve been lucky because I’ve had a career that’s lasted for decades.
Our culture has become a lot more open in the past few decades, especially for queer people. But a lot of people argue we are still very hung up on sex. Do you think we’re better off today or worse?
I think it’s become cheapened, hasn’t it? When I was very young, it wasn’t talked about. I don’t know about how the rest of the world works, but here, I think it’s been cheapened. I don’t watch porn. I hear it’s disgusting. I have no interest in it.
Let’s talk fashion: Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig and Harry Styles have all posed for photo sessions in dresses. Do you think a man can be sexy in a dress?
Ha! Oh my god! That is a leading question. I can just see the headlines in the British press now: “Men Can’t Be Sexy in a Dress, Says Joan.” I’m not answering that question. All I can say is, whatever floats your boat, if they want to do it, they can do it. When we had our wedding anniversary [she and Gibson celebrated 20 years together in 2022], the dress code was long gowns for the ladies, and tie and tails for the men. Wow, everybody looked stunning. I’m quite old-fashioned and some might say behind the times. I really don’t care. I dress the way I want and everyone should dress the way they want. This is something I’m writing in my new book—that people often approach Percy and I, and say, “Oh, you’re all dressed up.” I don’t wear jeans, I hate jeans. I wear nicely cut trousers and a blazer to go out, and people consider that “so dressed up.” It’s just about dressing the way you feel the best.
You’ve got the new book out and last year the documentary This Is Joan Collins was released. What do we still not know about Joan Collins?
I’m writing my new book now, called Behind the Shoulder Pads: Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It’s a series of essays, stories and anecdotes. I have a whole chapter about parties. I just finished writing about Dodi Fayed [the lover of Princess Diana who died with her in a car accident in 1997]. So there’s more to come.
I interviewed the late comedian Joan Rivers several times. She trashed everyone, from Liz Taylor to Rosie O’Donnell to Britney Spears. But when I brought you up, she only had praise. Were you friends?
Yes. We were good friends. We were planning on doing a show together, in which we would play warring talk-show hosts. She was going to be like Barbara Walters, I’d be Diane Sawyer or another one of her rivals. They’ve sort of done it now with [the Apple TV+ series] The Morning Show. That’s what we were planning to do before Joan died [in 2014]. It would have been quite good, I think. Joan and I were never afraid to express our opinions, which many people seem to be today.
What’s your fondest memory of Queen Elizabeth?
I absolutely adored her, from the first time I saw her as a young girl. I kept a scrapbook of her. She was so beautiful. I met her a dozen times. She was inspirational and clever. She was a great woman. I was so upset when she died.
I think it’s slight overkill.
I must thank you, because years ago, a photographer in Montreal captured an image of me interviewing you on a film set. It’s a gorgeous photo of us. One stunning gay man saw the photo of you and I together and asked for my hand in marriage on account of it. So, thanks for that.
Awwww, that’s so sweet. Glad I could have helped out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.