Joan Collins, BEHIND THE SHOULDER PADS: Tales I Tell My Friends

Joan Collins, BEHIND THE SHOULDER PADS: Tales I Tell My Friends

In this special episode (a live podcast recording at Zibby’s Bookshop!), Zibby interviews legendary English actress and author Joan Collins about her hilarious, intimate, and completely spellbinding new memoir, BEHIND THE SHOULDER PADS. Joan shares anecdotes from her eclectic and vibrant life, from dodging air raids during World War II to her iconic role in Dynasty. Zibby asks Joan about her childhood, personal relationships, marriage, and creative process. Then, Joan offers advice to aspiring creatives and shares insights on how to find joy and humor in life.


Zibby Owens: So honored today to have Joan Collins here. This is so exciting. Thank you for coming to Zibby’s Bookshop and coming on the podcast to discuss Behind the Shoulder Pads: Tales I Tell My Friends, and now all of us as well.

Joan Collins: You can all be my friends now that you’ve heard the stories. It is kind of a memoir. Not really because I’ve written two or three other memoirs. I figured I don’t want to talk about my childhood and all of those boring things. I scan past that. Although, I do talk about when I first met my sister Jackie and how horrified I was because I’d been taken away by my aunt for four days. I didn’t know why. When I came back, my father proudly took me into the room where my mother was sitting holding this squirreling thing. I didn’t know anything about that. I said, “What’s that?” She said, “This is your new sister, Jacqueline Jill.” I said, “What a stupid name. Where did she come from?” Mommy said, “God brought her.” That was a long time ago when children of four didn’t know anything. That’s the sort of story that I tell about. There’s quite a few of those.

Zibby: You talk about, in your childhood, dodging the air raids and World War II and having to escape.

Joan: Yes. One of the things that was so great about my mother, which I only appreciated later, was the fact that she kept us totally protected. We couldn’t read newspapers. My parents read newspapers, but they were always hidden. There was the radio, but that was never on. We had plenty of toys. We drew. We painted. We read. We didn’t know how terrible this war was. When you compare it today to children in the Ukraine, for example, or wherever there is conflict, they know from the age of eighteen months. We knew nothing. We didn’t know that Hitler, the Nazis were at our shoreline ready to invade us. My mother kept it all from us. This is only something that I appreciated many years later because I was so busy being an actress, being a mother, being a wife, getting married, all the things. It was only when I started to write and ruminate, I thought, I really had good parents. Not only did she do that, but I was not allowed to see any disturbing films, nothing with guns, nothing with violence, nothing with blood. I remember begging to be allowed to go and see this film with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth. I can’t remember what it was called. They said, “No, it’s too violent. It will affect your brain,” Frankly, I think they were right.

Zibby: Then you quickly got into the most illustrious academy and got this massive contract in movies and films and Hollywood glamour, even though you started so young. What was that like for you? In the book, you introduce us to basically every big-name Hollywood person, ever, you’ve had an experience with.

Joan: It’s true. In that particular time, this is before paparazzi. It’s before every time you went out, the tourist buses would come. All of the actors were there. They were out like ordinary people. I remember the first time I went out, I saw Fred Astaire walking down the street. Fred Astaire, dressed beautifully. It was just quite amazing that you would see. Then I’d go out to a dinner, and there would be Lana Turner sitting. You’d go, and you’d see Hedy Lamarr. They were just around. They were around like you guys are around.

Zibby: Just the same as Judy Garland running in the door holding Liza.

Joan: Judy Garland comes running into this party at Gene Kelly’s house. I’m not dropping names. I was there. I was there many, many, many times. She had this squirreling brat in her arms. She said, “I’m so sorry I’m late. Liza wouldn’t stop crying.”

Zibby: Then you also took a ride with James Dean. You said, I was in Jimmy’s car. I was so scared.

Joan: I was because he went from zero to sixty in about ten minutes from downtown Hollywood to Beverly Hills to see a very famous actor who was like God. All of the kids used to sit — we used to sit at his feet. He used to talk about his life and tell anecdotes. Jimmy got there so fast. The guy I was with, that I was dating, said, “You know, he’s going to kill himself in that car once. That’s ridiculous that you went in that car.” I said, “It was a beautiful car. Who knows?” When you’re twenty, twenty-one, you’re not frightened of anything. You really aren’t. Of course, six months later, I’m in New York. I get a knock on the door. It’s that friend, Arthur. He came in. He said, “Jimmy died in that car.” Six months later. There were some very fascinating people. They were all very fascinating. I was lucky enough to work with some of the fascinating people. To do my first Hollywood film, I was working with Bette Davis. To do my second Hollywood film, it was Ray Milland and Farley Granger. The next one, it was June Allyson and Ann Miller and a whole bunch of very famous actresses. That’s who I was working with.

Zibby: Amazing. Fast-forwarding quite a bit. When you were on Dynasty and you did a big collaboration, you talked a lot in the book about the costume and how you really made that character into — who Alexis was was so much you and your input into how she should dress and look and be. Talk a little bit about that.

Joan: I had watched a lot of 1980s, late 1970s TV shows. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the way the actresses were dressed. Most of them wore slacks and a silk blouse, sort of the way I’m dressed now. Very simply. When Nolan Miller, the great designer, talked to me about, how did I see my character? I said, “I see her as being as very couture. This woman has been exiled from America. She has been exiled. She has become a jetsetter. She’s going around the world. She’s going to all the fashion shows. She meets princes and kings and counts. She’s very up there with the society and aristocracy. She would dress in a very, very stylish manner. Do you think we can do that?” He said, “I don’t think we have a couture in Hollywood.” I said, “Why can’t we make it?” He had this whole group of wonderful seamstresses and cutters and brilliant women, mostly Italian and Romanian and French, who had been there since the forties or fifties. They would make things.

We then had a collaboration, Nolan and me. He would talk to me and say, “You have a scene. How do you see yourself in the scene where you go to Moldavia? It’s cold there.” I said, “I saw a picture of Princess Diana in Russia. She’s wearing an Astrakhan hat, an Astrakhan muff, and a gray coat, waisted, and boots. I think that would be good.” I tore it out of Hello magazine. They copied it in a week. The same thing with another scene where I’m being chased around and this guy is trying to murder me. He said, “How do you see this?” I said, “I’ve got to be in something that I can really move in. I don’t really want to wear trousers.” Alexis, I didn’t see her in trousers very often. She did wear them, but she was more of a skirt girl. I said, “How about the dress in very soft suede? How about dark green with matching boots? Can you do matching boots, Nolan?” He said, “Yeah, we can do matching boots.” They did within two days. It was quite magical. I don’t know how they did it then. That was years ago when they really cared about how you looked on the screen.

Zibby: Although, you do mention that there’s one outfit they had to make four of when you went into the water over and over.

Joan: That one, yeah. Yes, they had to make more. They used the most horrible cheap material that every time I went in, it shrunk. By the time we did the fourth take and I was in the water, it was like the size that would fit an eight-year-old.

Zibby: Part of what makes your book just so hard to put down and delicious is it’s not just about the famous names and the situations that you were in, but you interweave all of this personal stuff about your family and your relationships and your emotions and speeches that are really important to you over time, falling in love with Percy, all of that. Your sense of humor permeates everything. There is one passage I wanted to read when you’re giving suggestions for what to do when you’re locked in COVID. One of them is exercise. You say, “Another great cure for all ills, exercise is key but can also be a source of resentment. My husband has been on a health kick for the last few years, so he will wake up early for a run or a workout and come home flushed with virtuous accomplishment while I lie in bed reading all the papers sipping several cups of coffee. Percy’s smug face seems to say, so when are you getting moving? I contemplate throwing the contents of my cup at him, but then I think better of it. What a waste of coffee.” The whole book is like that, your quips, your fun, great lines.

Joan: To me, humor is what gets you through life. It’s very important. Unfortunately, it seems that it’s sort of, sadly, lacking today in very many ways. I don’t know why, but you don’t see as much as you used to. Then again, people have to be careful. I don’t think I’ve offended anybody by what I said. Maybe Percy. Is he here? It’s our anniversary today, by the way. Twenty-two years. I can’t believe it. It feels like eight. Did you like the fact that Percy wrote some of the chapters in the book?

Zibby: Yes, I did.

Joan: Well, not chapters. Half chapters in the book. I would describe how I felt about going to the first day of doing this play, Love Letters, which I was doing in San Francisco. That’s when I first met Percy. He was the company manager. He described in the book how he felt when he met me. It’s quite different, how we say. Then when we did the audio, which, I have to say, I haven’t heard yet, but I remember doing it, Percy read his part. Do we have the — oh, no, the audio is something that you get online, isn’t it?

Zibby: Yeah. I could get it for you if you want to hear it after this. I could get it on my phone.

Joan: No, I can get it. Don’t worry.

Zibby: I did like because you got to hear his voice and his side of the story as well. I was joking before about your hypothetical conversation in the car. I was like, I feel like I know what she and Percy are like in private because it’s in the book, your whole relationship.

Joan: Yeah, I guess so. We had a lovely morning drinking coffee and opening presents. I gave him an Oscar with an inscription on it. I’m not going to tell you what it said. I also gave him a photograph of me with Superman, and I post his head on it.

Zibby: What readers or listeners might not know is the age difference between the two of you and how at first —

Joan: — Which we don’t talk about.

Zibby: Which we don’t talk about. At first, you both had to — not him. He was all in from the beginning, really. You had to come to terms with that and make a decision. You took yourself to a spa for a weekend and said, okay, am I going to do this or not do this?

Joan: One of the reasons that I went to the spa is not necessarily for that. It’s that I had been in a relationship for over ten years that really wasn’t going anywhere. I had to make this decision. Did I want to give up this relationship? which was not at all fulfilling. It was more like a funny friend who was there not all the time, but just sometimes. That’s what I did. I went, and then I made up my mind to be with him. Then on 9/11, when 9/11 occurred — what was the year? What year was that?

Zibby: 2001.

Joan: 2001, yeah. September 2001 is when we decided to get married, when we saw what had happened and how everybody had lost so much, and the carnage. We said, let’s get married as soon as possible. He did, and I agreed, even though I’d done it a few times before. Now we’ve been married for twenty-two years, which is more than all four of my marriages put together. Two of them lasted for one year. The husbands I had children with lasted for seven or eight years.

Zibby: You write really beautifully about your children also. Although, you did have a horrible scare when your daughter Katie was in an accident. You write about that and later when she fainted. You’ve gone through a lot of really tragic, difficult stuff. Yet you write about it concisely and with humor and in your upbeat style.

Joan: I think probably, it has something to do with the fact that our family motto was, just get on with it. Don’t moan. Don’t complain. Do it. Nobody’s ever going to do anything for you except yourself. I came into the business, a business that my father did not want me to go into, acting. He said, “You’ll be finished by the time you’re twenty-three. You’ve got to face all these predatory men,” which is really something that you didn’t even think about. Predatory men, what are they? Ha ha. There are a lot of them. My father was quite a good influence on me in that. I had the perfect combination of a very strict father, but loving, and a very soft, vulnerable, sweet, and loving, definitive 1950s mother. All she cared about was her children and her husband and keeping the family together. I’m very grateful for that, that combination. I think it’s really important, if it’s possible, to have a great family life. I finally found it with Percy, but I tried four times. It didn’t work, but I finally found. I found Mr. Right.

Zibby: You also dodged many natural disasters over the course of your life. You have multiple fires that you escaped. It’s like a movie. Your life is like a movie.

Joan: I know. It is, actually. On the Chinese junk, when we were having a little — we were in Hong Kong. My girlfriend Judy and I were going on what we thought was a pleasure trip on a Chinese junk out just around Hong Kong to see the sights. A tornado came up. The Chinese junk, they couldn’t control it. It was being pulled out to the most dangerous sea in the world, the South China Sea. We almost died.

Zibby: Of course, you told your friend not to wear her wig upstairs. It went flying away. You were like, I told you so.

Joan: It’s true.

Zibby: There’s a big part of the book that also takes place in the South of France and the big benefit parties and Leonardo DiCaprio’s party and all the famous restaurants, like Sanc en Sanc, and all the places where you were out and about and relishing and loving the life there. Tell us a little bit about that.

Joan: You have to read the book. That’s just how we tried to live our life in the summer. I always wanted to have a place to take my children. At one point, I had six children all under the age of twelve. I had three stepchildren. I had Tara and Sasha, who were nine and seven. Then I had a baby, Katie. These are the children who were nine, ten, and twelve. I thought, we’re spending a fortune taking them to hotels. I said, we have to find a place. I had to buy a house. I bought a house in Spain. We’d take all the children there because there’s loads of school holidays. If anybody’s got any children, they know how many holidays there are, and in England, half-term holidays, which last for ten days. We would take the children there. Then unfortunately, I had to sell that house because somebody did some horrible things with my money. I can’t put all this concisely just talking to you, Zibby. Although, I like talking to you. You really have to read it. I’m just thinking about an actress today that I’ve been reading about that was complaining a lot about her lot. Oh, it’s so hard to be me. Every time I go out to dinner, I have to pay for everybody, three thousand dollars. I’m not going to tell you who it is, but it’s in the papers. You can look it up. I have a thing. You eat life, or life eats you. Live every day as though it’s your last because one day, it will be. All kinds of mottos.

Zibby: In one scene in the book, someone says to you, you used to be the actress, Joan Collins. You said, oh, I still am.

Joan: I didn’t quite say it like that, Zibby.

Zibby: That’s how I read it.

Joan: Yes, I still am. More of a .

Zibby: That’s better. That’s much better.

Joan: I still get that. In fact, yesterday, I was at a shop in Beverly Hills. This guy said — it was an upmarket shop. “I know you. Who are you?” I said, “Why are you asking me who I am? You shouldn’t ask me that. This is a posh shop. What are you doing?” He went, “No, I know you’re somebody. Are you one of those Collins sisters?” I thought, Collins sisters? I was, but my sister’s been dead for eight years. What a fool. I walked away. I said, “You’re very rude.” I said to the owner of the shop, “You have to tell him he can’t go up to a customer.” Would you do that in your shop?

Zibby: No.

Joan: Who are you? No, I know you. I know who you are. You look familiar.

Zibby: I would never do that.

Joan: I know you wouldn’t. You’d be amazed. You’d be amazed how much it happens.

Zibby: Do you think there’s anything your sister would read in this book and say, oh, no, you really shouldn’t have put that in?

Joan: Do you? Obviously, you do, or you wouldn’t ask.

Zibby: I’m just wondering. There’s a lot in the book. It’s amazing. That’s why it’s so juicy.

Joan: I don’t think she’d probably like when I said Jacqueline Jill. Oh, what a stupid name. When you’re four… I don’t know. I’d have to read it again and judge it. I haven’t really read it since I wrote it, and then going back over and then having to do the audio, which was torture. We were stuck in a room with no air conditioning, no cell phone access, no water, right at the bottom of the Albert Hall for some reason.

Zibby: You say also in the book how much you love Scrabble and all these other games. For you, it almost feels like life is a game. There has to be this joy and this pleasure and spirit. Do you feel like that?

Joan: Yes, I do. I try to live each day in which I enjoy something, I learn something, and I achieve something. I try to add that up at the end of the day. Enjoy is easy. Just watch television. No. I do like to watch old movies on TV. I think that’s what I try to do, or achieve something. I’m writing now. Not anything specific, but I try to write. I am writing something. I’m writing an article for a magazine.

Zibby: You’ve written nineteen books.

Joan: I have.

Zibby: That’s crazy. So many books.

Joan: Why is it crazy?

Zibby: I don’t know.

Joan: My sister wrote how many? How many did Jackie write? Does anybody know here? Didn’t she write something like thirty-eight or forty? No? We’ll look it up. Google. Somebody google. Oh, there she goes.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to say — it’s a fabulous accomplishment.

Joan: Thank you. I might write one more because one of the things that people —

Female Voice: — Thirty-two.

Zibby: Thirty-two.

Joan: Oh, thirty-two. Wow, that’s an accomplishment.

Female Voice: You still have time.

Joan: Maybe one more. I think I’ll call it I Don’t Know How She Does It because all my friends keep saying, I don’t know how you do it, your being on this tour. Now I’m getting ready to do a movie in Prague, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve never been to Prague, so that’ll be an adventure.

Zibby: What can you say about the movie?

Joan: It’s a murder mystery, Agatha Christie-type thing. I would be the or Miss Marple, the one who solves it. It’s rather good.

Zibby: What advice would you have to an aspiring author?

Joan: Aspiring author?

Zibby: Yeah.

Joan: Never stop writing. Start at the beginning. I started writing when I was twelve. I edited the newspaper. I wrote stories. I taught my sister to write because she’s four years younger. She started to write. She wrote much more than me because she wasn’t an actress then. When I started acting, I kind of stopped. Then I started keeping diaries. Who was it that said if you keep a diary, one day, it’ll keep you? This has certainly been true. I had to do a lot of research on this, some of the stories. The one where we’re trapped on the beach with Christopher Biggins and my girlfriend with no water and no loo, I had forgotten about that one. Then this terrible street that they call Joan Collins Boulevard, I’d gone to open a hotel, which turned out to be a dump.

Zibby: I thought of something maybe Jackie wouldn’t want you to put in.

Joan: What?

Zibby: About her scene with Marlon Brando.

Joan: She loves that story. She adored that. She would always wink and not tell us what happened, what the endgame was. I was sitting there with a group of people. I won’t tell you who they were because you’ll say I’m dropping names.

Zibby: We would never say that.

Joan: Okay. Paul Newman. Paul is saying, “Your sister –” He was sitting there with a beer. “Your sister is going up the stairs with Marlon.” I said, “I know. I see that. He’s her favorite movie star.” He said, “I know, but she’s eighteen, and he’s thirty-something.” I said, ”What can I do?” He said, “Do you think you should go up and stop her?” I said, “I know Mommy said I had to take care of her, but she would never forgive me if I went upstairs and stopped them going up there.” When they came down, I said, “So what happened?” She just did that girly giggle. She’s never told anybody. Not even her children. Nobody knows. That’s a good way to be.

Zibby: That is a good way to be. Any secrets of being a working actor for your entire life?

Joan: Never give up, really. Any actors here? No?

Female Voice: Yes.

Zibby: Two.

Joan: Never give up. Accept direction constantly. I did. I had that story about — I was fired by Bluhdorn.

Zibby: I loved that show too, by the way, The Offer. You talk about The Offer. Has anyone seen the show The Offer? It was so amazing.

Joan: That’s one of my favorite shows. I’ve seen it twice, all about the making of The Godfather. Charles Bluhdorn, in this film, keeps on saying, you’re fired. You’re fired. When we’re watching it, I said, he fired me from that movie I was going to do with Michael Caine called The Italian Job. I was hired for it. Then my agent told me, “He fired you.” I said, “Why?” She said, “I don’t know, but you got paid.” I said, “It’s okay.” It would’ve been nice to have done a film with Michael because he’s a friend of mine.

Zibby: Is there anybody you want to do a film with now that you haven’t?

Joan: I would love to have worked with De Niro or Gene Hackman. To me, they are just giants. It’s never too late, is it? Or is it? I don’t know. I’m happy to work with whoever it is.

Zibby: How are you going to celebrate your wedding anniversary?

Joan: We’re going out to lunch with a group of friends after I do my signing.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the show. Thank you, everybody, for being here.

Joan: Thank you for coming.

Joan Collins, BEHIND THE SHOULDER PADS: Tales I Tell My Friends

BEHIND THE SHOULDER PADS: Tales I Tell My Friends by Joan Collins

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