Sex existed before Jackie Collins, but it was nowhere near as fabulous – as a new documentary explores the secret history of the queen of bonkbusters, Philippa Snow revisits a novelist who served as a one-woman sexual liberator
Claudia was in bed,” Jackie Collins’ debut novel The World is Full of Married Men offers plainly on its first page, as if it were setting up a bedtime story. “She was a very beautiful girl, and she knew it, and David knew it, so everyone was happy.” Collins’ writing, as a rule, tended to be so unadorned and elementary that her heroines’ adventures read like smutty, very flashy children’s books about fellatio and diamonds – A is for “affair”, B is for “bitchy girl executive”, C is for “cowboy with a dark past and a jawline like an Easter Island statue”, et cetera. That simplicity, making them easily accessible as well as titillating, was the point: she was never interested in being a literary novelist, only in being a boss, a babe, a feminist, a sexually liberated woman who desired to sexually liberate her female readers, and astonishingly rich. “There are people who are wonderful writers. By that I mean people who use the language beautifully and carefully,” her one-time agent Morton Janklow says, in the new documentary Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, before doglegging into an entirely different kind of compliment than one might expect. “Which was almost the direct opposite of Jackie. It was one of the reasons she was so successful – because she could go out there and promote those books and not be embarrassed.”
Born in 1937, four years after her glamorous sister Joan, Jackie Collins grew up crazy about boys and less-than-crazy about her supposed status as the family’s ugly duckling. She was self-loathing and shy – where Joan had the fine bones, rosebud mouth and archiform brows of a young Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie had inherited her father’s large, patrician nose. “I get an awful inferiority complex when I’m with Joan,” she wrote in 1953, in one of many teenage diary entries that bemoaned her weight, her gracelessness, and her ill-suitedness to Hollywood; she scribbled hateful self-admonishments beneath the photographs she pasted into family photo albums, writing “looking fat!” under a picture of herself wearing a swimsuit on the beach. She believed that what she wanted was to act, perhaps imagining that if she had the kind of face worth seeing on the big screen, she would get the validation she so desperately desired.
Still, if Joan Collins was the photogenic sister, lovely enough to have only narrowly missed out on Elizabeth Taylor’s role in Cleopatra, Jackie had an undeniable sex appeal; an adventurous attitude to sex that helped provide her with what might be euphemistically described as an extraordinary amount of good material for her novels. (Please do note: the year before she wrote miserably in her diary about her “inferiority complex” around Joan, Jackie had had sex with Marlon Brando.) Laura Fairrie, the director of Lady Boss, has said that she decided on the project because after making solemn documentaries about politics and antisemitism, she wanted to make one about “a fabulous woman”. What the film shows is that although Jackie Collins did not necessarily start out as a fabulous woman, she made herself into one in increments – a tasteful nose job, some extensive dental work, a wardrobe that suggested an alembic of high-powered businesswoman, high-end escort, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, all conspiring to create a sexed-up cartoon character whose talk-show interviews were as sought after as her manuscripts.
Jackie Collins wanted to be beautiful, and so she became beautiful; she wanted to be a writer, and although her literary experience prior to the publication of her debut novel more or less amounted to a knack for writing dirty limericks at school, she made herself into a writer. If she had an innate talent, it was what used to be called – exclusively in women, and most often in the kind of women who, like Jackie Collins, are inclined to wield their sex appeal like weaponry – her “moxie”, a determination and hard-headedness that made it clear she was not interested in failure. “F*** it,” she once casually shrugged, when asked to explain what had motivated her to write such “trashy” paperbacks. “I’ve read so many books where the women are having nervous breakdowns in Harrods.” In a Jackie Collins novel, women do not break down so much as kneel down, lie down, go down, and generally refuse to be put down by those around them. They have names like “Fontaine Khaled” and “Lucky Santangelo”, as if they were drag queens rather than cis women, and are unafraid to say things like “don’t talk, you’ll spoil it” to the himbo studs they sleep with.
Just nine days before she died from breast cancer in 2015, Jackie joked to the presenters of Loose Women that she’d tried every position known to woman as part of her writing and researching process: “That’s why I’m so exhausted,” she said, drily, to the delight of the mostly female, mostly middle-aged audience who’d come to bathe in the reflected glow of Jackie Collins’ liberated sass. Lady Boss, a title taken from a 1990 Jackie Collins novel, is a very funny name for a contemporary documentary about a “fabulous woman” – it rebukes the modern “girlboss”, a term most often associated with hot pink and slogan tote-bags and white feminist political correctness, in favour of something ballsier, closer to “broad” than “badass chick”. A soi-disant feminist with a ravenous hunger for the male gaze, Jackie Collins comes across in Fairrie’s documentary as simultaneously progressive and outdated, a castrating bitch and unrepentant harlot by the standards of the Eighties and a self-objectifying capitalist by the standards of the present. What endures – and what is really most important – is her prescient belief in liberated and unmarried sex for women, her advocacy for gay rights, and above all else, her ability to motivate the average female reader to aspire to something more than domesticity and sexless boredom.
The two Collins sisters, one born beautiful and fated for success and one determined to use everything she had to live up to her older sister, are a fascinating study in what graft and grit can achieve for a woman. Lady Boss devotes as much time to their rivalry as it does to their mutual adoration, a passive aggressive pas de deux in which both women seemed at one time to achieve the upper hand: Jackie wanted to be Joan, and then as Joan’s career tailed off and Jackie’s soared, Joan found herself longing to be a little more like the ambitious, bawdy Jackie, even trying her own hand as an erotic novelist. (“I think [Joan] wrote a novel as well,” Jackie is reported to have offered “vaguely” in a 2011 Guardian interview, as if she could not quite remember.) When, in 1977, Joan Collins found herself adrift in Hollywood after a disastrous turn in something called Empire of the Ants, it was Jackie who helped rehabilitate her image, ensuring that she was cast as the no-nonsense nymphomaniac Fontaine Khaled in the movie adaptation of The Stud in 1978, and then in 1979’s The Bitch; while her performance did not win her much acclaim, it did end up winning her the iconic, indelible role of one Alexis Colby in the soapy series Dynasty, another high-femme glamour hellcat with a cool knack for administering a slap. The moral of the tale is clear: being a natural beauty when one is still young enough to coast on looks alone is a fine way to make a living, but being a fearless, canny businesswoman with a sexy line in power-shouldered suiting is the way to make a fortune.
As well as regular civilian women, Jackie Collins has her famous fans, some of whom have remained loyal for many years. “How does Britney Spears unwind?” the Associated Press asked in an article in 1999. “The 17-year-old singing superstar slips into a hot bath, lights some candles and picks up a Jackie Collins novel. ‘Every night, I have to read a book, so that my mind will stop thinking about things that I stress about,’ she says… ‘I focus on my book. Isn’t that crazy?’” Seventeen years later, in a Twitter Q&A, Spears further proved her fandom: “Anything by Jackie Collins!!” she chirped brightly, in response to a fan’s question about what she liked to read. I thought about Spears’ love of Collins’ books a few days after watching Lady Boss, when the singer testified in court about how frightening and surveilled her life had been under an inhumane conservatorship since 2007. More than ever, in light of such revelations, it makes sense that Spears would want to lose herself in stories about women taking over, kicking cruel men to the curb – a girl named Lucky, say, endowed with power and influence and using it to live as a free woman ruled by her desires.
Before watching Lady Boss, I did not know there was a Jackie Collins novel with the title Drop Dead Beautiful, meaning that the Britney Spears song of the same name is presumably an homage. It is funny, though, the way that Spears changed the punctuation so that it became “(Drop Dead) Beautiful”, looking like a kiss-off in lieu of a compliment – like something a Jackie Collins heroine might say. In rhapsodising about Collins’s forthright nature, her suggestion that many men ought to be bonked and not heard, and her pioneering, unconventional attitude to women’s lib, Lady Boss succeeds in making the late author look like the very thing most people argued she was not at the height of her career: a good influence for right-thinking women everywhere.
‘Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story’ is in cinemas from Friday 2 July, and will be screened on BBC Two this summer