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Joan Collins looks back on a glamourous 71-year career

The actress and writer is in the spotlight with a BritBox documentary and a new book.

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Speaking with Joan Collins — even on the phone — you’re compelled to sit a little straighter, enunciate a little clearer, groom yourself a little better. Because, well, after a few years of sweatpants and barely combed hair, the idea of Joan Collins just seems … bigger.

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It could be the fact that she’s hobnobbed with stars like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Marlon Brando. But it’s probably because her most famous role, the impeccably turned-out Alexis on the 1980s series Dynasty, is perched at the back of your mind.

To hear her tell it, though, Joan Collins the persona isn’t the same as Joan Collins the person. People tend to have a skewed view of who she really is.

How so?

“Oh, that I’m just like Alexis — that’s one of the biggest misconceptions. But I’m not. The thing is, I do still look a little bit like her because I don’t actually have very much grey hair. And I haven’t gone into the ‘tweakments’ that a lot of my friends have done. I have the same lips and cheekbones and everything that I had before. That’s really the main one.”

She pauses.

“And that I’m a diva. Sometimes that comes up. ‘She swept into the room.’ Oh really? I walked into the room. That’s been said a lot. Recently, too.”

Collins, 88, wants to clear up more misconceptions. She’s giving viewers a sprawling view into her life with a 96-minute documentary now streaming on BritBox. This Is Joan Collins features the actress narrating details of her career, romances, personal struggles and triumphs. Archival footage and home movies bring it into Technicolor focus.

There’s the story of how she was raped by the man who became her first husband. How she bumped into a barefaced and dressed-down Monroe one day and shared drinks. How she negotiated a film contract for triple the original offer. Her acting hiatus in the 1960s, her application for unemployment and her self-orchestrated comeback with the 1978 movie The Stud.

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Warren Beatty, Richard Burton, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Kennedy, Bette Davis — they’re all there, spread out over her 71-year screen career.

Oh, and Dynasty. There’s plenty on Dynasty. There was the time Linda Evans actually hit her while filming one of their characters’ famous fights. The time Donald Trump angled to appear on the show as Alexis’s lover. And the rift with John Forsythe, born from the fact that his contract allowed him special privileges.

“Stupid me — it took me five or six or seven years to realize that in every single photo that the studio sent out, in every single ad, Forsythe was always in the centre. And then I found out that his contract said that he always had to be in the centre and he always had to make at least a certain amount of money more than the other actresses,” Collins says.

“I knew that being very, very well known and successful at the time that I deserved more, so I fought for it. But it didn’t make me popular at all.”

More difficult to include, though, was the story of how her eight-year-old daughter was hit by a car and spent almost seven weeks in a coma. “I never really liked talking too much about my youngest daughter’s accident. It’s hard for me to do that, and it was a very hard time,” she says.

Collins was born in London in 1933. Her mother was a dance teacher who “would never go out unless she wore lipstick” and her father, a talent agent, had a sister who was a musical theatre star in the 1920s. Her younger siblings were Bill Collins, who became a property agent, and the novelist Jackie Collins. Fair to say, glamour was ever-present.

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“I was indoctrinated into that. But I didn’t like it and I went through the usual period in my teens of wanting to be bohemian and not wear lipstick and wear straggly hair and jeans,” she says. “And then as I grew into the 20th Century Fox contract player mould, I realized I liked looking good.”

Collins has amassed 134 acting credits, five producing credits and has written 17 books. Still, at the beginning, stardom was merely an afterthought.

“I never came into this business wanting to be a star. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t particularly want to go into the movies — I wanted to be an actress on stage,” says Collins, who was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1997.

It’s still her goal: “I’m going to work as long as I can. As long as people still give me jobs,” she says.

Collins has a film project in the works, and is a patron of a children’s hospice in Britain. Her latest book, My Unapologetic Diaries, recently became available in Canada. The key to a happy life for her, though, remains simple.

“It’s just waking up and having a new day and realizing that you’re healthy and you’ve got a great family a wonderful husband, and really good friends and the day is ahead of you,” she says. “I consider myself very, very lucky.”

True, luck may have a part in her success, but it takes sheer perseverance to survive more than seven decades in the industry. And when asked for the biggest lesson she’s learned over the years, Collins is characteristically frank.

“Just get on with it. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs — a lot of downs, and you can see in the documentary all the downs,” she says. “But just get on with it. Rise like the phoenix, if you can.”

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