In news that will surprise precisely no one, Jackie Collins, salacious storyteller and eyebrow-raiser par excellence, was quite the horny teenager. Here’s a diary entry from 4th August 1953, when she was 15 years old:
Got train to Uxbridge to meet Bob. We drove around and we necked a bit … We took it in turns to lick a lollipop.
Here’s another, written in October 1953, one week after her 16th birthday:
Henry and me necked on the bed. We went to Hyde Park. It was raining. He kissed me and said he loved me.
From March the following year:
Noel kissed me madly on both cheeks.
And a couple of months later, in May:
Henry. Then up to some flat. We started to neck and strip madly.
I don’t know about you but I may never look at a Chupa Chups the same way again.
Erotic confectionery notwithstanding, readers of any one of Jackie’s 32 New York Times bestselling novels might have expected her adolescent diaries to bear somewhat juicier fruit. Hanging instead over her palpable fondness for chasing boys is a naiveté – more Sandy than Rizzo, more Mills & Boon than Henry Miller – which is only exacerbated by her schoolgirl script, all curly-tailed Ys and painstakingly scrolled Ss, literally cut and pasted into new documentary Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, airing on BBC2 tonight.
A compelling mishmash of talking heads and material from Jackie’s private, very extensive archive – photographs, scrapbooks and grainy home videos jostle for attention with the aforementioned diary extracts – Lady Boss (directed by Laura Fairrie) traces the personal and professional history of a titan of romantic fiction and tireless champion of women. If Jackie Collins has never once elicited a beep on your cultural radar, the film is worth watching for the glimpses of off-duty Hollywood alone. Kicked out of school at 15, a lost year in LA with her elder sister, Joan, yields a stream of clickbait-style observations of the extracurricular activities of the rich and extremely famous:
Went to a cocktail party at Diana Dors’. Got very loaded.
On Brigitte Bardot: God, she’s cute. Marilyn Monroe: Her walk could make a revolving door look stationary. Marlon Brando: He’s only my height and kind of fat.
These experiences would ultimately inform some of Jackie’s most successful books, notably Hollywood Wives and its sequels, Hollywood Husbands and Hollywood Kids. For older millennials like me, however, the main draw here is the opportunity to immerse ourselves once again in the passages – trashy, tawdry, delirious filth – which, in the years before Pornhub came knocking to denude us of our innocence, constituted the basis of our sex education.
In 1997 I was 12 years old and practised in the art of clasping my bra behind my back the grown-up way. It had become abundantly clear that the school nurse – a tiny, wizened lady who would plant herself in front of the class, arms outstretched, an equally wizened walnut in either hand and shout: “These are the ovaries!” – was not going to teach me what I needed to know about my alarmingly adult body. Casting around for inspiration, I drew a blank. There were magazines, I knew, but begging my mum to swap Quiz Kids (no ‘Position of the Week’ there, disappointingly) for a copy of More! or Just Seventeen seemed like asking for trouble. The internet was yet to conquer suburbia – my family did not even have a computer – and terrestrial television had little to offer beyond Eurotrash and Colin Firth in a dripping wet shirt.
Salvation arrived somewhat unexpectedly in the form of my cousin, who turned up at our house one day and, when my aunt wasn’t looking, thrust a fat paperback into my hands. Dazzle by Judith Krantz. Fluorescent yellow binding and hot pink font seemed to announce the book’s intent. Opening it at a helpfully folded down page, I found this:
Gabe slid down and pulled Jazz over on top of him so that her breasts were above his face. She leaned on her elbows as she gazed down at him, a look of intent curiosity on her face. He moaned and with his large hands he took her breasts and pushed them together so that he could take both her nipples into his mouth at the same time.
It was a lightbulb moment. From then on, I would sidle up to the bookcase whenever I was certain my mum was out of earshot and run a finger across the titles, searching for similarly insalubrious candidates. Handily, the cover designs stuck to a well rehearsed formula – vivid jackets, brash lettering, a scarlet manicured hand cupping an outrageously taut buttock – and before long I had learned to recognise names. Judith, yes; Jilly, of course; but above all: Jackie. The ‘queen of trash’ towered over her rivals, batting away whoever came near with highly addictive concoctions of power, gossip and smut:
Silently they kissed and caressed until it was his turn to push her away. His voice was strangled. ‘What are we playing here, cocktease?’
‘I never tease,’ she said, unzipping his pants and sinking to her knees. ‘Never.’ And her mouth was on him, taking him to heaven and back and swallowing the evidence.
That passage is from Lucky, originally published in 1985. Revisiting it in 2021, post Fifty Shades, post Erika Lust – post Normal People, even – is a curiously nostalgic experience. The writing does not belong to a talented wordsmith (then again, no one ever pretended otherwise. Three minutes into Lady Boss, Jackie’s agent, Morton Janklow, declares: “There are people who are wonderful writers. By that I mean people who use the language beautifully and elegantly. Which is almost the direct opposite of Jackie.”) and the sex is often allusive and euphemistic in a way that might seem quaint to the averagely jaded internet dweller of today. More troublingly, despite aligning herself repeatedly with feminism, traces of homophobic attitudes and internalised misogyny surface now and again in Jackie’s writing. Consider this, from 1994’s Hollywood Kids:
Jordanna glanced over at his soon-to-be conquest. She loathed what she termed the Bimbette Army. They invaded Homebase Central on a regular basis, all tight Spandex, big hair and plumped-up lips – every one of them available and stupid.
Still, it is important to remember that Jackie was writing between the 1970s and 1990s, an unenlightened time by 2021 standards and during which the women’s movement was largely concerned with sexual freedom. She was nothing if not a product of her age.
Most fascinating to me is the response to Jackie’s books from the more buttoned up corners of society. It is hard to imagine now but for all the footage of women queuing outside bookshops for meet-and-greets, claiming Jackie revolutionised their sex lives, there is a Barbara Cartland, sitting beside Jackie on an episode of Wogan and accusing her of single-handedly destroying traditional values. The film also includes a startling clip of Jackie walking into an ambush on 1990s chat show Kilroy. Not content with probing her about the death of her husband, the host then invites questions from the audience, who duly line up to fire criticism at her. It is painful to watch but Jackie, to her credit, remains composed throughout.
What’s the point of all this now, you might ask. Conversations about sex are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were when I was at school. Online educators are filling in the gaps left by classroom-based sex education. Half of teenagers aged 16 and 17 have recently watched porn. Well, that is precisely the point. We know that girls and boys are forming unrealistic, potentially damaging ideas about their bodies and about sex from the ready availability of porn online. We know that these ideas feed into a culture which normalises violence against women and girls. By no means am I suggesting that reading a raunchy book is the answer to these problems but it strikes me that watching porn encourages imitation in the same way that reading erotic fiction encourages imagination – and I think we could all use a little more of that. Discovering Jackie Collins as a pre-teen was certainly instructive (and provided some fantastic material for the old smoulder folder) but her books were ultimately a jumping-off point. A thought-starter. An invitation to imagine yourself in any number of glamorous, sexy scenes. And you know what? They made me pretty damn good at sexting, too.
Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday 15th October and will be available on iPlayer shortly afterwards.