‘Lady Boss’ Director on How Jackie Collins Created a New Kind of Feminist Hero

Jackie Collins created a literary empire and attracted millions of fans with her stories of empowered women who successfully navigate the world of the “rich and famous.” They had fabulous hair, fabulous sex and fabulous lives.

Critics hated Collins’ novels, dismissing the author as “the queen of trash.” But that’s deeply unfair. Books like “Hollywood Wives,” “Lady Boss” and “The Stud” helped define a certain kind of 20th century feminism, one that saw Collins’ heroines thriving in board rooms, back lots and executive suites, spaces that had previously been dominated by men.

“Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story,” a new documentary from CNN Films, traces the author’s career and meteoric rise to the top of the best-seller lists, while also revealing the personal struggles that shaped her work. To tell that intimate story, director Laura Fairrie drew on Collins’ home videos and diaries, and interviewed her children, close friends and sister, Joan Collins, a legend in her own right. “Lady Boss” airs June 27 at 9 p.m. on CNN. Fairrie spoke to Variety about what attracted her to the project and why the private Jackie Collins was different from the public image she cultivated.

Were you a fan of Jackie Collins’ books?

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She was my sex education as a teenager. Her books were passed around in school, and we’d read them sort of hidden in our lessons. What was intriguing about the idea of making a film about Jackie Collins was I knew the woman on the back of the book cover — big hair, shoulder pads. But my immediate instinct as a filmmaker was, what’s the story behind that image?

Was the private Jackie Collins all that different from her public persona?

The private Jackie Collins stood in such opposition to that public image. I went through her archives, which were extensive, to start finding the layers and find the woman whose story is a universal story. Her storytelling is absolutely brilliant. You get swept along in the stories. But also there’s this wonderful combination of this fantasy. She imagined the world that she wanted to inhabit as a woman. She imagined the female characters that she’d like to be. But it’s also grounded in reality. She took her own experiences. She took the tough times that she observed other woman having and her mother having and she put that all in her books, but then she changed the endings to be what she wanted. There’s always a brilliant imaginary ending where the women come out on top or the tables get turned or the men get their comeuppance. I think women really enjoyed that aspect of her books. It’s grounded in reality but there’s a fantasy element as well.

Some of her personal relationships were very complicated. As your film makes clear, her father was domineering, and her first husband, Wallace Austin, was volatile and became addicted to drugs prescribed to treat his manic depression. What impact did those experiences have on her?

They definitely informed her work. Her relationship with her father and how she observed the way that he behaved at home and the way that he treater her mother and the way he was so dismissive of her had a big impact on her. It contributed to her instinctive need to go out and find her own identity. It led her to find a sense of freedom and helped her decide not to be trapped at home in the way she felt her mother was. With her first husband, that was a huge shock to her. She wanted to be with someone who was going to give her the life that she wanted and she ended up in a situation that was incredibly traumatic for her. She not only had to fear for her own safety, she also was trapped, which was the exact opposite of the life she wanted. Those experiences impacted the books she went on to write.

Jackie was a major best-selling author at the same time that her sister, Joan Collins, was a huge television star thanks to “Dynasty.” What was their relationship like?

You can’t think of two other sisters like them. There really is a deep love there between them. They loved each other and they needed each other. There’s also an incredible competition between each other that fed them. They had a deep need to find identities that were distinct from each other, but at the same time they had this deep understanding of each other.

How were they different from each other?

Jackie modeled herself as a woman who behaved somewhat like a stereotypical man. She wore trousers. She wore a business suit. She behaved a little like a mogul. Joan is different than that. She’s much more feminine kind of woman. Jackie was more of a tomboy but she observed the beauty that Joan had and the power that beauty gave her and that must have had a really big impact on her and the female characters she went on to write.

Critics loved to beat up on Jackie’s writing. Did the bad reviews hurt her?

She definitely went through periods of time in her life where it bothered her, but she also got to a point where she accepted it because it had become the norm. In the UK she was looked down upon and sneered at. She was much more embraced in America. I love the idea that she wore a suit of armor with her image. She’d get dressed up in the Jackie Collins persona in order to deal with what was coming her way. It was a shield to protect her from the critics and the male TV hosts who were usually looking down on her. As she moved through her life, that persona became her safe space, the place where when things got bad and difficult she could go to. She could always be Jackie Collins.

Did people underestimate her literary skills?

Definitely. She got a much harder time because she was a woman and because she was writing about sex from a female perspective and writing popular books. And it was also because she was really gorgeous herself and good looking and sexy. People just thought if you’re pretty how can you be clever? On so many levels she was a trailblazer, particularly in the kind of feminism she was promoting and sharing with readers in her books.

Jackie died of breast cancer in 2015. What would you have liked to ask her if you had been able to interview her for the film?

I would have liked to ask why she felt the need to present a particular version of her story and present a particular public image? Why were some of her vulnerabilities so difficult to share with the world? What happened in her life that led her to be like that? She was brilliant at putting on a front and telling the story that she wanted to tell the world.

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