All the people in the late ’80s and early ’90s were really hell-bent on doing something for themselves . . . I was definitely part of that way of thinking. Tracey Emin
In the notorious YBA circle in which artist Tracey Emin rose to prominence in the early ’90s, most of the art attempted shock through frank Freudian imagery or high-concept sculptural productions pointing toward the inanity of existence. Looking back, it’s hard to synthesize Croydon-born Emin’s work with the other British artists of her Saatchi-endorsed generation who went on to become brand names (or swear words) in the contemporary art world. Emin’s visual vocabulary—even her habitual use of feminist mediums and tropes—seems to speak a far more private and vulnerable message. For much of her early career, she created, compiled, and assembled out of the detritus of a life falling apart. But through fabric, dance, dirty bed, and the names of everyone she ever slept with, Emin fused the personal with the material, the fragile zone of impact between inner and outer, between honest confession and the manipulation of a stylized aesthetic.
Over the years, though, Emin, now 50, has become less moored to the working-class London-bohème cool of her youth. The poetic seems to have overtaken the punk. Language was always a principle element of her work, but in the past 15 years, the diaristic fragments have evolved into an enigmatic and universal invocation. Her scratchy handwritten appeals on paper have been inscribed in neon, with expressions ranging from the raunchy (People Like You Need to Fuck People Like Me, 2002) to the sublime (You Touch My Soul, 2012, and I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear Is You, 2011). It is not that Emin has grown weary of chasing her demons in her art, but it does seem as if her demons have matured, the need to communicate has come to supercede the need to scandalize, confess, or avenge.
In December, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami unveils “Angel Without You,” a retrospective focusing on Emin’s neon works, ranging from pieces made in 1995 all the way to her recent figurative work. Not only is an Emin show devoted to neon fitting for the fluorescent beach-front city, it’s also one of the places the artist herself calls home. Another of her homes is in the South of France, where she has a hilltop place by the Côte d’Azur. One of her seasonal neighbors and friends since meeting five or six years ago through their mutual friend, the hairdresser Charles Worthington, is the legendary actress and fellow British wild child Joan Collins. The two spoke by phone in October, comparing notes on love, art, fashion, marriage, and men. As expected, they’re both wonderful at being honest.
JOAN COLLINS: Tracey, how are you?
TRACEY EMIN: I’m in France. I’m in my kitchen right now.
COLLINS: Oh, I’m in Los Angeles on my bed. I’ve been up for about four hours getting ready to leave for London. You’re so lucky to be in the South of France right now because I hear it’s been gorgeous there.
EMIN: Well, where I am, it’s really autumnal and windy with a gray sky, and from my house, the sea is really rough. You wouldn’t like it. You’re definitely in the right place in Los Angeles.
COLLINS: Now what are we doing? Doing a phone call sober? Is somebody taking this down, or what?
EMIN: Yeah, someone’s recording us.
COLLINS: Okay. So we’ve got to try to be interesting.
EMIN: Thank god, we haven’t got to give too much away. We’ve got a good balance in our lives.
COLLINS: Who starts? [laughs] I don’t want to start. I’m a bit of a virgin, you know.
EMIN: I’ve never done it on the telephone before. I’ve done it many times but never on the phone. I’m not very good at talking on the telephone.
COLLINS: Why don’t I start? You were one of the most successful young British artists to come up with your generation in the late ’80s and early ’90s. How do you feel you fit into that group? Did you feel that you belonged?
EMIN: Most of the people who ended up being very successful make very different work than me, and they actually came from different educational backgrounds. They were far more interested in minimalism and what was happening in America. I was much more interested in figurative painting. My influences were from Europe from between 1900 and 1945. My favorite artists were Egon Schiele or Edvard Munch. I wasn’t interested in contemporary art at all. Obviously I have to be a lot more interested now, but my passion for art is definitely in the early 20th century. I’m actually coming from a different place than most of my contemporaries who are successful. At the beginning, I think where I fit in was with my wild character.
COLLINS: Oh, no, that’s not you!
EMIN: All the people in the late ’80s and early ’90s were really hell-bent on doing something for themselves, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. There was a lot of determination, and I was definitely part of that way of thinking.
COLLINS: You were young—in your twenties—when you were discovered, if that’s the right word.
EMIN: I wasn’t actually. I was at work. I’d been doing it since my twenties, but I was actually quite a late developer. I didn’t have my first exhibition until I was 30, and that was with Jay Jopling at White Cube. Being 30 was quite late because a lot of my contemporaries at that time were, like, 22 or 23 when they had their first show. A lot of people don’t realize I’m 50—they just presume I’m younger.
COLLINS: Well, I wouldn’t argue with them, darling. You’re actually 35.
EMIN: [laughs] Last summer, I came around your house, and you had this magazine with an article about people who know how to have a really good party over the age of 50. Do you remember?
EMIN: There was an article about my party. You were a bit pissed off because you said something like, I was your new, young friend, and then all across the papers it said that I’m actually 50—an oldie and having fun.
COLLINS: But let me ask you. I’m fascinated by the unmade bed [My Bed, 1998]. The first time I saw it was at Nigella [Lawson] and Charles [Saatchi]’s house for dinner. I wanted to go to the loo, and he said, “I’ll take you,” and as we passed this small alcove, he said, “What do you think of Nigella’s room? Isn’t she a slob?” I looked in and said, “Oh, yes, she is rather,” and then I said, “No, this is Tracey Emin’s unmade bed!” He laughed and said, “You’re absolutely right.” So I was completely fascinated by the fact that it looked very much like a bed I would have had when I was a teenager. How did you make it? Did you dress it or put the extra panties strewn around on it?
EMIN: No, I didn’t. It was like that. If anything, I took stuff away.
COLLINS: You did? Like what stuff?
I’VE GOT ONE of THOSE PERSONALITIES, EVEN IF I TRY TO STAY OUT OF THE PAPERS and KEEP REALLY QUIET, I STILL MANAGE TO HIT HEADLINES. Tracey Emin
EMIN: It was a period of my life when I was not feeling particularly good. I think other people have been there. It’s kind of like you said when you were a teenager. A lot of it was a teenage angst kind of thing, except I was about 34. I just got to a point in my life where everything seemed to come to a grinding halt, and the bed was after I’d had an epiphany where I just woke up and realized that my life had to change, and I changed it. So in some ways it was a good thing.
COLLINS: Well, it was fantastic. It certainly lives in people’s minds as one of the great pieces of art of the 1990s.
EMIN: It was seminal. I mean, it was on everything. From cartoons to soap operas, it was mentioned—like on Coronation Street or whatever. It got people thinking.
COLLINS: Like Andy Warhol’s can of Campbell’s tomato soup in the ’60s.
EMIN: Something like that.
COLLINS: It certainly put you on the map in every possible way—along with your personal life, which the papers have also been totally fascinated by.
EMIN: Yeah, but they’ve also been quite fascinated by yours.
COLLINS: I’m not denying it. That’s why they’re so fascinated with us being BFFs.
EMIN: Yeah, but I think there are just certain people who attract attention. It doesn’t matter what they do. Even if they try not to, attention will still be thrown at them. I think I’m one of those. I’ve got one of those personalities, and even if I try to stay out of the papers and keep really quiet, like when I’m in France for three months and have hardly even showed my head, I still manage to hit headlines. I still manage to get on the front page in England without doing anything.
COLLINS: You’re modeling clothes for M&S [Marks & Spencer’s fall 2013 campaign]. How did you enjoy that?
EMIN: I really enjoyed it. Annie Leibovitz took the photos, which was quite interesting. I really enjoyed meeting all the other women.
COLLINS: Yeah, but everyone looked so miserable in the pictures—at least in all the pictures that I’ve seen.
EMIN: There’s one of me with a great, big smile across my face.
COLLINS: Oh, really? I must have missed that one.
EMIN: There’s one where I’m smirking, and one where I’m smiling, and there’s one where I actually do look a bit miserable because, at that particular moment in time, I didn’t feel comfortable with something. But in the end it turned out to be quite an interesting photo.
COLLINS: It certainly had a lot of coverage.
EMIN: I think that’s what they wanted—and it was pretty successful. But the important thing for me was being an artist, having that kind of profile. For me, being an artist with a high profile is a good thing for art.
COLLINS: Absolutely. Can I tell the story of what you wrote?
EMIN: Yeah, go on.
COLLINS: You were having dinner at our house, and we were having a great time, and I was saying, “Oh, I can’t get the right cover for my book,” which is called Passion for Life [Collins’s recent memoir]. I’d been painting these words, passion for life, and you said, “Come on, show me.” So I showed it to you, and you said, “Oh, I can do better than that.” I said, “I thought you could. Of course you can.” So we brought out some easels—
EMIN: I didn’t say, “I can do better than that!”
COLLINS: You actually said, “Can I have a go?” or “Can I try?” So we brought out the red paint and the brushes, and you did about six. We had eight or ten people at dinner. After we’d chosen the one we were going to use on the cover, everybody made a mad grab for all the ones we didn’t use and insisted that you sign them, and everybody said, “Right, we’re going to have this framed,” because everything you do or paint or write obviously has some kind of intrinsic artistic value, which must be very flattering.
EMIN: Yes, but I think, on that particular evening, it was also sentimental value because it was a nice memento of the time that we had. Also, I asked you to swap because I really wanted one of the ones that you did because they were so sweet. Your struggle for “passion for life”—I really loved it. What I enjoyed about helping you do that was that I like the words “passion for life.“ They’re the kind of words that I would use, so it was a really easy thing for me to do. It wasn’t like I was having to do something tricky or compromised. I was very happy to do it and very happy to give the others away.
COLLINS: I know you’re incredibly, incredibly generous with charity work. You support many charities and you donate a lot of your time. Is there any one particular charity that you feel more strongly about?
EMIN: Yeah, and you do lots for it as well—Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity that started in the ’80s to help gay men with HIV. I’ve been working with the charity now for about 15 years, really quite solidly. I really enjoy it and I kind of embrace it. I’ve seen you at some of the gala events before I knew you very well. I just don’t think there’s enough research, enough help, enough support for people who have HIV. I know it’s a world pandemic. It’s a terrible problem globally, but I think there are a lot of people who are very lonely with it as well. I think the support system has to be increased.
COLLINS: I agree with you there because I do support for children with terminal illnesses. I work with the Shooting Star Chase hospices, because what happens—and I know this for a fact because it happened to me with my daughter—is that they spend so much money on children who are born prematurely to make sure that they live, but then they send them home to the parents, and the child has all kinds of problems, whether it’s hearing, eyesight, walking, whatever, but they get no help whatsoever from the state. So it’s up to the family to do what they can, and most of these families don’t really have enough resources. So we try to do what we can to give support to these families and to these children, many of whom are terminal.
EMIN: Do you feel sometimes that you’re asked to do too much, and people expect more of you than you can give?
COLLINS: I think yes. I do agree with that. I think I take on too much. I have a very devoted family, three children, and three grandchildren, and we do a lot for them. For example, just before I called you, one of my grandchildren called and said, “Oh, can I speak to Percy [Gibson, Collins’s husband], I’ve lost my phone.” Well, you know, she’s thousands of miles away in the U.K. So that’s the sort of thing that we have a lot of. I’ve been on the telephone all morning talking about various projects that I’ve got, but I have to say, Tracey, that I really like it. If somebody said to me, “Why don’t you retire?” Retire? What kind of word is that? I think I would shrivel up and die.
EMIN: So in the summer, when I stayed at your house and I was supposed to stay for one night, I ended up staying three.
COLLINS: I know! We have so much fun.
EMIN: By the third night, you said, “Oh, we’re going to this fabulous place on Friday night, there’s dancing and everything.” I said, “Oh, no, we’ve been out two nights in a row! Do we really have to go out tonight as well?” How do you do it? I cannot socialize like that. I haven’t got the stamina to do it. And you said to me, “It’s my life.”
EMIN: And you love it! You embrace it. I don’t know how you have the stamina to keep doing it.
I’m totally monogamous when I’m in a relationship, and when I’m not in a relationship, I don’t sleep around. So when I’m not with someone, I’m really on my own. Tracey Emin
COLLINS: My mother use to call me Miss Perpetual Motion because I rarely keep still. There’s a particular time in the South of France when there is a lot going on socially, but there’s also a particular time when Percy and I don’t go out of the house for, like, a week or 10 days, and we love spending time just with our children and our grandchildren. A couple of months after you left, the children and the grandchildren came, and we only did things with them. We didn’t go to parties. We didn’t go dancing. But I enjoy it. I have a passion for life—you’ve got to eat life or life will eat you.
EMIN: I know this, but you’re also a very homey person, so there’s a kind of contradiction. There is the Joan Collins who is a glamorous icon …
COLLINS: You should see me now!
EMIN: When I walk into a room with you, it’s really fantastic to see what happens. I love to see the attention you get, the subtle attention, because it’s this level of glamour that you have. Not that many people have that anymore … But I know you’re really homey. You put your rubber gloves on. You do the gardening. You’re hands-on with a lot of things, but you never cease to amaze me, how, even in these moments, you still maintain this air of glamour.
COLLINS: You’ve seen me in the morning with no makeup on. I don’t think I look very glamorous then.
EMIN: Yes, you do! It’s your persona that carries you. And you’ve always had that. What do you think it is?
COLLINS: Honestly, I don’t know. I think I’m quite a confident person. I used to not be confident. My father certainly didn’t add to my confidence. When I was 17 or 18, I was voted the most beautiful girl in England by the association of press photographers. When they called Daddy for a comment, he said, “I’m amazed. She’s a nice looking girl but nothing special.” So I never had approbation from my parents, as my generation didn’t. We were never told we were wonderful or beautiful or clever or fun or anything.
EMIN: I love talking to you, and when you mention someone from the past, I think, “Wow, you knew so and so!” All of these Hollywood legends …
COLLINS: Yeah, I’m beginning to feel fascinated about it myself. I used to go over to Gene Kelly’s house and play volleyball, and Paul Newman and Marlon Brando were always there. You kind of took it for granted because I was 20, 21, 22, and they were a bit older-well, Gene certainly was. But it was just part of daily living. They were in the same profession, and you didn’t think that much about it. When I went to those glam Hollywood parties where everybody was done up to the nines, and you’d see Ava Gardner and Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth and Zsa Zsa Gabor, all incredibly glamorous. It was very stunning for a very young girl, at that time, but then I got used to it. And then it was just people.
EMIN: Do you think things have changed a lot?
COLLINS: Yes. And I’m sure you’ll agree with me. I think that glamour is something that people do not aspire to anymore. I don’t think that any of the young actresses today, with very few exceptions, aspire to being glamorous, because they feel that they will not be taken seriously as a thespian. Also, I do think that directors and producers feel that glamour has a lot do with artifice, and they don’t want artifice—they want total reality. So it seems to me that the stars today who have the glamour, like Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, even Miley Cyrus—the ones who make a huge effort with their appearance—are quite rare. I feel that your outward appearance represents what you feel as yourself. It’s like I feel that if you eat junk food, you’ll look like junk. I don’t know if I’m making sense.
EMIN: No, you’re making perfect sense. But you put on a big hat and a pair of sunglasses and some red lipstick, and you look magnificent.
COLLINS: You’ve done a limited-edition beach towel and sandals. Is that because of your retrospective in Miami?
EMIN: Yes it is. The Fontainebleau has done a collaboration with me and made 1,000 towels that have one of my neons on it. It says, “Kiss me kiss me cover my body in love.” You know the Fontainebleau has that amazing aerial view with all the pools and sun beds. Think of that clichéd aerial view of Miami, like a really amazing hotel with a pool. Well, the Fontainebleau is usually the hotel used for those shots. So they put my towel on all the sun beds.
COLLINS: Can I have one?
EMIN: Yeah. [laughs] But it’s really exciting for me because it’s like an interaction with the hotel and something real in Miami. And I’ve actually got a place in Miami, so I’m starting to feel more okay with it all. I’m really excited actually about my show.
COLLINS: I didn’t know you had a place in Miami. On South Beach?
EMIN: I haven’t had it that long. Just Miami Beach, up farther a little bit.
COLLINS: I have to say, I love Miami. We took a house there with all the children two Christmases ago, at Golden Beach, and I adored it. I liked the people.
EMIN: I like the people. The people in Miami are so different from anywhere else I’ve been in America. They’re so down to earth, really friendly, and quite self-effacing, with a good sense of humor. I’m not saying other parts of America don’t have a sense of humor, but Miami maybe has to have a really good sense of humor for lots of different reasons, and it works. It works for me. I feel comfortable there, and that’s why I’ve got a place there.
COLLINS: They have a big mix of generations. There’s a lot of young people and a lot of very old people. People seem to get along.
EMIN: And it’s really multicultural as well. In some places in America, I don’t feel that so much, whereas in Miami it’s very mixed up. It’s much more like London in that way.
COLLINS: Percy speaks Spanish there most of the time, his being half Peruvian. He’s fluent in three languages. Do you speak French?
EMIN: No, I don’t. I don’t speak a word of French!
COLLINS: I’m only asking because I’m so embarrassed that I’ve had a place in France for more than 20 years, but my French is about the equivalent of the first form, maybe the sixth form now.
EMIN: One of my friends said to me, “Don’t you find it difficult?” I said, “No, I love it.” I don’t talk to anyone when I’m in France. I’m being an artist here. I’m quite isolated here. I’m feeling quite locked in my head and that’s really good for my work, in some respects. That’s really healthy. You’ve seen where my house is. It’s quite remote, so I don’t get contaminated by anything. I just work and think, and it’s very productive for me to be here, whereas if I was somewhere where I felt very integrated and extremely social, it might be hard for me. I know it’d be hard for me to make work or have any kind of pure thoughts.
COLLINS: There’s something about the air and the sky and the atmosphere in the South of France that must be very conducive to work, to being creative, because I have written several of my books there. I find it so much easier because you’re cut off. If you don’t want to speak to anybody, basically they don’t know where you are. And it’s so beautiful. The view is really good for the soul. Now your love life. Can we talk about that a little bit?
EMIN: Yeah, go on. You can ask me whatever you like.
COLLINS: You’ve never been married—as opposed to me …
COLLINS: Do you feel that you would ever like to be married? If you found the right guy?
EMIN: No. Realistically, no.
COLLINS: That’s why I tried it four times before this time. Men are difficult. Women are difficult, too. You have to find the right personality.
EMIN: I’ve wanted to ask you a question. Are you monogamous?
I’ve done my bits with sex. As soon as I found out about it, I went right out and got it . . . I saw everything about it as being positive then. And now I don’t. Now I see everything with love as being positive. Tracey Emin
COLLINS: Totally. But I have to say, during my marriage to Tony Newley [the late British musical star and composer], he was such a womanizer and quite open about it, that I became not monogamous during the latter part of that marriage—only the last couple of years. But, you know, it was basically, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. He was doing it. It was kind of revenge, really. I believe very fondly in monogamy. I’m serially monogamous. And during most of my marriages, I was totally monogamous until they started to go wrong.
EMIN: But that is why you’ve been married five times. And I bet when you haven’t been married, you’ve been in really long relationships.
COLLINS: Yes, I have. Exactly. I was with Sydney Chaplin for a year. With Arthur Loew Jr., for nine or ten months. I was with Warren Beatty for a year and a half. Then I got married to Tony. I really wanted that marriage to work. I had two children, less than two years between them. I was 29 when I got married, but I was 35 when the marriage started to break up, and I just was desperately unhappy. I couldn’t believe that this was going to fail because I’d already done it once, aged 18. But that was because I was a virgin when I met that guy and he date-raped me. So I really wanted it to work. You know, I don’t take getting divorced easily. It was very, very, very, very hard. All of them. All of them were hard.
EMIN: Yeah, but the reason why you’ve been married five times is that you really believe in it. You see, I’ve never been married because, first of all, I don’t think I’ve ever seriously been asked by anyone who I wanted to marry. Secondly, I’ve been on my own now for nearly four years, and in the last 20 years, I’ve spent more time alone than I have in relationships. And also I’m monogamous.
COLLINS: You are?
EMIN: Yeah, I’m totally monogamous when I’m in a relationship, and when I’m not in a relationship, I don’t sleep around. So when I’m not with someone, I’m really on my own.
COLLINS: You have this reputation as a wild child, as it were.
EMIN: Yeah, I slept with more people between the ages of 13 and 15 than I have since.
COLLINS: Jesus, 13!
EMIN: Yeah. That is a wild child. I think I’ve done my bits with sex. I got it done right early on. As soon as I found out about it, I went right out and got it. And I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was easy. I thought it was fun. I thought it was a way of getting around the world. I saw everything about it as being positive then. And now I don’t. Now I see everything with love as being positive. So to answer your question, if I were really, truly in love with someone who was truly in love with me, then I would get married, but that would be the only reason I’d get married.
COLLINS: I think that’s exactly the way that I felt when I met Percy, because I had no intention of ever getting married again. None. But can I be a flower girl when you do commit to someone? Matron of honor? When you find somebody that’s absolutely right for you? I mean, my marriage at age 19 was a farce. How could I possibly get married at 19? I knew nothing of the world. I knew nothing of men. I’d never even seen a man without his clothes on!
EMIN: But that’s because you were a really nice girl and you thought you were doing the right thing. Whereas now, there’s no way you’d get married to someone because you lost your virginity.
COLLINS: Isn’t it ridiculous?
EMIN: It’s totally ridiculous. You know, you’re lucky that it didn’t damage you. And you’re lucky that you’re not still trapped in that marriage.
COLLINS: I think it did damage me. I think it damaged me a lot in a way—having a sort of distrust of men after that.
EMIN: But a lot of the men you’ve been attracted to haven’t exactly been the stay-at-home types, have they? To put it politely. Anthony Newley, for example.
COLLINS: Oh, he was a hermit. He hated going out. Hated it! All he wanted to do was work. I remember saying to him, “We’re having a dinner party tonight and it’s going to be so much fun. We’ve got Peter Sellers and Mia Farrow …” And he said, “Oh, I can’t come. I’ve got to work.” I said, “You haven’t got to work. You’ve been working all day!”
EMIN: How did he have time to have affairs then?
COLLINS: He started when he was in shows. You know, in the intermission.
EMIN: That’s nice.
COLLINS: I don’t think they were going out to dinner, and hearts and flowers. I think they were more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Certainly, I remember when I was pregnant the second time, I came into his dressing room one afternoon, in between shows, and there was this pretty, young blond sitting on his knee … But, you know something? I don’t bear grudges. People have to do what they have to do.
EMIN: Knowing you how I do now, you don’t bear any grudges. I was talking to you about the way you look, and I said that you always look good apart from when you’re unhappy, and you said to me, “I’m never unhappy!” [both laugh] Brilliant.
COLLINS: Yeah, I’m happy most of the time. I was born with the happy gene. I know some people who are just miserable all the time, who moan and complain and are jealous. There was a producer’s wife on Dynasty who was just so mean about everybody. Linda Evans or I borrowed a dress to wear to a premiere because we didn’t have time to get fitted, and she was really angry about that and accused people of stealing. Anyway, that’s beside the point. So listen, I’m going to have to pack this up shortly. I could talk to you all day, sweetie. Are we going to have lunch?
EMIN: Tell me what you’ve done today, because it’s still early for you.
COLLINS: It’s 9:30 A.M. I’ve been up since seven. I’ve had a long talk with a business associate for about 45 minutes, and then I talked with you now, and then I’ve got an interview because my book’s coming out the week after next. I’ve got an interview in 10 minutes actually, and I’m not dressed.
EMIN: All right then, when you’re back in London, let’s try to meet up. And not with lots of people.
COLLINS: No, no definitely not.
JOAN COLLINS IS A THEATER, FILM, AND TELEVISION ACTOR, AS WELL AS AN AUTHOR,WITH A CAREER SPANNING MORETHAN 60 YEARS.