June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

“I’M A GEMINI,” SAYS JOAN COLLINS, A smile on her lips. “We’re very multi-faceted, equally at home on a beach having a picnic as at Maxim’s in Paris dressed to the nines. That’s me.”

But it’s the more outrageous of her astrological twins, the one who packs caviar—not bologna—in the wicker hamper, that the public fell for. To most people, Collins, 64, still embodies Alexis Carrington, the high-living, conniving vixen she played on ABC’s Dynasty from 1981 to ’89.

Now, the actress has been recruited by Dynasty executive producer Aaron Spelling to add her champagne fizz to his new Fox series Pacific Palisades, a so-far underperforming prime-time soap about—surprise!—gorgeous, morally deficient young professionals. “The time was right to come back,” says Collins. Playing Christina Hobson, the cunning, beautiful mama of real estate agent Laura Sinclair (Kimberley Davies), Collins bowed on April 30 with a show-stopping entrance at a party that evoked daughter Laura’s greeting: “Who let that bitch in the door?”

Unfortunately, at that moment, some 40 million TV viewers were watching Ellen come out on ABC, an event lost on Collins. “I don’t get it,” she says. “What’s the big deal?” After all, Dynasty had gay Steven Carrington.

If Collins has seen it all before, she’s got the goods to show for it. On Palisades, where she earns what she calls a “very nice” salary, she boasts the biggest trailer on the set. Alluringly trim (“I was up at 7:30 a.m. at the gym”), she is still being dressed—minus the power shoulders—by Dynasty designer Nolan Miller. “There has to be room for some style,” says Collins. “And hopefully I’m going to bring a bit of it back on television.”

With style comes respect, even intimidation. (She had to insist her costars stop calling her Miss Collins.) When Collins strides onto the set, says Brittney Powell, who plays Beth Hooper, “there’s almost a regal air about her.” And why not? In a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in March, Queen Elizabeth awarded Collins the prestigious Order of the British Empire, which honors individuals who bring renown to Britain. Collins and Paul McCartney, who was knighted on that same day, “were shaking backstage,” she recalls. “He asked, ‘Are you nervous, luv?’ I said, ‘I’m terrified!’ But the queen was wonderful.”

The OBE is just one of many absolutely fabulous things in Collins’s life these days. On June 15 her elder daughter, Tara Newley, 33—a singer like her father, Collins’s second husband, Anthony Newley—married record producer Michael Adam.

And while Collins may never match the writing success of her sister, Hollywood novelist Jackie Collins, 57, she is awash in ink, none of it red. Second Act, the sequel to her bestselling, merrily indiscreet 1978 memoir, Past Imperfect: An Autobiography, is due this fall. And in February ’96 she emerged the victor in a lawsuit brought against her by Random House, which claimed that two manuscripts she turned in were incomplete and unpublishable and demanded she return a $1.3 million advance. “It was big business firing their salvos at one individual,” says a still-bristling Collins. “I don’t own big companies. I’m just me.”

The oldest of three children (brother Bill, now 51, is a London real estate developer), Collins attributes her resilience to being raised in wartime London by a strict but loving father, Joseph Collins, a theatrical agent, and mother Elsa, a former dance teacher. “If I ever whined, my parents would say, ‘Children are starving in Europe! Bombs are falling! How dare you be miserable when you’ve got a comfy bed to sleep in!’ I was brought up to never feel sorry for myself.”

Not that she hasn’t had cause. A student at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Collins left for Hollywood in the mid-’50s after landing a starlet-status contract. About 50 mostly-B movies followed—as did highly publicized flings with stars, including Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal and Harry Belafonte. But by 1976, when her career stalled, she was relegated to guest spots on shows like Starsky and Hutch and the unemployment line. Her appearance in a steamy film version of sister Jackie’s book The Stud in 1978 raised her profile and helped land her the Dynasty role.

Earning a reported $120,000 an episode, she triggered “an avalanche of head-turning when I walked into Spago,” she says. But Collins doesn’t miss the glory years. “I had this tremendous career,” she says, “and this disastrous personal life.” A four-time divorcée—from British actor Maxwell Reed, Newley, producer Ron Kass and erstwhile Swedish pop singer Peter Holm—Collins’s greatest crisis came in 1980, when her daughter with Kass, 8-year-old Katy, was struck by a car in England. Collins was at her bedside for six weeks until Katy awoke from a coma.

Today, Collins and Katy, 25, who is studying photography in London, are “joined at the hip,” says Collins’s son Sacha Newley, 31, a portrait painter and screenwriter in Los Angeles. “Mom really willed Katy back to life.”

But her dedication to Katy’s recovery blinded Collins to another calamity: Kass’s drug addiction. “I stuck my head, like the ostrich, in the sand,” she says. And paid for it. Kass’s habit grew so costly, Collins had to forfeit one of her houses to cover his debts. Still, they remained friends even after their 11-year marriage ended in 1983. Kass, who eventually overcame his addiction, succumbed to cancer in 1986.

That same year, Collins’s marriage to Holm ended after only 13 months. She calls her decision to wed the singer “the stupidest thing I ever did.” Collins, who refers bitterly to Holm as The Swede, was humiliated during their highly publicized divorce case by public revelations that he had a mistress. Says Sacha, admiringly, of his mother: “There have been times where she could have gone to pieces. But they only made her stronger.”

And her life less complicated. Indeed, after defeating Holm’s demand for a $2.6 million settlement, Collins decided she didn’t “want to have to worry about how I look or think, ‘Oh, God, I’ve gained five pounds!’ ” So when Dynasty ended in 1989, she sold her lavish, 10-room Hollywood Hills home and moved to London. She and her boyfriend of a decade, art dealer Robin Hurlstone, 14 years her junior, spend summers in the south of France in what Collins describes as a “really very simple” five-bedroom villa. “He’s my best friend,” says Collins, tugging on her “lucky,” sunflower-shaped gold earrings, a gift from Hurlstone. “There will be no more marriages, but I hope I’ll be with him always.”

While filming Palisades, the couple are renting a deluxe condo in Los Angeles, not far from Dynasty costar Diahann Carroll. “Joan is one of the best friends you can have,” says Carroll. “She can laugh at herself—she’s usually the first to do it.” Head held high, Collins says, “I tell my girls that they have to rely on themselves, not a man. It’s a cliché, but I am a survivor.”

TOM GLIATTO

JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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