By Karen Schneider
March 04, 2002 12:00 PM

You’d think that after more than 50 years in show business—not to mention a starring role in four previous marriages, starting with British screen idol Maxwell Reed in 1951—Joan Collins would have licked stage fright. But it was with some genuine jitters that at 5:25 p.m. on Feb. 17 Collins, dressed in a lilac silk-crepe gown by Dynasty designer Nolan Miller, prepared to make her entrance before 170 guests seated in the opulent drawing room of London’s Claridge’s hotel. “Is it normal to have a dry mouth?” Collins, 68, asked her wedding coordinator Siobhan Craven-Robbins seconds before walking down the aisle to marry theatrical-company manager Percy Gibson, 36. “I gave her water,” says Craven-Robbins, “and told her, ‘That’s exactly what’s meant to happen.'”

As she made her way past guests including Roger Moore, Rupert Everett and Collins’s three children—daughter Tara, 38, son Sacha Newley, 36 (from her eight-year marriage to husband No. 2, the late composer Anthony Newley), and Katy Kass, 29 (with third husband, record producer Ron Kass, who died in 1986)—”everyone broke into spontaneous applause,” says Craven-Robbins. “They cheered and whistled.” After the 20-minute ceremony, the grandmother of one exchanged yellow- and white-gold wedding bands with Gibson. It was, says Collins’s writer pal Adrian Gill, “an antidote to cynicism. Weddings are always the hope against the experience. You write a blank check for the future. In Joan’s case it is a very brave, very hopeful check to write.”

In part because of the three-decade age difference between bride and groom. But the British Collins, who calls the Manhattan-based Gibson her “soulmate,” says she isn’t worried. “He’s so much his own person,” she says. “Extremely secure in his own skin.” The actress, worth an estimated $7.5 million, even turned down Gibson’s suggestion of a prenup. “I didn’t consider it necessary,” says Collins, whose last marriage, to Swedish pop star Peter Holm, 55, lasted a year. Extolling the “kind, true, nice, funny, intelligent” nature of the man she met in April 2000 at a New York City book signing for her celeb self-help book My Friends’ Secrets, Collins insisted, “Percy is the most honorable man I’ve ever met.”

A good dancer too. After a dinner of foie gras, pistachio salad, noisettes of lamb with artichokes and, according to longtime Collins pal Sally Bulloch, “gallons of champagne,” the newlyweds took their first steps to “The Way You Look Tonight.” Then came several more hours of dancing to a deejay’s mix of ’70s tunes by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer and ABBA. “I know it’s a cliché,” says Bulloch, “but I have never seen happiness like this radiate from Joan.”

Indeed, the only thing able to still her laughter was complaining by hotel guests about the noise around 1 a.m. By 2, when the couple retired to the hotel’s $5,800-a-night penthouse suite, they left behind them the scent of some 3,000 orchids, lilies and roses—and the hope in happily ever after. “It’s not like she’s the star and he’s the young man,” says Bulloch. “They’re just two people very much in love.”

Karen Schneider

Pete Norman, Ginanne Brownell, Caris Davis, Amanda Rimmer and Nic McCarthy in London