THE BIRDS, THE BEES, SIDNEY, JACKIE, AND ME
By Martin Aguilera
Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon taught me about sex.
I was a precocious kid, and as a budding romance reader, the moment I learned about the birds, the bees, the flowers, and the trees – there was no going back.
“People do that?” I thought to myself.
Oh yes they do!
From then on, when it came to books, I knew that sexy was my jam.
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants who had been raised in the Catholic tradition, and although they were people of faith, for my family church was something mostly attended on holidays or special occasions. There were no repressive messages regarding sex and sexuality coming at me from that institution, but I did grow up around people who didn’t talk about it. When they did, it was usually as something to be joked about, a punchline or double entendre. Otherwise there was an air of shame to it.
Not so when I found the novels of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins.
Jackie got on my radar when the NBC-TV miniseries Lucky Chances, based on her Lucky Santangelo novels, aired. I was riveted by the storyline of a gangster’s daughter who grows up to take over his casino empire, but I was also drawn to how Lucky (as played by Nicolette Sheridan on the show) really smoldered and owned her sexiness. I had to read the book! The next trip to Waldenbooks saw me walking out with a copy of Chances, the first book in the Santangelo series. As usual, my father didn’t really care what I was reading, I think he was just glad I wasn’t asking for very expensive toys.
As I delved into the exotic (for me!) worlds of New York, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Hollywood – I was delighted and scandalized by how free the characters were about sex and sexuality. It was unlike anything I’d ever known… and yet, I knew that this is exactly how I wanted to be. The sex scenes in the novel were playful, and often graphic, but they taught me what it was like to enjoy sex (up to that point, at least on the page), and ultimately I think it gave me a healthy perspective on what the sex act could be: not something to shy away from, but rather, something to arrive at as one of life’s greatest gifts.
At around this time, I was also swept away by the novels of romance, sex, and intrigue by Sidney Sheldon. He and Jackie Collins operated in the larger-than-life worlds of globe-trotting men and women who were the epitome of glamorous, and they were often up to no good. The Other Side of Midnight was a revelation to me. Noelle Page, the French actress in the novel who was initially victimized by men and ultimately turned the tables on them by beating them at their own game opened my eyes to a different kind of heroine – a femme fatale – one who used sex, and sexuality, as a weapon. Knowing that what many men wanted from her was her body, Noelle becomes an expert lover, mastering the erotic arts, and she not only manipulates them with her skills… but ultimately destroys her enemies.
Not exactly a paradigm of femininity for our current cultural climate, that Noelle Page – but that’s exactly what I love about her, and the women in Jackie’s books. They apologized to no one, for nothing. They behaved impulsively. They weren’t afraid of hard work. They did not shy away from the big nasty. And they always got what they wanted.
I will never understand what it’s like to be a woman, but the message of empowerment, of strength in our erotic self was a powerful one for a young person coming to terms with his own sexuality. The women in these novels are why I was not afraid of being different. There’s something to be said about the connection between strong women – “divas” – and their worship by gay men, from ancient times to present day. One of my personal icons, feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia, has written extensively on the topic in various essays and articles and in her excellent work of guerilla scholarship, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.
Years later, when I had moved to Los Angeles and was working at the Barnes & Noble bookstore located at The Grove, the big shopping center in the heart of Hollywood, celebrities would frequent the store. I was at the cash register one day ringing up customers when a woman stepped up and before me stood none other than the legend herself, Jackie Collins in the flesh. Her big, gorgeous hair, her sunglasses, the stylish tailored pantsuit. I was thrilled! She bought some cookbooks that day, and as I put her purchases into a bag, I looked up at her and said, “Miss Collins, I just wanted to let you know how much I love your books. They mean so much to me, especially the Lucky Santangelo novels. It’s how I learned about the birds and the bees!”
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye as she was signing her credit card receipt.
“I’ve got another one coming out in the fall,” she told me. “Sell the hell out of it, darling!”
And with that, she threw on her sunglasses and walked away.
It was a full circle moment for me, and I realized that Jackie (may she rest in peace), owned all of who she was – and it came through in the work – including all of her sexy.