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Britt Ekland: 'I was put through emotional and psychological warfare'
The Swedish actor on her infamous marriage with Peter Sellers, being stuck in London under lockdown – and why there will be no more Bond girls like her
Two days after their first date – which was also their first meeting – the comedian Peter Sellers gave Britt Ekland a dachshund puppy called Pepper.
Ekland had just arrived in London from Sweden to be 20th Century Fox’s next big star. She was 21 years old and living at the Dorchester hotel; a dog was a ridiculous gift, she says. So was Sellers’ previous largesse – every bloom in the hotel’s flower shop. “That was the way he wooed me.”
Just 10 days after their first date, Ekland and Sellers – 17 years her senior – were married, and the puppy was lost in the whirlwind. “All these years, I always wondered: what happened to Pepper?” says Ekland, now 77. Two weeks ago, she found out. A woman wrote to Ekland’s agent, saying she had taken Pepper, and that he lived a “long and happy life”. Ekland sighs, audibly relieved.
Although she lives mostly in Sweden and Los Angeles, Ekland was in the UK touring in the play The Cat and the Canary when the coronavirus hit. She is coping well in lockdown in London, walking her dog and cleaning. But, as a “ totally nonessential worker”, life has slowed dramatically.
Ekland’s career began when she was a teenager, appearing in chewing gum adverts and doing modelling jobs. She would go on to become one of the most-photographed women of the 1970s: as Sellers’ young bride, Roger Moore’s Bond girl in The Man With the Golden Gun and in high-profile relationships with the record exec Lou Adler and rock stars Rod Stewart, Phil Lewis and Slim Jim Phantom.
That she remains so prolific today – a fixture of reality television, talkshows and the panto circuit – is down to her work ethic. “If you want publicity, you’ve got to do something to deserve publicity,” she says. Even since lockdown began, she has appeared in BBC One’s The Real Marigold Hotel (where a group of older celebrities live out a retirement fantasy in India) and in the BBC Two documentary Peter Sellers: A State of Comic Ecstasy , about the comedian’s mental health problems, and his alcohol and substance misuse. That Ekland is still best known as Sellers’ former wife is testament to the star power – and infamous intensity – of their pairing.
They met in January 1964 after Sellers saw Ekland’s photograph in the newspaper and sent his valet round to her room. As he put it once: “I thought that I would like to meet what I saw.”
Ekland knew his name only from gossip magazines as a beauty pageant judge who had reportedly tried it on with Miss Sweden. She wore “a lot” of clothes to go to his suite, she says wryly. She thought Sellers worldly and suave, but she “didn’t have a clue” about his career. When Sellers realised, he suggested a trip to the cinema – to see The Pink Panther, in which he played Inspector Clouseau. “This wasn’t about you telling him about yourself,” says Ekland. “This was about him telling you.”
His marriage proposal, if you can call it that, was similarly brazen. About a week after they met, Ekland left for New York. Sellers called her. “He said: ‘I’ve told the press we’re getting married. Is that OK with you?’ I didn’t know what to say. Even to this day, I don’t know what I said.”
Ekland says she wasn’t the type to look for red flags. She describes herself as wilful and “extremely impulsive … I’m like a steamroller – I just go forward. I don’t have that stopper in me … Someone falls down in front of me, then I fall in love with him.” As a teenager in Stockholm, she “fell in love every five seconds”, once writing in her diary in blood while playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. “You had a bit of a snog, then it was over, so you wrote in blood,” Ekland says pragmatically, when I bring it up.
Her father was delighted when she married Sellers, despite the age gap. “Fame overcomes a lot of things,” she says drily. Not that he could have stopped her. She was “deliriously happy”, “madly in love” and soon to be a big star.
Then, she says: “It all came crashing down.” Days after their wedding, Sellers flew to Los Angeles for a film and sent her a three-page letter obsessing that she might leave him or be unfaithful, and saying he wanted to have “violent” sex with her. It was signed with 25 kisses.
Sellers urged Ekland to join him for Easter, waving away her commitments to shoot the film Guns at Batasi. She acquiesced. Within days of her arrival in Los Angeles, he had the first of a series of heart attacks. “By the following Sunday, he was on life support.” Ekland’s parents flew out to join her, and she learned to drive between Sellers’ mansion and the hospital. “I prayed to God a lot, even though I’m not a religious person … just hoping and believing that he would pull through.” He did, and their daughter Victoria was born in January 1965.
By then, Ekland had been fired by Fox for breach of contract for leaving Guns at Batasi, and knew about Sellers’ dark side. In company, he was “the joker, the fabulous comedian”, she says sarcastically. “He kept the table going for hours … everyone loved him: ‘Such a fun evening!’” The question she has been asked most in her life is: “How fun was Peter Sellers at home?”
In truth, he was “very possessive and very, very moody”. He would threaten Ekland with divorce, then just as capriciously make up, and fly into jealous rages. The abuse was never physical – if it had been, Ekland says she “might have left sooner … I know that sounds horrible. [But] I’m just being practical.” Did she see the relationship as abusive at all? She hesitates. “Well, I realised it wasn’t right – someone putting me through emotional and psychological warfare.”
Once, Hugh Hefner told Sellers he had nude pictures of Ekland as a ploy to get Sellers, a keen photographer, to supply some himself. Ekland, who was always “very prudish”, knew it was a bluff. “I never purposely posed half-naked.” Even shooting films, she would cover herself up with black camera tape – “however painful it was to take off”. She scoffs to hear herself described as a sex symbol. “I don’t know what a ‘sex symbol’ is.” Sure enough, Hefner’s smoking gun showed Ekland with scarcely a bare shoulder. But Sellers had not believed her. “It was just horrifying that he should accuse me of something that was so very far from who I was.”
No fight was too petty, says Ekland. “If I spoke to my mother in Swedish, that would be a huge rant for hours, like this …” She mimics an unintelligible, screeching tirade. “He never took a pause.” Ekland confided in the actor Nanette Newman and her husband, the director Bryan Forbes – the couple’s closest friends in Hollywood. “One night, I just got in the car and drove to them to seek shelter … this continued throughout my marriage.”
It all ended as abruptly as it began. After dinner at the Excelsior hotel in Rome, Ekland permitted the paparazzi to take their photograph, enraging Sellers. In their room, his “high-pitched waffling” went on all night, prompting noise complaints.
“Eventually, at 5am, I’d been so traumatised, I couldn’t take any more,” says Ekland. (Some accounts say she took a Valium.) “And he suddenly just said: ‘That’s it. You’re out of here.’” Sellers called the couple’s agent, who took Ekland to another hotel nearby, “where I hid until I got the flight to Sweden”. There she was reunited with Victoria, then about five, who had been in the UK with her nanny.
Sellers made several efforts to reconcile, but, says Ekland: “I knew that this was it – I’d had enough.” Only someone “mentally super-strong” could have withstood four years, she adds. They divorced in December 1968.
Sellers died of a heart attack in 1980. Although he was never diagnosed, Ekland believes him to have had bipolar disorder. Though she has disputed accounts of Sellers’ alcohol and cocaine dependency, she told the recent BBC Two documentary that he was unable to get help for his mental health problems “because he was such a valuable asset”.
Ekland has only ever sought help for her mental health once – in the 80s, after her mother died of Alzheimer’s aged 78. Although she disliked her father, she and her mother were very close. “Wherever I worked, she always came.” Ekland was prescribed antidepressants after her loss, but stopped taking them after three days.
She is used to getting on with things. “I am so used to taking care of myself, I don’t need anyone to do anything for me.” Her most recent marriage, to the Stray Cats drummer, Slim Jim Phantom, ended after eight years in 1992. After three children by three partners, Ekland was preaching “self-partnership” long before Emma Watson, back when there really was a stigma.
“I’ve always been a modern woman, and I still am,” says Ekland now. That said, she is scathing of some modern women – specifically, social media influencers. Without naming names, she says she pities “those poor Plasticine models … throwing themselves explicitly over their Instagrams. All that effort, for such little payback.” Even Bond girls do not make the same impact today, says Ekland. “I’m the proudest Bond girl there is because there are not a lot of us left, and there won’t be any in future.” She has said modern Bond girls have it harder than she did, there now being “so many demands” – she believes, imposed by political correctness. “The Bond girl has to look good in a bikini: that was her role … The Bond girl of my era exists no more because they’re not presented that way. You wouldn’t see her in a bikini next to Daniel Craig in a suit today – the PR department would make sure that didn’t happen.”
Ekland also brushes off beauty standards as a factor in her historical embrace of cosmetic surgery. Once outspoken in her praise of it for over-40s (“I think it’s wonderful”), it is now among her biggest regrets thanks to a botched lip procedure in 1994. “Excruciatingly painful” corrective attempts “to try to melt the stuff” injected into her lips have not been quite successful – as is “constantly” pointed out on social media, says Ekland exasperatedly. “To all the people who say: ‘She’s destroyed her face,’ – yes! I didn’t do that purposely; I don’t want to look like this, but I have no choice. I’ve learned to live with it, so you’d better learn to live with it.”
Until “a few years ago”, Ekland observes ironically, “I was always striving to look older”. She credits her youthful appearance with keeping her from the predation in Hollywood exposed by #MeToo. “I knew that was going on, but I was never in the inner [circles] where it was gossiped about … men were a little bit intimidated by the naivety of me. I think they’d just look at me and say: ‘She’s so young – we can’t touch her.’”
Today, Ekland is grandmother to seven-year-old Cash and three-year-old Lucas – born to her second child, Nic Adler , in Los Angeles. Months after he was born, Lucas was found to have adrenoleukodystrophy , an untreatable genetic condition that causes progressive degeneration of the brain in boys and is often terminal. Lucas’s early diagnosis from routine newborn screening in California allowed for early interventions. Ekland has since become a patron for the UK leukodystrophy charity Alex TLC to campaign for the condition to be added to the birth screen in the UK, “so that all these boys have a future”. When she will next be able to see her family in person is a concern – but as ever, Ekland takes a pragmatic view. “I’m very much a person who lives for the day. Today, I feel good, nothing is really horrible … so: I find that I’m lucky.” For now, her plans are only to write back to the woman who took in her dog 56 years ago, “and find out exactly what happened”. But, says Ekland emphatically, “the only thing I care about is that Pepper had a wonderful life.”
- Peter Sellers
- Fred and Dinah Gretsch School of Music at GSU
From the Blog
Ten Things You May Not Know About Slim Jim Phantom
| May 12, 2021
Photo by Gretchen Lanham.
Slim Jim Phantom is Rockabilly Royalty. Born not too far from the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn and raised in Massapequa, New York, Phantom grew up immersed in music, especially his parents’ jazz records which featured many legendary Gretsch drummers. “I was a jazz maniac growing up,” says Phantom. “To me, Max Roach and Art Blakey and ‘Philly’ Joe Jones were my favorites. I was drawn to their sheer power. Even within a jazz setting, I found Gretsch drums to be a little bit louder.”
Starting drum lessons at the age of 10, Phantom learned from one of the best: Mousey Alexander, the legendary jazz drummer who played with Dinah Washington and Benny Goodman. In his late teens, Phantom discovered rockabilly and along with his childhood buddy and bassist, Lee Rocker, joined up with guitarist Brian Setzer in 1979 to form the power rockabilly trio, Stray Cats. Two years later, the Stray Cats led a rockabilly revival, blending the raw energy of ‘50s rockabilly with modern punk musical elements, with the breakout hits “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.”
The energetic, flamboyant Phantom is famous for putting his drums out front onstage and playing standing up, with just a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and crash cymbal. After dreaming all of his life of becoming a Gretsch artist (growing up, Phantom cut out Gretsch drum ads from Modern Drummer and pictures from Gretsch catalogs and put them on his bedroom walls), Phantom became a Gretsch endorsed artist in 1983, the 100th anniversary of the Gretsch Company, and was featured on the “Someday, you’ll own Gretsch” poster series that year.
The cover of Slim Jim’s acclaimed autobiography he released in 2015.
When not performing with Stray Cats, Phantom has kept busy playing with Jerry Lee Lewis and a slew of bands including The Swing Cats; Phantom, Rocker & Slick (with former David Bowie guitarist, Earl Slick); Col. Parker (with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke); The Head Cat (with Danny B. Harvey and the late Lemmy Kilmister); and Kat Men, a duo with Gretsch endorsed guitarist, Darrel Higham. Phantom also performs with his wife, Jennie Vee, the bassist for Eagles of Death Metal, and in 2016 wrote the critically-acclaimed autobiography, A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel.
When not making music, rescuing dogs and cats, working on his “History of Rockabilly” documentary, and watching Jeopardy , Phantom can be heard on two SiriusXM shows. He hosts “Rockabilly Rave Up” and “Slim Jim’s Phantasy,” a weekly show dedicated to his other passion: baseball and fantasy sports. We caught up with Slim Jim by phone at his California home to talk about his interesting life and long music career. Here are “Ten Things You May Not Know About Slim Jim Phantom.” Enjoy!
1. The highest compliment he ever received came from a Gretsch drum legend.
I met Tony Williams in real life at a NAMM Show. We were at the Gretsch Drums booth and there were a lot of famous drummers there. And Tony, who didn’t know me, came up to me in front of everyone and said, ‘This is the guy. You’re the only one who put the drums in the FRONT of the stage. All of us, no matter how good we are, we’re second line.’ And he said this in front of all the drummers there, my contemporaries, and I was very, very flattered.
2. Bob Dylan gave him the best piece of advice he’s ever heard.
We were doing a tribute show at the Universal Amphitheatre for Roy Orbison after Roy passed, and there were a lot of people on the show. And I was a little bit grumpy because things were running late and we were told to wait and the sound check was late, and then Bob arrived. I had met Bob before through Duane Eddy and George Harrison, and I just happened to be the first person he saw when he came in. And he said, ‘What’s going on with you, kid?’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, the sound check’s late and they got me waiting in the lobby and there’s nowhere to go and I’m waiting for this and waiting for that.’ And he looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Kid, don’t take anything in the music business personally.’ And that was the best advice I’d ever heard, and I never did it again.
3. He’s superstitious about two things: socks and Elvis.
Yeah, I’ve always worn two different color socks. But I’m superstitious in that I always wear the darker color on the left foot. I have no idea why; that’s just what I do. And if I’m in the car and at the end of my journey and there’s an Elvis song playing, I’ll sit in the car until the song is over. I don’t know if something bad will happen, I don’t know if something good will happen, it’s just a superstition. I cannot turn an Elvis song off while it’s on.
4. His favorite drummers? Any cat who can do two things: rock and swing!
I’m naturally more of a rock guy, but I could swing. That’s what I’m interested in; things that could rock and could swing. Ringo could rock and swing. Charlie Watts rocks and swings. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a certain thing that certain cats do, and I found that a lot of those cats I was into, who could rock and swing, played Gretsch drums.
Flying high onstage and ready to pounce on those Gretsch drums!
5. If he could’ve been the drummer with any band, it would’ve been the early 70s Rolling Stones.
I just loved The Rolling Stones from 1972, ’73, and ’74; they just hit that stride as a band. They played the things that I love. I love the blues, I love to swing, I love the melodies from that era. It just all lined up. And I understood the music. There are certain bands that I love, but I don’t know if I could handle it, if you know what I mean. The Stones? I know I could handle it.
6. He has one junk food weakness (and no, it’s not a Slim Jim).
Well, I’ve been vegan for a very long time, but I tell ya, Wavy Lay’s Potato Chips are my favorite thing in the world. They’re the best. Been eating them ever since I was a kid. I just love ‘em.
7. The Stray Cats based their lives and career on an album cover.
When we found and discovered rockabilly in the late 70s, there wasn’t that much to go by. Not every record store had all those old records. The Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps album was, like, our gospel, our guide. And on the cover, Dickie Harrell was standing up playing the drums, and that gave me the idea of ‘what if you did that all the time?’ And ‘what if you moved the drums to the front of the stage?’ So, we tried it and it worked and we just kept doing it.
An early group photo of Stray Cats. L-R: Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom, Lee Rocker.
8. Jim’s cool wheels have to pass the driveway test.
I like cars. I have a 1961 Corvette that’s in perfect condition, like it came right off the showroom. It only has 75,000 miles on it and I’m the second owner. It’s my Sunday driver but my daily driver is a Mopar, a 2019 Hemi Challenger RT which is just a monster. I love it. All I’ve ever had were Corvettes, but I live on a very steep driveway in LA, and I couldn’t get a new ‘Vette up the driveway. It kept bottoming out. So, the Hemi Challenger, believe it or not, was a bit of practicality. It had a trunk. It had a back seat. And it made it up my driveway!
9. His most embarrassing moment happened on a stage in London.
It’s pretty hard to embarrass me, but my most embarrassing moment onstage was falling off the stage at the Brixton Academy in London and breaking my arm. The gig was over, we were saying goodnight to the audience, my boot caught a slat board on the stage a little wrong, I leaned out a little too far and I fell off the stage. I pulverized my wrist and that put an end to the tour. So, that was the most embarrassing and most tragic thing that ever happened onstage because the tour came to a screeching halt.
10. His most memorable moment was playing in front of 600,000 at the ’83 US Festival.
Oh, buddy, that was my favorite gig ever with the Stray Cats. That was our moment. It was the perfect time when the band was hitting perfectly on the charts, on the radio, and on MTV. And we had the perfect spot onstage. We started with the sun out and as we were playing, the sun went down, and the lights came on. We had 600,000 people singing ‘Rock This Town.’ Man, how can you top that?
600,000 people singing “Rock This Town” at the 1983 US Festival. This is Slim Jim Phantom’s all-time favorite gig. (Sorry the last few seconds are cut off.)
Slim Jim Phantom Trio
Slim Jim Phantom has secured his place as a true rock-n-roll icon. As the legendary drummer for the Stray Cats, Phantom, alongside bandmates Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker, spearheaded the neo-rockabilly movement of the early 80s. With a love for 50's Rock and Roll, the Stray Cats took inspiration from that bygone era and mixed with their youthful energy and aggression to produce the updated hard-edged rockabilly sound that saw them conquer London, Europe and later the U.S., gaining fans among the likes of Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and Robert Plant along the way.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Jim grew up listening to his parents' jazz records and, by the age of ten, took up the drums. He immersed himself in the art of drumming and the world of music and took lessons with Mousie Alexander (who played with Benny Goodman), which included the study of jazz and working through books by Jim Chapin and Ted Reed.
By the late 70's Jim was playing in bands with his school friend and bassist Lee Rocker and then joined forces with guitarist Brian Setzer. The rest, as they say, is history. The Stray Cats had numerous hit singles in the early 1980s, their classic album Built for Speed went double platinum, and their song "Rock This Town" was cemented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll."
In the Summer of 2008, Jim and the Stray Cats reunited for an extensive tour of Europe. In February of 2009, the band headed to Australia and New Zealand for the first time in 18 years - a tour eagerly anticipated by Australasian fans.
In addition to the Stray Cats, Jim has worked with some of the world's top artists. He has played a part in many successful groups – notably Phantom, Rocker and Slick (featuring long time David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick) which produced two popular albums; and Dead Men Walking, an all-star affair which has boasted original members of The Sex Pistols, The Cult and Big Country among the rotating line-up. Jim also enjoyed a stint playing with the rock-n-roll originator, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even performed in a now-mythological band called The Cheap Dates with acting legend Harry Dean Stanton, one of Jim's longtime pals.
Jim has worked on numerous other projects, including his own explosive self-named roots-rock trio, and HeadCat, co-starring Lemmy Kilmister and Danny B. Harvey. In addition, 2009 marked the launch of Slim Jim's musical project The Jack Tars, a band co-founded with old friends, and former Dead Men Walking bandmates Captain Sensible and Mike Peters and SJP's long time true rockabilly pal Chris Cheney of Australia's top rockin' band The Living End. They plan on making new music and setting sail again in the near future. The supergroup currently includes longtime collaborators, new members Duff McKagan from Guns N' Roses, and a longtime fan and fellow Long Islander Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia . They did a few legendary shows at LA's famed venue, The Troubadour. They plan on recording and playing more shows down the line.
In the past several years, Slim Jim has continued to work with diverse friends and true artists, including Sex Pistol Glen Matlock and Earl Slick. He's also partnered with British guitar ace Darrel Higham under the band name Katmen; the pair released a critically acclaimed rockabilly record on Decca records, toured extensively, and appeared on the British TV show Later … with Jools Holland.
Jim is deeply committed to charitable works, too: he climbed both Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro for Love Hope Strength Foundation (an organization co-founded by Mike Peters of The Alarm that benefits cancer research) with fellow rockers Peters, Robin Wilson from the Gin Blossoms, Cy Curnin from The Fixx and Glenn Tillbrook from Squeeze. The treks were filmed for a National Geographic documentary shown on the National Geographic Channel and VH1. In December 2014, he attended the World Cancer Congress in Melbourne, Australia, with the Love Hope Strength group to promote cancer research, spreading the word with music and wisecracks.
In 2018, The Stray Cats reunited for a select number of shows. After the overwhelming success of these shows, the band decided to keep going. 2019 marked the band's 40th anniversary, which they celebrated with a new album and world tour. The album 40, reached #3 on the Billboard charts and top 10 worldwide. They followed up the album with a sold-out world tour, culminating with a landmark show at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, California. The Cats plan on continuing their 'Rockabilly Crusade' for another 40 years. Their special guest on the night of the Greek Theater, The Eagles of Death Metal, features his wife, Jennie Vee. Jim and Jennie met at The World Famous Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, making them a true Rock and Roll couple. This monumental event cemented SJP's connection to the Strip, where he owned and operated an almost mythical rock bar/music venue called The Cat Club, which he owned for fourteen years. Jim and Jennie got married in 2020. They collaborate and make guest appearances on each other's recordings, and Jennie is a permanent member of The Slim Jim Phantom Trio. Both Jim and Jennie have new music releasing soon.
As of 2020, Jim hosts Rockabilly Rave Up on Little Steven's Underground Garage on SiriusXM. He is known as "The Honest Mechanic," where he features new rockabilly acts and the classics. He shares his unique spin on how Rock and Roll have shaped pop culture in the world. As well as his duties on UG, Jim also hosts Slim Jim Phantasy on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he shares his other passion, baseball, and fantasy sports in general.
Over 40 years and millions of record sales later, Slim Jim Phantom continues to inspire and excite audiences worldwide. With a sound, style, and image that remain as fresh today as they ever were, Phantom has cemented his place among rock royalty. Considered by many as the coolest drummer in rock-n-roll, Phantom's influence is still clearly felt on today's music scene with countless rockabilly drummers imitating his pioneering stand-up style.
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