Spellbinding for their sexiness as well as their symmetry, the Maltese identical twins Mary and Madeleine Collinson arrived in London penniless in 1969 and quickly became an underground sensation, snapped up by opportunistic film-makers and photographers, mostly at the naughtier end of the market.
Their autumnal beauty and kittenish mannerisms transported them to the Playboy mansion and even briefly to Hollywood, and decades after starring in Twins of Evil (1971), a debauched Hammer vampire yarn, they remain etched on the minds of generations of bewitched retrophile males.
Madeleine, who has died at 62, was shorter by a whisker and a touch more assertive than her sister, and with a passion for old horror films (her favourite was the original Nosferatu). “I could never have played the goody-goody Maria in Twins of Evil as I photograph harder than my sister,” she said at the time. “I loved playing the evil twin and Mary played herself!”
Born in Sliema, the girls never knew their father, a married British naval officer who disappeared from their mother’s life before they were born. They spent years trying to trace him, but recently his children tracked them down independently and they discovered a new extended family in Australia.
Although educated separately, Madeleine at a convent school, the twins performed together from an early age. The family’s financial situation was desperate, and so, just shy of 17, Mary headed for London “with only an agency contact address and no idea what I was doing”. Madeleine joined her a few weeks later.
It was inevitable that the striking, mischievous-looking pair would get work in no time at all, firstly as extras slyly looking on in the recently reappraised groupie drama Permissive (1970), a slight but sure report on how the swinging was beginning to turn seedy in London at the turn of the decade, then in the fantastically-titled Halfway Inn (1970) for the soft-core czar Harrison Marks (the man who coined the term “glamour photography”). Then, at a party, they caught the eye of Victor Lownes, who headed Playboy’s European operation.
They were the first twins to appear as Playboy centrefolds, but the pictures took almost a year to complete, onerous by nature of having two subjects. Throughout this period they stayed at Lownes’ London residence, where a butler looked after them “like a mother”, they said, while they kept busy with fashion shoots and further film appearances, enacting male fantasies in the raunchy but downbeat Groupie Girl (1970), the lame but louche Come Back, Peter (1969), and alongside Keith Barron and Kenneth Cope in a more innocent sauce-pot-boiler, She’ll Follow You Anywhere (1971).
Apparently nearly 800 sheets of 10x8 film were shot for their Playboy feature, a record number for the magazine. The pictures finally appeared in the October 1970 edition, on which they also graced the cover. Their easy intimacy with each other and the very fact that they came as a pair typecast them fatally; yet despite the saccharine soft-focus and pear-coloured sunlight very much of its time, the Playboy shoot was undeniably well-constructed by Dwight Hooker, the magazine’s finest photographer.
Being interviewed in the United States by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show did them no harm at all, and neither did the treasurable copy they gave the press: “if I fall for a man, then so does Madeleine. Men simply crave taking both of us out simultaneously. I guess it gives them a feeling of double riches,” was a quote attributed to Mary that went viral in the press at the time.
But their moment in Hollywood proved to be merely a retread of their chintzy British film experiences: their roles in The Love Machine (1971) amounted to nothing more than reprising their threesome act for a shower scene. Thankfully, back in Britain Twins of Evil proved much better, a heady brew of sexually repressed witchfinders and sapphic vampires, decked out fetchingly in a rich shade of period decadence.
They were keen to avoid constantly being cast as a pair, well aware that the novelty was working against them, but the chance never came. They moved to Milan in 1972, and continued modelling for a few more years until family life took over, Madeleine marrying an RAF pilot and returning to Malta in 2010.
Their career was played out in a time when men made both the films and the rules, but Mary remembers it all with fondness, saying “it was great while it lasted”. Their absence from the spotlight in later years only fuelled fan fascination, and when they finally made public appearances again recently, signing autographs to raise money for the charity Our Disappearing Planet, it brought their story full circle and allowed Madeline, a great animal-lover, to use her past for a worthy cause.
The bond between the pair never weakened. In tribute to her sister, Mary said, “it’s not normal for me not to be a twin. We not only looked alike but were the same person. Maddie will be with me all the time. I want to believe that one day we will be together again. See you Twin. I love you.”
Madeleine Collinson, model and actress: born Sliema, Malta 22 July 1952; married (two daughters, one son); died Malta 14 August 2014.Reuse content