Mon. Feb 26th, 2024
alert-–-he’s-the-90s-martial-arts-pin-up-who-nearly-lost-it-all-to-cocaine.-now-jean-claude-van-damme-is-back-with-his-own-whiskey-brand,-a-film-in-the-works-–-and-surprising-gym-tips-for-iram-ramzanAlert – He’s the 90s martial arts pin-up who nearly lost it all to cocaine. Now Jean-Claude Van Damme is back with his own whiskey brand, a film in the works – and surprising gym tips for IRAM RAMZAN

There’s an episode in an early series of Friends in which Monica (Courteney Cox) spots a famous face on a New York street.

‘Oh my God, oh my God. It’s Jean-Claude Van Damme,’ she squeals to Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). ‘He’s so hot!’

Rachel surveys the brawny Belgian actor sceptically: ‘You think?’

Cue an incredulous Monica: ‘The Muscles from Brussels? Wham Bam Van Damme?’ Before long, the flatmates are competing for Van Damme’s affections.

And who can blame them, I think, as I am ushered into his presence.

Almost 30 years on from that appearance in the legendary sitcom, at 63 he’s still the Muscles from Brussels! Or, as he would have it, the Fred Astaire of Karate, a nod to his mastery of the martial arts which made his name.

The Eighties and Nineties were the era of super-buff screen heroes, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sylvester Stallone, but few were a match for Van Damme — whose star turns included the splits and awesome 360-degree kicks. With those rippling muscles, bouffant hairdo and killer moves, men wanted to be him — and women wanted to be with him.

‘I am ushered into his presence’, Iram Ramzan says as she sits down with Jean-Claude Van Damme

The Eighties and Nineties were the era of super-buff screen heroes, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sylvester Stallone, but few were a match for Van Damme — whose star turns included the splits and awesome 360-degree kicks

Fitness, martial arts and alcohol are not exactly ideal bedfellows but Van Damme has form

‘He was sooo good looking back in the day,’ my landlady gushes when I tell her I’m to interview him.

My mum asks for a personalised video. ‘Make sure he says my name!’ Steady on, Mother!

And after researching JCVD’s oeuvre, I can’t say I’m surprised at her fangirling.

Take Bloodsport (1988) and its scene in which he executes the splits and delivers a knockout blow to a Chinese giant.

Or Kickboxer (1989), when he dances while drunk with two Thai women and then performs the splits (what else!) while seeing off the baddies?

Or how about Double Team (1997), which has him dodging bullets and a tiger in a Roman amphitheatre?

And what about the stunt he performed — in just one, awe-inspiring take — known as ‘The Epic Split’ for a Volvo Trucks ad. Van Damme did the splits while balanced on the wing mirrors of two backwards-moving lorries. ‘They sold 30 per cent more trucks in China because of that!’ he tells me proudly.

When I compliment him on his appearance at our meeting in Belfast, he tells me regular exercise and a clean diet are key, but insists he’s not in the best shape right now. He’s sleep-deprived from interviews across multiple time zones on a whirlwind promotional tour for a new Irish whiskey.

‘Irish people are very happy, they are down to earth,’ he says. ‘They talk fast. I speak fast too, so I hope they understand me.’

Fitness, martial arts and alcohol are not exactly ideal bedfellows but Van Damme has form. Sporting an infamous mullet and double denim, he was the face of American beer Coors Light.

I ask him if he’s ever had a shot of whiskey before training. ‘Sometimes I take a shot. Bodybuilder friends of mine have a shot of schnapps or vodka or whiskey because alcohol dilates the arteries.’

He says he drinks very little, but his grandfather inspired his love of the spirit when he was growing up in Belgium. ‘I remember being nine or ten, sitting on his knee. He loved to smoke cigars. I liked the smell, and he’d dip the cigar into a gold liquid — whiskey.’

He’s keen to emphasise that up to 50 per cent of the profits from the new brand will go towards environmental issues — and he’s passionate about animal rights. 

Fitness, martial arts and alcohol are not exactly ideal bedfellows but Van Damme has form

He’s keen to emphasise that up to 50 per cent of the profits from the new brand will go towards environmental issues — and he’s passionate about animal rights

Worth an estimated £25-30 million, Van Damme’s life today is a long way from humbler beginnings

Worth an estimated £25-30 million, Van Damme’s life today is a long way from humbler beginnings. Born Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg, the son of a Belgian florist, Van Damme grew up in Brussels with sister Veronique.

He says he left school at 13 and spent a lot of time immersed in comics, especially The Adventures Of Tintin. ‘Tintin helped me a lot,’ he laughs.

It was his father who encouraged him to take up karate to ‘toughen up’ and he received his black belt in Shotokan karate in 1978. He later studied kickboxing in Paris and — a surprise admission — did ballet for a few years to enhance his martial arts ability.

But Van Damme wanted to be an actor. In 1981, aged 21, he sold his ‘California Gym’ in the Belgian capital, which he says was making $15,000 a month, to move to Los Angeles. ‘When I told my dad I wanted to go to Hollywood, he said: “Are you crazy? I shut my flower shop for you, you idiot!” ’

Van Damme barely spoke a word of English, knew nobody and had just $3,000 in his pocket. For four years he worked as a bouncer and a limousine driver, often forced to sleep in his car and scrounge for food. ‘I’m glad I touched rock bottom,’ he says. ‘You get to meet people with different agendas.’

It all changed when he got his break in the low-budget Bloodsport. It was deemed so bad it might never have been released had not Van Damme insisted on helping to edit the film and then begged producers to release it.

Shot in Hong Kong on a $1.5 million budget, it returned $50 million at the U.S. box office alone. Blockbusters including Universal Soldier (1992) and Hard Target (1993) followed, before he starred alongside Kylie Minogue in a film adaptation of the video game Street Fighter. (He and Kylie had a fling while he was married to his fourth wife Darcy LaPier, with whom he has a son.)

Despite his commercial success, his personal life has been less so. He has been married five times to four women — his current wife, who he divorced in 1992 and remarried seven years later, is former bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, with whom he has a son and daughter. He battled a serious cocaine habit and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1990s.

‘I was depressed in the morning,’ he admits. ‘It took years to understand why I was so sad and people were happy around me.’

He describes himself now as a reformed party boy who spends his time watching educational videos on YouTube.

Hong Kong has been his home for 20 years. He lives on the 75th floor of an apartment block and while in the lift, he does a deep squat and a stretch in the minute it takes to get to his apartment. He demonstrates for me and — yep, he’s pretty flexible!

He says he drinks very little, but his grandfather inspired his love of the spirit when he was growing up in Belgium

So what other fitness tips would he like to share? ‘Train your legs and your bum,’ he advises me. ‘And stretch regularly as well’

So what other fitness tips would he like to share? ‘Train your legs and your bum,’ he advises me. ‘And stretch regularly as well.’

When I tell him I strength-train twice a week, he says he wishes he could go to the gym with me. ‘I could show you what to do.’

Swoon . . . I’m sure my personal trainer would understand being bumped for Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Finally, I ask him about his rivalry with fellow action hero Steven Seagal. The pair haven’t seen eye-to-eye since Seagal, a black belt in aikido, questioned Van Damme’s fighting record during a 1991 interview. Things got heated at a party given by Sylvester Stallone where Van Damme challenged Seagal to a fight. Seagal refused.

‘I have no problem with Steven,’ he insists now. ‘When you’re young you want to be the macho man. If I saw him today, I’d have no problem.’

So what’s next for Jean-Claude Van Damme? He’s writing a script for a movie called Battleground — ‘Bloodsport meets the dark web . . .’ And what’s more — hold the front page: ‘It’s going to be my last martial arts movie.’

Say it isn’t so! It’d be a Damme shame if Jean-Claude were to depart our screens while still able to do the splits and high kicks that made his name.

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