Star of the erotic 'Emmanuelle' movies whose life was blighted by addiction
SYLVIA Kristel, who died last Thursday aged 60, starred in a series of notorious Seventies soft-porn films beginning with Emmanuelle (1974), which followed the sexual exploits of a bored young diplomat's wife in the fleshpots of Thailand.
Promoted under the slogan "X was never like this", the film generated numerous profitable sequels and countless imitations, thanks to Sylvia Kristel's erotic portrayal of the half-innocent, half sex-crazed Emmanuelle as she gambolled naked, joined the "mile-high club", simulated oral sex, fumbled with other women and faked orgasm.
Made when she was 22, the film became a sensation, with worldwide audiences estimated at some 650 million. In France, it was the highest-grossing film of the decade and was screened at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees for an unbroken nine years.
Sylvia Kristel also starred in a series of sequels -- Emmanuelle 2 in 1975, Goodbye Emmanuelle in 1977 and Emmanuelle 4 in 1984. "I realised that the public had been deeply affected by Emmanuelle," she declared, "and wanted to prolong their fantasy, to keep me within it, symbolic and naked, idealised and necessary."
But her career in sex films drew her into a netherworld of moguls on the make, who cast her in a succession of even more tawdry pictures that sought to cash in on her reputation as a sex-kitten.
Her autobiography, published in English as Undressing Emmanuelle (2007), also disclosed a turbulent personal life blighted by addictions to drugs and alcohol, and her search for a father figure which had resulted in several abusive relationships with older men.
She had been scratching a living as a clerk to supplement her earnings as a struggling young actress when she was cast in the title role of the original Emmanuelle. The film was promoted by a photograph of Sylvia Kristel seated topless in a wicker chair, toying suggestively with a string of pearls. "At last," ran the caption, "a film that won't make you feel bad about feeling good."
In 1977, as she sought to reinvent her acting career in Hollywood, she began a turbulent four-year affair with the British actor Ian McShane, best-known as the cavalier antiques dealer Lovejoy in the successful television series, whom she met on the set of the film The Fifth Musketeer.
The couple lived together in Los Angeles, where Sylvia Kristel took a cameo role as an air stewardess in Airport '79. By then she had begun using cocaine, which she described as a "supervitamin, a very fashionable substance, without danger, but expensive, far more exciting than drowning in alcohol -- a fuel necessary to stay in the swing".
McShane once said of Sylvia Kristel that she was unable to walk and talk at the same time; she returned the compliment in her autobiography, observing that he was too short to become a major star and revealing how she had miscarried the baby she was expecting by him after a fight led to her falling down the stairs.
But drugs and alcoholism, combined with management problems, eventually sent her career into decline. When interviewed in 2007, she was living alone in a tiny flat above a cafe in Amsterdam, taking the occasional acting job to pay her bills. "The innocence has long since fled," noted Mick Brown in The Daily Telegraph, "but the ghost of beauty still haunts her face."
One of three children of a hotelier, Sylvia Kristel was born in Utrecht on September 28, 1952 and brought up in the city's Station Hotel by alcoholic parents who would turf Sylvia and her younger sister out of their beds if the hotel was full and a late guest arrived, putting them into a stuffy box-room instead.
As a child Sylvia suffered the unwelcome attentions of a hotel manager who, on different occasions, stabbed her with a fork and bound her wrists before licking her face. Her parents divorced when she was 14 and she remained haunted by the memory of catching her father in bed with another woman.
On completing her convent school education, Sylvia took a series of dead-end office jobs, supplementing her wages by taking assignments as a photographic model.
As a child she had displayed an urge towards exhibitionism, dancing naked on the hotel restaurant tables (her grandmother, concluding that she was irredeemably vain, would cover the mirrors with newspaper), and in the early Seventies she acted in a handful of mildly titillating films.
She first appeared nude in Because of the Cats (1973), a Dutch-English co-production, and the same year, encouraged by her mother, won the Miss TV Europe contest.
The following year she was approached by producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, who had bought the rights to a Fifties novel called Emmanuelle. He cast her in the title role, and paid her $6,000.
Having signed a three-picture contract, Sylvia Kristel negotiated a fee approaching $100,000 to star in the sequel, Emmanuelle, The Joys Of A Woman (better known as Emmanuelle 2), in the following year. She went on to make other films with Roger Vadim and Claude Chabrol, and co-starred with Gerard Depardieu in Rene La Canne (1976).
But, as she recalled, people preferred seeing her naked, and she was repeatedly typecast in the role of seductress, notably as Constance Chatterley in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981) and in Mata Hari (1985), a film biography of the First World War spy, in which she played the title role. She appeared as Agent 34-26-34 in The Nude Bomb in 1980, and the following year played a housemaid who seduces a 15-year-old boy in the controversial sex comedy Private Lessons, one of the highest grossing independent films of 1981.
In a television documentary, Hunting Emmanuelle, in 2006, she described how her expensive cocaine habit caused her to make several errors of judgment, including her decision on an impulse to sell her interest in Private Lessons to her agent for $150,000; the film went on to gross more than $26m in the US alone.
When her Hollywood career fizzled out in the late Eighties, she returned to Europe and dabbled as an artist, exhibiting her work in Los Angeles, Brussels and Amsterdam. With her second husband, a paparazzo photographer and film producer, Phillippe Blot, she made a motorcycling film called The Arrogant, and another called Dracula's Widow (both 1988), the proceeds of which helped to pay off Blot's debts. To earn money for herself, she agreed to make Emmanuelle 7 (1993), this time cast as a business-suited brothel madam, in which all the sex scenes were performed by younger actors.
A heavy smoker since the age of 11, Sylvia Kristel was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001. Cancer was also detected in a lung the following year, but she was given the all-clear following an operation. In June this year she was taken to hospital after suffering a stroke, which forced the postponement of further treatment for cancer of the liver.
Sylvia Kristel's first marriage, which was brief, was to an American businessman. After her marriage to Phillippe Blot, she lived for 10 years with a Belgian radio producer, Freddy De Vree, who died in 2004. She is survived by a son from her relationship with Hugo Claus, a Belgian artist and writer.