Willowy, naturally slim, with swaying, pleasingly plump and firm breasts and wispy brunette hair, Dutch-born naked beauty Sylvia Kristel exuded cool sensuality as the classic beauty in scores of European skin-heavy romance films. Sylvia’s gender-blending sexual aggression in the four Emmanuelle films, starting with Emmanuelle (1974) and culminating in Emmanuelle IV (1984), earned the languorous lovely a worldwide following of skin addicts.
Kristel was born in Utrecht, Netherlands, as the daughter of Piet and Jean-Nicholas, who ran an inn in Utrecht. In her 2006 autobiography Nue she claims to have been sexually abused by an elderly guest at the hotel at the age of nine, an event which she has refused to discuss in detail. Her parents divorced when she was 14 years old after her father left home for another woman. “It was the saddest thing that ever happened to me”, she says of the experience of her parents’ separation. She has a younger sister, Marianne.
Kristel began modeling when she was 17. She entered the Miss TV Europe contest in 1973 and won. She speaks Dutch, English, French, German and Italian. She gained international attention in 1974 for playing the title character in the softcore film Emmanuelle which remains one of the most successful French films ever produced.
Kristel found herself typecast as Emmanuelle and often played roles that capitalized upon that image, most notably starring in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981) and a nudity filled biopic of World War I spy Mata Hari in which she played the title role. Her Emmanuelle image followed her to the United States where she played Nicole Mallow, a maid who seduces a teenage boy, in the controversial 1981 sex comedy Private Lessons. One of her only other mainstream American film appearances was a brief comic turn in the Get Smart revival film The Nude Bomb in 1980.
Although Private Lessons was one of the highest grossing independent films of 1981 (ranking #28 in US Domestic Gross), Kristel saw none of the profits. She continues to appear in movies and last played Emmanuelle in the early 1990s. In May 1990 she appeared in the television series My Riviera, filmed at her home in St Trope and offering deep insights of her life and motivations in an interview with writer-director Michael Feeney Callan. In May 2006, Kristel received an award at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York for directing the animated short film “Topor and Me”, written by Ruud Den Dryver. The award was presented by Gayle King.
After not having filmed for eight years, Kristel played a part in the movie Two Sunny Days in 2010 and in the same year she played the mother of the Trio Lescano in the TV series The Swing Girls.
In September 2006 Sylvia Kristel’s autobiography Nue (Nude) was published in France. It was translated into English as Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir, by Fourth Estate, 2 July 2007 (ISBN 978-0007256952). In it she tells of a turbulent personal life blighted by addictions to drugs, alcohol, and her quest for a father figure which resulted in some harmful relationships with older men. The book has received very good reviews.
Her first major relationship was with Hugo Claus, a Belgian author twenty-seven years her senior with whom she had a son, Arthur, born in 1975. She left him for Ian McShane, ten years her senior, whom she met on the set of the 1979 film The Fifth Musketeer. They moved in together in Los Angeles where he had promised to help her launch her American career. However their five year affair would lead to no significant career break for Kristel but a relationship she describes in her autobiography as “awful – he was witty and charming but we were too much alike.” About two years into the relationship she began using cocaine. This proved to be her downfall, though at the time she thought of it 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.”
Interviewed in 2006 for the documentary Hunting Emmanuelle, she describes how, nurturing an expensive cocaine habit, she made a number of poor decisions, including agreeing to sell her interest in Private Lessons to her agent on a whim for $150,000. With a domestic gross of over $26 million, she laughs at how much of her agent’s mansion her percentage probably paid for.
Since McShane, she has been married twice, first to an American businessman which ended after five months and then to film producer Phillippe Blot. She spent a decade with Belgian radio producer Fred De Vree before he died.
A heavy smoker of unfiltered cigarettes from the age of eleven, Kristel was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 and underwent three courses of chemotherapy, and surgery after it spread to her lung.