Sylvia Kristel, a famous porn star
By Deborah Ross
July 2, 2007
I meet Sylvia Kristel - always "Emmanuelle", even after all these years - at a
bar in Amsterdam. She is there when I arrive, wearing glasses, a scarf around
her neck, sitting quietly at a table reading a newspaper. Am I disappointed
that she isn't, instead, enthroned on a wicker chair wearing nothing beyond a
string of pearls and, most peculiarly, knee-length socks teamed with ankle
boots? No. That would be embarrassing. I introduce myself.
Sylvia Kristel in scene from 'Emmanuelle'
She is 55 now, pretty, with lovely skin. "It's genetic. The creams I use are
not expensive. Nivea is just as good. Why waste a fortune?" She lives, it turns
out, above the bar, in a small rented flat where she paints ("my last picture
was a huge canvas filled with blue roses"), watches American soaps (her
favourite is As The World Turns) and cooks on a Monday. "I make a big pot of
pasta with vegetables and I stretch it out for the week." We order coffee. We
are here, ostensibly, to talk about her autobiography, Undressing Emmanuelle,
which takes in everything from her weird childhood through to Emmanuelle and
then those cocaine-fuelled, drunken years living with Ian McShane in Hollywood.
I say that the thing I most want to know about Ian is this: did he ever try to
sell you any antiques? He did not, she says. "But that programme, Lovejoy, was
very successful, no?" They haven't kept in touch. "He's not the kind of man to
call and check how you are." There was a lot of anger in him, she says. "His
agent once told him that if he were three inches taller he'd have as glittering
a career as Sean Connery. That frustrated him. He did not get the parts he
deserved." She's not had a great deal of luck with men, as sublime beauties
rarely do, and as I should know.
Anyway, even though the title of her autobiography is what it is - hey, a girl
has to make a living! - I figure she must be pretty bored of Emmanuelle by now.
Christ, it was 33 years ago. What's left to say? But that's never stopped me
before and, alas, doesn't stop me now. I tell her I saw Emmanuelle at the
Golders Green Odeon when it first came out, which was 1974, which means I must
have been 13. It was on as a double bill with the film Percy's Progress which
had, as its tagline, "size doesn't count!" even though it so does, but you
don't know that at 13, do you? Both were X-rated so we must have bunked in via
the small window in the ladies at the back. (This stunt may still work but a
word of warning: the Golders Green Odeon is now an old people's home. Better to
know than not.) I say that Emmanuelle was the first erotic film - or erotic
anything - my friends and I had ever experienced and it blew us away. We'd
never seen it before; had no idea there was even more than one way of doing it.
We left so worked up that if we'd brushed up against anything - anything, even
a lamppost - we'd have probably all gone off like fire hydrants. Sylvia, is
this too much information? She says: "It astonishes me, this interest. When
will it come to an end?" Do you mind? "Not really." She can be quite listless.
She may be more bored than she makes out but, hey, the girl's got a book to
OK, I say, what do you think it is about Emmanuelle that means people just
can't put it down? She thinks it was all about great timing. She says that due
to changes in censorship regulations at the time, it was the first sex film to
appear in "normal" cinemas rather than to the raincoat brigade in some seedy
dive. "In a lot of countries the light went on, and that contributed very much
to the success." I say I think it might be something else, too. I tell her I
re-watched it for the first time since I was 13 just before coming here today,
and what struck me most was not only its gauche innocence - dodgy moustaches;
atrocious dubbing; all those wonderfully ad-hoc shagathons ("pass the sugar,
and let's have a shag while we're about it") - but also her wonderful freshness
and purity. I don't think the film would have got anywhere, I add, if the star
had been some regular old porn hand with big tits. I think, Sylvia, that Sylvia
Kristel made that film. She thinks there maybe something in this, yes. She
re-watched it a year or so ago because Channel 4 were making a documentary
about it. And? "I thought it was charming. Very innocent, like you say. I was
struck by how young I looked at the time but I thought I was so adult, that I
knew it all and I was going to conquer the world. Amazing. Where did this come
from?" She has a son, Arthur, now in his thirties. Has he seen it? "He fell
asleep. He thought it very boring." Your mother? "She saw the film when it came
on television. She said: 'If they are showing it on television it can't be that
bad.' And then she saw it and said: 'Is that all?' I said: 'Mother, have you
been imagining the worst for 20 years?' "
Although popularly thought to be French, Sylvia is, in fact, Dutch. She was
born in Utrecht where her parents owned and ran The Commerce Hotel, Station
Square. Sylvia and her sister, Marianne, were brought up in Room 21, unless the
hotel was full, in which case they were shifted, often in the middle of the
night, to Room 22, "which was no more than a cubby hole". She says she often
used to think: "What if my mother rents room 22. Where will we go then?" Her
parents were alcoholics, pretty much. She once counted how many glasses of beer
her father, John, put away in a day, and stopped at 40. Her father had been the
Dutch clay pigeon shooting champion but, a stubborn man, refused to wear ear
protectors and went deaf. When not manning the hotel, he would disappear to the
attic to whittle chess figurines. Her mother, Pete, meanwhile, was an
emotionally cool woman always at the sherry. Pete? "She comes from the
countryside where there is this habit of naming children after a relative,
whether it is a man or a woman."
Sylvia had no idea that drink wasn't a feature of everybody's life; that
alcohol wasn't like food or water. It was only when she went to boarding school
for a spell at 11 that she realised this wasn't so. "On my first night I could
not sleep so I asked Sister Assassia for a cognac." I bet that went down well.
"She said: 'You must be joking. Three Hail Mary's and a Pater will send you to
sleep just as well.' It was the first time I had ever been refused. At the
hotel, when I couldn't sleep, I would always serve myself a cognac." She was
even practically suckled on booze. " Before I was weaned my mother got me to
sleep by putting a cognac-soaked cloth wrapped around a lump of sugar to my
lips." Sylvia would eventually have her own drink problems, needless to say.
Possibly, the defining moment of her childhood came when she was 16 and
something quite staggering happened: her father returned to the hotel one day
with a woman in tow whom he introduced as his next wife. He then, quite
literally, ejected Pete (Pete!) and the children from the hotel. "It was as if
we were staff and he had dismissed us." They moved to a small flat. Her mother
went out to work. Sylvia did return to the hotel once but the new wife refused
to let her in. I think, in many ways, she has possibly yet to recover from
I wonder when she realised she was beautiful. She doesn't know, she says. Then
again, she was always looking at herself in the mirror. Her mother thought her
horribly vain, as did her grandmother, who would cover the mirrors with
newspaper. And what was your grandmother's name? Roger? Dave? " No! Marie!" She
thinks she probably had some idea at 17, when a man rushed up to her in the
street and said: 'Thank you. Just looking at you has made me happy.'" If you
could somehow be reborn, I ask, would you choose to come back as beautiful or
not beautiful? Both can dictate a life, after all. Which would you pick? She
thinks for a while then says: "I would now rather be very healthy and strong as
a horse but it is nice to be attractive." In recent years, her health has not
been so good. She's had run-ins with cancer twice (throat, lung). The radiation
treatment scorched her neck - hence the scarf - and as for the chemotherapy:
"It sends you into the menopause immediately and you put on weight - fast, wow!
I've gained 20 pounds easily. I have to go up four flights of stairs to my flat
and it is like carrying two suitcases! I am not going to be cast any more for
my body, I am sure." She says this matter-of-factly, without any self-pity. Is
this a good thing or a bad thing? It sometimes feels as if she simply doesn't
have enough energy left to muster up any feelings at all.
When she left school she became a secretary, a waitress, then posed for a
photographer in Utrecht and became a model. She won two beauty titles: first
Miss TV Holland, then Miss TV Europe. She writes in the book that when she was
crowned Miss TV Europe - by Katie Boyle, at a ceremony in London - her first
thought was: "I want my father to see me, to see this exquisite bird he let
escape." That is quite sad, I think. I put it to her that maybe she's been
looking for her father in her relationships with men ever since. A cliché, I
know, but it doesn't mean it might not be true. After all, her first proper
boyfriend, Hugo Claus (father of Arthur) was a Dutch writer who was 24 years
her senior. She says: "Was I looking for a father? Maybe in my subconscious I
was, but Hugo was not a father figure, he was a great lover. He was older, that
is true, but he was very boyish and athletic and did karate every day."
Hugo encouraged her to become an actress, and to audition for Emmanuelle. In
the book, she describes the audition like this: "I am wearing a lingerie-type
dress with delicate shoulder straps; it reaches half way down my thighs. I sit
down and smile. I am 20 years old with all the nerve of that age, all the
desire to conquer. I take advantage of a boring question about my education to
roll my shoulder slowly forward until one strap falls, then the other. I carry
on talking. The slightly cold air stiffens my breasts. My apparent relaxation
gives the impression that my body is still dressed, although it is right here,
in front of them, exposed, naked. The panel is bowled over; some of them even
have the tips of their tongues hanging out..." I say that I once did that for a
job and you know what? Didn't get anywhere. Thrown out the door, I was. Not a
single tongue hung out. She laughs. But such courage, Sylvia! Yes, and you know
what? "It was weird, because I am actually quite prudish."
She imagined that Emmanuelle would never be passed by the censors, would never
get released, but thought that as it was going to be filmed in Thailand she and
Hugo might as well get a free holiday out of it. She says that when it first
opened in Paris and she saw the huge queue outside the La Triumph cinema on the
Champs-Élysées she was absolutely staggered. Further, it carried on "playing in
that same cinema for 13 years". She became a big star. Huge! It was champagne
and entourages and Mercedes cars... Did it go to her head? You bet. Her biggest
mistake was leaving Hugo for Ian McShane, whom she'd met on the set of The
Fifth Musketeer. " That's the dumbest thing I ever did," she says. He offered
to take her to Hollywood and she was keen. "I thought Hollywood was waiting for
me. It was not." The movies she made there were lacklustre "and I had to fight
to keep my clothes on". Her relationship with Ian was volatile. They fought and
threw things a lot. They drank and did cocaine. She attended many A-list
parties "where I would snort, drink, slip on my silk-lined Chanel clothes and
fall over". She got pregnant but fell and lost the baby. Her wake-up call came
when a doctor told her that her liver was shot and her accountant told her to
choose between keeping her house or keeping at the cocaine. She could not
afford both. She chose the house. It took her six years, she says, to stop
thinking about cocaine.
But, alas, the house still wasn't safe. In 1986 she married Philippe Blot, a
dreamer who believed himself to be Orson Welles. He persuaded her to finance
his films. One film was so bad it only played for six days and was described by
a critic as "the worst film ever made". He left her utterly broke and she had
the bailiffs after her for years. "A-list stars now make zillions but my
biggest fee was like $300,000... If I had been more prudent and hadn't been
partying so much, I guess it would have lasted a bit longer - but what really
did me in was Philippe."
How does she survive now? She sells a few pictures, she says. And the book may
sell well. I ask if she ever feels lonely. "Well, sometimes I think it would be
nice..." she says, before drifting off. She then says she has her painting and
her soaps and her big pot of pasta and Arthur, who visits regularly. It's not
so bad. It's been some life, though, I say. It has, she says. We part on the
street outside the bar. I watch her walk away and think how weary she looks,
even from the back. That's what I think she is: weary. And that's what I've
probably been trying to put my finger on all along.
'Undressing Emmanuelle: a memoir' is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99.
'Emmanuelle', available uncut for the first time, is on DVD from Optimum Home
Naked ambition: the Emmanuelle story
Emmanuelle first appeared as the nom de plume of Marayat Rollet-Andriane, a
French-Asian writer born in 1930s Bangkok. Her 1957 book The Joys of a Woman
detailed the sexual exploits of Emmanuelle, the bored housewife of a French
diplomat. Rollet-Andriane's book caused a sensation in France and it was banned
by De Gaulle's government.
Emmanuelle's screen debut came in 1969 with the Italian film Io, Emmanuelle
starring Erika Blanc. The film was a flop and its director, Cesare Canevari,
would later plumb new depths with the Nazi-exploitation classic Gestapo's Last
Sylvia Kristel made the role her own with the 1973 release of Emmanuelle,
directed by the French former interior designer, Just Jaeckin. De Gaulle's
prudery long forgotten, the film played to packed houses in Paris.
Emmanuelle was also an international hit and has played to an estimated global
audience of 300 million. Kristel says the true figure, if videos are taken into
account, is closer to 650 million.
In France and the US the film was uncut, but British censors balked at scenes
of masturbation and explicit sex. In the end, the scene in which Emmanuelle is
raped as part of her "sexual education" was the only one to get the chop.
In France, posters advertising the film showed Emmanuelle sitting topless in a
wicker chair, fingering a string of pearls. The caption read: "At last - a film
that won't make you feel bad about feeling good". Emmanuelle's US marketers
took a different tack. A trailer screamed: " Twelve million Frenchmen stood in
line for it!"
In a scene where Emmanuelle climbs on top of her husband during a sex scene, a
group of Japanese feminists at a Parisian cinema reportedly rose to their feet
and applauded. Western feminists were less impressed.
Kristel sold her interest in Emmanuelle for $150,000, missing out on a share of
the film's $26m domestic gross. She was paid just $6,000 for her starring role
but negotiated a $100,000 contract for the sequel, Emmanuelle 2.
Kristel's last outing as Emmanuelle in Goodbye, Emmanuelle (1977) was only the
beginning of the franchise, which has to date spawned more than 60 (mostly
unlicensed) spin-offs. They include Emmanuelle Goes Japanese, Emmanuelle: A
Hard Look and, out this year, The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle.
The 1978 spoof Carry on Emmannuelle (note the double "*") starred Kenneth
Williams as the French ambassador to London. Having lost his libido after
landing on a church spire during a parachute jump, his sex-starved wife,
Emmannuelle Prevert, seduces a string of VIPs. Scandal ensues (but not
The Indonesian actress Laura Gemser starred in Emanuelle Nera (Black
Emanuelle), an Italian spin-off that itself spawned 10 more films, including
Emanuelle in Hell and Emanuelle vs the Cannibals.