With zero acting experience, Jean-Claude Van Damme relied on his martial arts skills to get noticed in Hollywood—but his obsession with fame led him down a dangerous path of scandal and self-destruction.
Jean-Claude Van Damme isn’t your typical actor born into showbiz. His mother was a florist and his father was an accountant. His father spoke French, and his mother spoke Dutch, so Van Damme relied on cartoons, such as The Flintstones, to learn English.
Eventually, Van Damme became fluent in many languages, but that’s not all he learned.
Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, Jean-Claude Van Damme is a man with many talents. He is an actor, martial artist, filmmaker, and fight choreographer. He is credited for making martial arts popular in Western movies, especially considering he is one of the most iconic martial arts action stars of all time.
Every action hero needs a nickname, but the thing is: Van Damme doesn’t particularly like his.
Jean-Claude Van Damme quickly earned the nickname “Muscles from Brussels”—a term of endearment that he does not find endearing. Why? He believes it refers to him as a shellfish. His toned physique and unimaginable strength are part of what made him stand out from the crowd. Obviously, he grew into those muscles—but he didn’t start out that way.
He only got strong after some cruel words from his father.
Van Damme's father reportedly first enrolled him in karate school when he was 10 years old. But his reasoning wasn't exactly heartwarming. Van Damme was a small, nerdy kid, and his father thought he was too weak.
Van Damme went on to train intensely in kickboxing, taekwondo, muay tai, and weight lifting. He started his competitive karate career when he was 15 years old. But while he enjoyed these macho hobbies, some of his pastimes were a little more surprising.
At the age of 16, Van Damme started ballet classes. He believed ballet was both an art and one of the most difficult sports. As he puts it, "If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive any sport."
Though he joined the world of macho action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Van Damme trained in ballet for five years and feels no embarrassment for it. He believes it strengthened his balance, precision, and flexibility.
These skills helped fast-track him to the highest level of karate.
Apparently, only 2% of karate students earn a black belt. It’s not just about skill. A student must have acquired the necessary amount of wisdom and spiritual growth to meet the requirements of the black belt. But Van Damme was way ahead of the curve.
Van Damme earned his black belt at age 18. He had already been competing in semi-contact championships, making this achievement long overdue. Ballet flats and black belts weren’t his only accessories, though.
You can add banana hammocks to his inventory. In his late teen years, Jean-Claude Van Damme started lifting weights. Soon, he took it to the extreme—as he usually does—and it led him to great success.
Van Damme earned the title of Mr. Belgium in a bodybuilding competition. His karate, ballet, and bodybuilding are surely to thank for his impressive knockout record.
Van Damme compiled an impressive record of 44 knockouts to four defeats in semi-contact matches, and 18 knockouts to only one defeat in full-contact. He defeated a whopping 25 opponents during a three-day Karate tournament, placing second overall.
Van Damme’s record continued to rise. But even with his martial arts career in full swing, people continued to doubt him.
At age 20, Van Damme was set to compete against his former teammate, Patrick Teugels, in the Forest Nationals in Belgium. Before this match, Teugels had defeated Van Damme twice by decision, and Van Damme had only one victory in return.
Most people were betting against Van Damme. The pressure was immense. His reputation was on the line—and the result of this match would follow him forever.
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Van Damme’s victory was nothing short of amazing. He beat Teugels with a TKO in the first round. He landed a vicious kick to the nose, and Teugels was done after that. It was an amazing feat for the underdog Van Damme. He earned several more victories later on, but he forever will consider the bout with Teugels his “most memorable match”.
He got what he wanted—a name in kickboxing. With his name in lights, his reputation was soaring and his fan base was growing. Van Damme was definitely enjoying the attention. It wasn’t long until he wanted more.
Here we go again, Van Damme found a new adventure—this time it was acting. The more people who knew his name, the better.
Despite having zero acting experience, and very little education, Van Damme landed an uncredited role in a Belgian-French drama. He was nothing more than an extra who played the role of a moviegoer, but it was enough to scratch the itch.
Now he just had to figure out how to mix the two together—kickboxing and acting. First, things first, he had to work on his image.
For all his matches, Van Damme fought under his birth name: Jean-Claude van Varenberg, which was a bit of a mouthful. He wanted a more powerful name to support his upcoming celebrity status, so he borrowed the name “Van Damme” from a friend.
Van Damme had a plan to take his European kickboxing skills and merge them into the American acting scene. But how was he going to pay for a trip across the Atlantic?
Van Damme opened a fitness center called California Gym near a cemetery in Brussels. Although he still owns this gym, he does very little to manage it. However, at the time, the gym and random modeling jobs were enough to help him save for that plane ticket.
Although he managed to get across the ocean, things didn’t go quite as planned once he got there.
Van Damme finally moved to the US in search of the American Dream. He showed up with his savings of $5,000, speaking very little English. It went terribly. Eventually, he ran out of money. He ended up living in his car and sleeping on the street—even stealing food when necessary.
He worked odd jobs as a chauffeur, a carpet layer, and a pizza delivery guy. Finally, though, he got the attention of someone who gave him a break.
Van Damme met legendary martial artist and movie star Chuck Norris while working as a bouncer at Norris's restaurant.
After learning about Van Damme’s impressive kickboxing career, Norris asked him to work with his stunt team in an upcoming film.
Van Damme’s patience was paying off—but he wasn't on easy street just yet.
Van Damme took a chance when he approached a producer and performed his 360-degree helicopter kick over the man's head. The producer was impressed and cast him in the low-budget film Cannon International. It was his dream job, but it quickly turned into a nightmare.
Allegedly, upon completion, the studio shelved the film for years, with no plans to release it. But Van Damme wasn't going to accept that. He decided to help re-edit it himself and begged producers to release the new version. They relented—and it paid off big time.
Bloodsport grossed $35 million at the box office. Van Damme was finally living his dream. But that dream didn’t come without disappointments.
Van Damme was the first choice for the alien character in Predator. He was ecstatic, expecting to use his martial arts skills. Things went south the moment he was put in a bright red plastic suit—a cloaking device—in front of a green screen and was told to hop around like a frog.
He also whined about his face not being seen in the movie and that his role would be uncredited.
That wasn’t his only quibble, however.
The Predator suit was also unbearable to wear. He often complained that it was too hot inside, causing him to pass out. The team soon became fed up with Van Damme. After two weeks, they kicked him off of the set and found someone new to play the Predator.
Van Damme has no regrets, though: He truly hated the suit and was glad to be free of it. And besides, they needed someone with a larger physique anyway.
Van Damme may be on the shorter, scrawnier side, but he wouldn’t be able to do what he does if he were any bigger. He is most known for his helicopter kick—a 360-degree spinning kick. Another one is the crotch punch, where he does the splits and punches his opponents between the legs.
Most of his moves involve doing the splits—which he can do very well. He even did the splits between two trucks in a Volvo advertisement. Van Damme depended on these skills for his future career—especially since he had no acting experience. But when has that ever stopped an action star?
Bloodsport was a bold move for Van Damme. Since he couldn't really act, he had to rely on his martial arts skills, but fortunately, it worked. Van Damme’s first big Hollywood paycheck came just a few years later with his leading role in Universal Soldier. He earned $1 million. After that, he made no less than $3 million per film, eventually peaking with a huge $6.2 million paycheck for his role in Street Fighter.
But you know what they say about mo' money...
Once Van Damme became more popular, he took his job very seriously. During the production of Double Impact, he discovered the producer diverting funds from the film to another action film. He decided to confront him—and things got messy.
While having words with the producer, Van Damme became so upset that he threw a papaya at his head. Thankfully, the guy ducked, and the fruit splattered all over the wall behind him. Van Damme's confidence spilled into his personal life and producers were not the only guys he challenged.
Jean-Claude Van Damme was now friends with a few other prominent action stars—though with others, he wasn't so friendly. At one point, he was at a party at Sylvester Stallone’s house when fellow martial artist Steven Seagal made a shocking claim. He stated that he could beat Van Damme in a fight. Well, Van Damme wasn’t one to run away. He invited Seagal outside and challenged him to eat his words.
As it turned out, Seagal could not walk the talk. He took the high road and left the party. But Van Damme wasn’t done with him yet. Determined to make his point, he hounded Segal and found him at a nightclub, where he challenged him again. According to Sylvester Stallone, “Van Damme was too strong. Segal wanted none of it”.
Van Damme certainly had a stubborn streak—but as we’ll see, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
By the time he reached his mid-30s, Van Damme was enjoying stardom. Most Hollywood celebs became dependent on some sort of substance, and Van Damme sure kept up. It wasn’t long until he struggled with a pretty bad nose candy dependence.
It got so bad that he was snorting approximately $10,000 worth each week—about 10 grams a day. As you can imagine, this made him a nightmare to work with...
Jean-Claude Van Damme brought his habit to the set of Street Fighter, making things difficult for everyone else. Being the biggest action star at the time, the producers were not about to let him go. Instead, they hired a wrangler to take care of him, but that guy wasn’t any better! His help became his bestie and partner in crime.
With a new bad influence in tow, Van Damme was continuously letting people down. But don't you worry: He could sink a lot lower.
Van Damme dabbled in more than just one mind-altering substance. He also had a problem with prescription meds and drinking.
Authorities booked Van Damme in Hollywood after drinking and driving erratically. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and had to attend a driving class. He also lost his license for 90 days and had to pay a $1,200 fine.
Unfortunately, substance misuse wasn’t his only bad habit.
Jean-Claude Van Damme was making one wrong decision after another. Rumors leaked of his attraction to co-star Kylie Minogue. He denied it for decades, but eventually admitted to having a passionate affair with her. He claimed that it was mostly "beautiful love-making", and that it was unavoidable because of her beauty.
There are reasons why he denied this for so long, though.
At the time of his affair, Van Damme was newly married to his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier. Coincidentally, LaPier was his mistress from his previous marriage, so sneaking around was nothing new for him.
His wife had no idea he had an affair with Kylie Minogue for their entire marriage. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Van Damme admitted to it in a public interview. The fact that he cheated on his new bride is one thing—but she was more than just a bride.
Van Damme’s wife became pregnant early into their marriage. As he did with his previous wife, he left the mother-to-be to go party in Thailand while filming action movies and bathing in the attention of groupies.
He returned home with no mention of his betrayal and played husband and daddy for three more years until she finally divorced him. For most people, the fourth wife would be the last wife—but JCVD had one more wedding in him.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is a ladies’ man, no doubt. So, it’s no surprise that he’s been married five times. He had a wife that he left back in Brussels, and another quickie marriage followed by a quickie divorce. Some of his marriages produced children, and at least two of them were ridden with infidelity and scandal.
It seems Van Damme was difficult to satisfy, and changed his mind often. So much so, that he married one of his wives twice.
Van Damme married Gladys Portugues, his third wife, in 1987, but they split up after Van Damme had—you guessed it—an affair. Next, he married, and then divorced, his mistress from the affair. Yet after all that, he somehow managed to find his way back to Portugues. The couple were remarried a few years later and are still married today.
To recap, he had five marriages in 19 years. Wait until you find out how many kids he had.
Considering Van Damme had a handful of marriages and countless one-night-stands in between, it’s surprising that he only has three children—that he knows of. He had two children with wife number three and one child with wife number four. His children have his real last name, and they’re all pursuing careers in the entertainment business.
Unfortunately, Van Damme had a strained relationship with his third child due to his messy divorce with the child’s mother—though, messy is an understatement.
Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fourth wife, Darcy LaPier, accused him of frequently hurting her during fits of rage. At one point, he hurt her so badly that she was admitted to the hospital. That was the final straw. LaPier got a restraining order against Van Damme because he absolutely terrified her.
She sought full custody of their two-year-old son, plus $150,000 a month in child support and close to $300,000 in court fees.
Van Damme didn’t have a history of this sort of behavior, though. There was more going on.
During this time, Van Damme’s substance use was at a dangerous level. At one point, he recalls an incident where he got so incredibly high that he had a terrifying out-of-body experience.
He had checked into rehab once, but only lasted a week. At that point, he needed a ridiculous amount of substances just to function normally. He was no longer himself. Soon, it wasn’t just his wives leaving him. Van Damme’s career was at stake.
At the peak of his success, Universal Studios caught wind of the kickboxing sensation and wanted to get their hands on him. They called him up and offered him an amazing deal that included $12 million per film, for a three-film series.
At this point Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ego was blowing up. Everything he touched was making money. So, Van Damme wanted to “play the system”, and demanded they pay him more than double their offer, as he wanted to be paid equal to Jim Carrey.
Believing he was untouchable; Van Damme was in for a major slap in the face.
Universal Studios was stunned by Van Damme’s demands. Without any words, they laughed and hung up on him. Word got out, and no one wanted to work with him after that. He spent the next decade acting in low-budget action movies that often went straight to DVD.
Van Damme lost it after that. He was crashing cars into nightclubs, causing trouble with paparazzi, and adding more and more lines to his daily dose. Every time he thought he hit rock bottom, he sunk even further. Finally, something positive happened.
Van Damme’s quick rise to fame was falling just as fast, but that wasn't all: He had just gone through a series of divorces, his career was shot, and he struggled hard with substances and extreme mood swings. He finally sought help.
Van Damme was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It was an eye-opener for him, and he took it very seriously. Suddenly, everything made sense. He started treatment, and instantly made some big changes, in a bold way.
With a better understanding of how his brain worked, Jean-Claude Van Damme was suddenly driven to get his life together. Not only was he getting help for his mood disorder, but he also stopped using substances.
Van Damme believed rehab didn’t work for him, so he quit cold turkey. He chose to sweat it out—exercising constantly to overcome the physical and mental pain.
Believe it or not, it worked. He got healthy and started to focus on rebuilding his career. This time, he wanted people to get to know the real him—and he chose an invasive way of showing them.
During the mid-2000s, Van Damme started picking up smaller roles in bigger flicks, such as a voice-acting role in Kung Fu Panda 2.
But his most notable role during this period was in his own reality show called, Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors—a fly-on-the-wall style documentary that included his wife and children.
The show got positive reviews and started a career revival for him.
After a few years of low-budget films, Jean-Claude Van Damme was back in his element when he starred in The Expendables 2. He was grateful for the opportunity, considering he had turned down a role in the first Expendables film. He was also stoked to get back to the heavy action scene.
This film had a $100 million budget and starred several famous actors. It eventually brought in a whopping $315 million worldwide. Jean Claude Van Damme was back in business, baby!
Not long after his comeback, Van Damme’s hometown erected a life-sized bronze statue of him in one of his famous martial arts poses. He was honored and hoped that the message it sends is of a guy from the street who believed in something.
Later, another statue was erected of him in Azerbaijan, in a village called Vandam, due to the similarity in his name and the village name.
Everything was on track for the action star, so obviously, he was due for another scandal.
In 2009 Van Damme met a young Ukrainian woman who was dancing at a private club in Thailand—where he seems to meet all of his mistresses. He was still married to his fifth wife at the time.
He became instantly infatuated and began a secret love affair with her, which included discreetly traveling to Ukraine to visit her several times.
For the most part, they kept their entanglement under wraps; She even posed as his assistant while attending private parties with him.
However, the affair didn’t stay hidden forever. And with his beloved family life at risk, Van Damme had to make a difficult decision.
Eventually, Van Damme’s wife caught wind of his adultery and started the process of divorce—for the second time. His affair had been going on for years, and as much as he cared for this woman, he ultimately wanted to keep his family together, considering this is already their second try.
His wife offered to turn a blind eye to his adultery, but he had to pay—literally. She demanded he buy her a brand-new mansion, among many other extravagant gifts.
Van Damme stopped seeing his mistress in 2016, and he and his wife stayed together.
Even still, Van Damme may have always had a wandering eye.
In recent years, Van Damme was involved in another scandal. This time, a little more intense. Van Damme met a woman—half his age—in an exclusive champagne bar in Brussels. The two hit it off and had been flirting all night before Van Damme decided to take it a step further.
After asking her to go home with him—and her declining—he found the next best place. Or so he thought.
Jean-Claude Van Damme was having a good time, sneaking around outside his marriage again with another young, beautiful woman. After years of wooing the ladies, it’s no doubt that he was egotistic and felt certain expectations at times. After all, even in his sixties, he was a good-looking, fit man.
So, when his new lady friend didn’t want to go home with him, he took it as a sign to push harder.
It’s clear that Van Damme doesn’t like the word no. Apparently, he followed his tipsy friend into the bathroom and forcefully encouraged her to perform in the stall. Thankfully, she got away and ended up half-naked in the street, crying and calling for help.
Sadly, that wasn’t the only time Van Damme went too far with a woman. This next scandal involved four people.
Van Damme had another incident where he ignored the rule of consent. Even worse, he didn’t act alone—there were two others involved that night as well.
A woman claimed that Van Damme, along with her own boyfriend and another woman, conspired against her to create a “trap” to get her into a hotel room. Once in the room, Van Damme forcefully pushed her onto the bed and climbed on top of her, while her boyfriend and the other woman had relations on the bed beside them.
He may have got some substances under control, but it's obvious he was still consuming a little too much liquid courage—something he will likely over-indulge in for the rest of his life.
After countless scandals and 65+ movies, rumor has it that Van Damme is planning to retire soon. But he is working on one last major project before he does.
Van Damme will portray himself in his final action movie titled: What’s My Name? It will be about a man who wakes with amnesia after a coma. He will then fight various opponents while trying to regain his memory.
A large portion of the film will include actual autobiographical elements from Van Damme's personal life and his career—which should be interesting!
This will not be his first autobiographical performance, however.
What’s My Name? will be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s third movie in which he scrutinizes his own life and career.
Shortly before his big comeback with The Expendables 2, Van Damme played a version of himself in JCVD, which centers around a bank heist. It includes past personal and professional struggles from his real life. The reviews were excellent.
People seem intrigued by Van Damme’s rise to fame—which makes his final film the perfect way to retire.
But after spending his life chasing fame, his plans for retirement are not what we would have expected.
Jean-Claude Van Damme can hardly recall a time when he wasn’t extremely busy. He has trained extensively since childhood and has spent most of his years in hotels. Being busy is all he knows.
Because of this, Van Damme’s plans for retirement are simple: to relax. He wants to quit the party life and buy a small boat to travel the world with his family.
Currently, he remains actively training, eating healthy, and wrapping up the few projects he has left. He is already traveling lots, and even has a little purse puppy that he takes with him everywhere he goes—Lola, the chihuahua—his bestie.
It sounds like the perfect ending, actually.
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