Jean-Claude Van Damme began his public life as a teenager in the 1970s—a Belgian-born martial arts prodigy who became a champion in both karate and kickboxing. In the 1980s and 1990s, the charismatic and photogenic "Muscles from Brussels" became an international movie star with starring roles in fight-focused action hits like Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Hard Target, and Timecop. (He even had a cameo as himself on Friends.) And then, just as fast and unlikely as his rise, came the fall. Here’s how the man born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg has occupied himself in recent years.
He returned to the Universal Soldier franchise
One of the biggest hits of Van Damme’s early career, the 1992 science-fiction action thriller Universal Soldier paired him up with Dolph Lundgren to tell the story of Luc Deveraux, a deceased Vietnam War veteran resurrected by an experimental military program as a technologically enhanced super-soldier.
While it wasn’t a blockbuster sensation, the film performed respectably, bringing in $36 million—enough to inspire plans for a late ’90s Universal Soldier TV series which was teased with a pair of direct-to-video movies in 1998. Neither of those sequels starred Van Damme or Lundgren, and when the franchise returned to theaters for 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return, both of the ’98 features were bumped out of the series canon.
Van Damme came back for The Return, and although his presence was no longer enough to bring in big box office, the series has proven impressively resilient: both Van Damme and Lundgren signed on for 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration—which ignored the TV movies as well as The Return—and the duo reunited again for the franchise-closing Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning in 2012.
He’s still making Kickboxer movies
Before he expanded his range with science-fiction action movies laced with martial arts, such as Universal Soldier and Timecop, Van Damme played to his background with a string of martial arts-based movies. One of his earliest was 1989’s Kickboxer, in which he played, well, a kickboxer.
Van Damme didn’t return for the sequel, but that didn’t stop Kickboxer from becoming a full-fledged straight-to-video franchise; for action enthusiasts of the ’90s, the series became a Friday night mainstay, expanding to an impressive five installments by 1995 while serving up loads of chop-socky action with replacement leading men like Step by Step veteran Sasha Mitchell and future Iron Chef America star Mark Dacascos.
After laying dormant for more than 20 years, the Kickboxer franchise made a surprising return with 2016’s Kickboxer: Vengeance—and Van Damme was once more part of the cast, this time playing a supporting role as a character named Master Durand. If it wasn’t quite the starring vehicle the first Kickboxer had been, it must have been a good time for Van Damme—he returned for the the seventh installment, Kickboxer: Retaliation.
He got greedy and it hurt his career
Jean-Claude Van Damme reached his commercial peak with Timecop. The 1994 time-travel thriller earned $44 million at the domestic box office—the most of any live-action movie he’s toplined. While the stars of other big 1994 hits remain major draws—Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Sandra Bullock (Speed), and Jim Carrey (The Mask)—Van Damme’s profile fell far faster. Why? Partly because he miscalculated his clout and marketability at a key moment.
After the success of Timecop, Van Damme was reportedly offered a three-movie deal that would have paid him an astounding $12 million per film. Around the same time, Carrey made headlines by becoming the first $20 million man, so Van Damme rejected the $12 million and asked for the same fee Carrey had negotiated. The three-movie offer was rescinded, and Van Damme ended up on what he later described as a Hollywood "blacklist," effectively ending his blockbuster career.
"Jim Carrey was being paid a fortune. And I wanted to play with the system," Van Damme told The Guardian in 2012. "Like an idiot. Ridiculous."
There’s a statue of him in Belgium
Van Damme is famously nicknamed "The Muscles from Brussels," as he was indeed a ripped guy born in the capital city of Belgium. In 2012, Brussels paid tribute to one of its favorite sons with a life-sized bronze statue, forever posed in a fight-ready stance in front of the Westland Shopping Center. A visibly touched Van Damme unveiled the statue himself at a special ceremony in 2012 and spoke at the event, saying the monument "represented the dream of a Brussels kid" and hoping it could serve as a source of inspiration for troubled youth. "If you believe in something strongly enough," he told the crowd, "it can come true."
He turned down a role in The Expendables
In 2010, Sylvester Stallone directed and orchestrated the old-school action spectacle The Expendables, a franchise-launching hit that provided welcome comebacks for stars such as Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke. If it felt like Jean-Claude Van Damme was missing from the movie, that’s because he was—Stallone personally offered him a role, but he turned it down.
Van Damme told The Guardian he begged off because of commitments to his movie The Eagle’s Path, but Stallone claimed it was because he objected to a scene in which he’d lose a fight to Jet Li’s character—an allegation Van Damme profanely dismissed as untrue. Fortunately, there were no hard feelings—Stallone found a place for Van Damme in The Expendables 2.
His love life has been very complicated
Romance, love, and relationships have pummeled Jean-Claude Van Damme’s heart like they were villains in one of his movies: over the years, the star has been married five times to four different women.
In 1980, Van Damme married Maria Rodriguez. After their divorce, he wed Cynthia Derdian; when that marriage ended, he got together with Cynthia Derdian. They split up and Van Damme married a professional bodybuilder named Gladys Portugues, with whom he had two children before they split up in 1992—whereupon he married his mistress, Darcy LaPier. While married to LaPier, Van Damme had a dalliance with pop singer and actress Kylie Minogue, his co-star in the 1994 video game adaptation Street Fighter. The marriage to LaPier imploded, after which Van Damme returned to Portugues.
This time, it might be for real. Van Damme and Portugues’ marriage has, as of this writing, lasted from 1999 until the present—even surviving Portugues filing for divorce in 2015. After looking like they were headed for the rocks again, the couple reconciled and withdrew divorce papers.
He did a speaking tour
Van Damme’s movies are known for their action, not their crackling dialogue. But the star is an absorbing interview subject, and he’s prone to rattling off bizarre turns of phrase. (For example, "When I walk across my living room from my chimney to my window, it takes me ten seconds, but for a bird it takes one second, and for oxygen zero seconds.")
In 2016, he let his mouth do the talking with a series of lectures called An Evening with Jean-Claude Van Damme. The shows, held at a couple of Australian venues, were billed as an "unplugged and unscripted" evening with the star discussing his life and career. VIP packages were also available—up to 30 fans at each speaking engagement could opt for a meet-and-greet with Van Damme, a selfie opportunity, a T-shirt, lanyard, tote page, and the "best seats in the house." Cost of the VIP treatment? "Only $1,497."
He angrily bailed on a TV interview
Van Damme promoted his Australian lectures on Australian TV, including an interview on the morning show Sunrise. Because he was trying to promote a new chapter in his career, he grew exasperated answering the host’s questions—the same ones he’d been answering for years, such as the nature of his relationship with Kylie Minogue.
"Yes, I like Kylie, I like everybody," Van Damme said on his video link-up from Bangkok. "I’m looking to be as natural as possible when I come to Australia. I just want to talk to the people there." Then he decided it wasn’t worth it. "Sorry guys, I cannot do this anymore," Van Damme huffed. "You are talking to a guy who is very rough, you know—let me talk— it’s good for the people—those questions you’ve been asking me, the press, they’ve been asking me the same questions for the last 25 years: Kylie, ‘How’s your training,’ ‘How’s your this,’ ‘How’s your that?’ So I’m coming to Australia to maybe do something kind of different with the audience. I’m 55 years old." Then he pulled off his microphone, left the linkup, and yelled out some profanities about Australia.
He helps animals
During the same week he walked off his interview with Sunrise in 2016, Van Damme appeared at a fundraiser for Animals Australia, posing for some photos with a greyhound and donating $30,000 to the charity. Van Damme implored the nation to adopt retired greyhounds—racing of the dogs had just been banned in the country’s state of New South Wales. "They are beautiful animals," he urged citizens. "And with the current state of legislation and the turmoil in the industry we need to help save greyhound dogs everywhere."
He’s worked on behalf of endangered species, too, meeting with Australia’s Environment Minister Joh Frydenberg to procure government funding to relocate endangered rhinos, gorillas, and elephants to Australia. On top of those efforts, Van Damme is trying to put together a foundation of wealthy individuals to create sanctuaries for those animals.
He ran into the ring at a boxing match in Thailand
Van Damme is a martial arts legend, and he’s as much of a fan as he is a fighter. In 2012, he attended a night of Muay Thai fights—a boxing-wrestling hybrid—at Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. The major bout of the evening pitted former champion Jomhod Kiatadisak against Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Somluck Khamsing; Van Damme was in Bangkok to drum up interest in his own fight with Khamsing, which was happening at a still-unspecified future date.
As the match between Kiatadisak and Khamsing wore on, Kiatadisak pummeled Van Damme’s friend and future opponent. In a move more befitting of pro wrestling, Van Damme tried to inspire Khamsing to fight harder by hopping over the ropes and into the ring, fanning Khamsing with a towel. A referee tried to get JCVD out, as his presence made him a third cornerman for Khamsing—a rule violation. Instead, one of the actual cornermen bowed out so Van Damme wouldn’t disqualify Khamsing.
He’s friends with the leader of Chechnya
Chechnya, or the Chechen Republic, is a Russian entity ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov. The international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch has said Kadyrov ruthlessly enforces a police state linked to "abductions, torture, and executions" of enemies and insurgents, among other human rights abuses. But not everyone agrees: In 2011, Kadyrov’s friends and supporters threw him a lavish star-studded birthday party attended by a number of Hollywood celebrities.
Despite the potential hit to their reputations by cavorting with such a controversial figure—and HRW publicly shaming them—Academy-Award winner Hilary Swank attended the celebration, as did Van Damme. Swank apologized afterward, claiming that she lacked "a full understanding" of the politically murky situation. Van Damme, however, who literally said "I love you, Mr. Kadyrov" on stage at the event, had no regrets. He even returned to Chechnya a few weeks later to "check out the sites," as well as to have dinner and take in a play with Kadyrov.
His son got into some serious legal trouble
Jean-Claude Van Damme keeps the violence confined to the martial arts arena and the screen. But in September 2017, his son Nicholas Van Varenberg was arrested in Tempe, Arizona after allegedly holding his roommate at knifepoint.
What did the roommate do to deserve such treatment? Police originally arrived at the University House apartment complex, located near Arizona State University, in response to a call that a man was caught on surveillance video punching an elevator wall. Police followed the trail of blood from the elevator to Van Varenberg’s tenth-floor apartment, which led to a harrowing two-hour standoff in which Van Varenberg held his roommate at knifepoint. Van Varenberg posted his $10,000 bail and faced several criminal charges. After pleading guilty to disorderly content, he was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
The most popular thing he’s ever done is a Volvo commercial
The most notable recent moment in Van Damme’s career isn’t a movie or a TV show—it’s a commercial for Volvo featuring a performance so impressive that it went extremely viral. Van Damme performs the splits, which he’s done onscreen before, notably in Timecop—except this time, the 53-year-old performer does them while balanced atop two giant trucks…driving backward. More than 86 million people have watched that amazing clip—which is more than the number of people who ever bought tickets to any single Jean-Claude Van Damme film.
He appeared in a controversial Australian TV commercial
In 2017, Van Damme appeared in another ad, but instead of making it go viral, many viewers found it offensive. In the spot for the Australian car services company Ultra Tune, two women in skimpy clothing go to their car at night and discover they have a flat tire. A gang of armed street thugs approach, the women and the viewer assumes the worst is about to happen…until Jean-Claude Van Damme shows up to save the day. The twist ending: The criminals are thrilled to meet the Muscles from Brussels.
The Ad Standards Bureau of Australia, which fields complaints about commercials, included it on its list of the most-complained about ads of the year. "The fear portrayed from a group of men approaching two women at night and the fact that they need to be ‘saved’ is very damaging as it is normalizing this predatory behavior," said one Australian TV viewer.
His Amazon show was quickly canceled
In late 2016, Amazon Prime unveiled its annual slate of pilots for upcoming potential TV series, one of which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme—and it was a comedy, not an action thriller or a martial arts show. Making fun of himself and his image, Van Damme took the title role in Jean-Claude Van Johnson, playing a faded film star who opens his own private investigation agency. After viewers voted on the slate of pilots that included Johnson, Amazon committed to a six-episode first season that debuted in December of 2017.
Unfortunately, Van Damme’s Amazon-fueled comeback proved short-lived. Just a matter of weeks after it premiered, Jean-Claude Van Johnson had its plug pulled by the streaming service, one among a number of cancellations that hit Amazon’s Prime Video lineup in January of 2018. It marked a disappointing setback in Van Damme’s career, but he could take comfort in the knowledge that his show was in pretty good company—aside from canceling Van Johnson, Amazon also ended the critically acclaimed I Love Dick and One Mississippi, all part of a shift away from prestige programming and an effort to score hits with broader appeal.
So now that you’re all caught up with everything Van Damme has been up to, let’s see how well you really know the action star. Keep reading for some facts you may not know about Jean-Claude Van Damme.
He was originally cast as The Predator
The titular alien in the Predator movies was initially meant to be played by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme. He obviously didn’t, and ended up leaving the film when he found out that he was little more than a stunt man, and couldn’t do any of his martial arts in his epic battle against Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apparently, stalking and clicking are poor artistic substitutes.
At the time of his departure, the Predator looked very different from how we know it today, and there was no way Van Damme could have performed any spectacular stunts while wearing the suit. As he explained it to AV Club, "My feet were in the cast of the alien. My hands were in the forearms, my head was in the neck. I was moving everything with cables. It was a very unsecure, very dangerous type of outfit." His movement would have been very limited and impractical, not to mention the fact that the story just didn’t call for cool Van Damme-y movement.
Van Damme was hired less for his agility and the fluidity of his movement, and more to play a special effect, and little more. This just didn’t sit well with the Muscles from Brussels, so he walked after only two days of production — but JCVD’s short run as the Predator lives on in the 2018 franchise reboot movie The Predator. The film’s cinematographer, Larry Fong, announced on Twitter that the movie contains a well-buried reference or "Easter egg" to Van Damme’s ill-fated stint. Van Damme spent his brief time on set wearing a bright red creature suit, so colored to facilitate special effects in post-production. A reddish-pink critter makes an appearance in The Predator, to the delight of fans both eagled-eyed and well versed in their Predator history.
His daughter could kick his ass (and yours)
Bianca Van Damme is certainly not someone you would want to mess with. Though she may not look the part, with her brown locks and full, model-esque lips, she is an extremely capable martial artist. "I want to show little girls and little boys that you can be physical and feminine. That you can cross your legs at the dinner table and then kick ass in a nice, feminine way." Protip: don’t let her use your 206 bones to prove her point.
Growing up, she hated martial arts, and was forced into it at the age of seven by her bodybuilder mother, in order to help with self-discipline. Her interests at the time lay more on the side of ballet and speed-skating, but an injury forced her into another path. She embraced martial arts and worked alongside her father in 2008’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol. She went on to film six additional movies with her father, and continued to hone her craft.
She started her road in Hollywood as Van Varenberg, to help distance herself from her famous father, but eventually settled on her namesake and is now billed as Bianca Van Damme. While she hasn’t competed professionally like her father did before his movie career kicked off, she’s been training in martial arts for nearly 20 years, and is just as quick and agile as her dad, which presumably a much bigger "everybody underestimates me" chip on her shoulder.
He was a successful martial artist (and ballerina) long before he became an actor
Jean-Claude Van Damme didn’t just get off a bus in Los Angeles and find work in Hollywood, like so many people have tried to do. He was an active fighter for years before finally breaking into the film industry. His fight record stands at 18-1 in kickboxing, with all 18 wins attributed to knockout. In semi/light contact fights, he holds 44 wins to 4 losses, so his skills in the ring are well-known.
Many have attributed his fighting style and graceful movement to his training in ballet. Yes, the Muscles from Brussels is a trained danseur (That’s what a male ballerina is called—don’t feel bad, we had to look it up too), but you probably shouldn’t try mocking him for taking part in something most often associated with women—you wouldn’t want to make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
He was the inspiration for Mortal Kombat and Johnny Cage
When Midway released its popular fighting game Mortal Kombat in 1992, few people realized that the game was initially intended to be an homage to none other than Van Damme. Shortly after the success of Universal Soldier, the producers approached Midway Games with the hopes of making a game based off the movie. Midway wasn’t interested, but they did want to work with Van Damme, so they worked out a deal with him to make a game more akin to his film Bloodsport. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, and they never finished working the project.
They eventually turned their idea into Mortal Kombat, and based the Johnny Cage character off of Van Damme. Van Damme and Johnny Cage share some similarities—their appearance is similar, as is their back story. Cage is a narcissistic Hollywood actor, not unlike the subject of this article, and his initials of J.C. mirror those of Mr. Van Damme as well. Obviously, since the licensing deal fell through, the character was modeled off another actor, leaving Johnny Cage more of an homage to the Muscles from Brussels, rather than a direct representation of him.
He had a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him
One of Van Damme’s biggest problems once his career began to take a nosedive, was due to the stuff he was snorting up his nose. He has admitted to having a 10-gram-per-day cocaine habit, which cost him around $10,000 a week. By 1999, he had racked up a DUI charge and even tried rehab, but left after only seven days. He eventually relapsed a few years later, and continued his destructive habits.
During this time, Van Damme made some rather horrible films, and even did an unnecessary sequel to Universal Soldier. Most of his work went direct-to-DVD, and few people ever saw them. Here’s a fun challenge: see if you can name anything Van Damme filmed between 1999 and 2008 without Googling. Probably you can’t—he made 14 films during this time, and they were all bombs. These poor career choices earned him the nickname "Jean-Claude Van Desperate"—for Hollywood types, that’s pretty clever.
It wasn’t until he starred in his namesake film, JCVD, in 2008 that he started to make a comeback. He had finally kicked his cocaine habit, and was reflecting on his own life. The film was well-received, and helped to bring him back into the mainstream of Hollywood.
He was suicidal and diagnosed bipolar
Van Damme’s substance abuse problem has been linked with his bipolar disorder. People with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, they are highly susceptible to addiction, and Van Damme’s condition went undiagnosed for years. Before he was diagnosed, he would turn to training for help. "When I didn’t train for a couple of days, I felt so low and nothing could make me happy." Except for drugs, unfortunately.
Van Damme was finally diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder in 1998, and he began to take sodium balproate—a mood stabilizing drug—to help him with his condition. He’s been very open about his disorder in interviews, and was expressive while playing himself in JCVD, where he exposed himself as a broken man.
Like others with this condition, he was even suicidal at one point, but was able to get the help he needed. As he put it, "I didn’t have any reasons to live … I was not excited about anything. Then you have to find back your self-esteem. And then, slowly, every piece of yourself becomes precious again … It’s not the drugs, it’s a problem with yourself, which you have to cure." After he finally kicked his cocaine habit (cold turkey, at that), he started to move forward. This also helped him reconcile with his third wife (the one he remarried) and he’s been dealing with his condition positively ever since.
He was sued by a guy who claims he can’t fight
While people may not agree on Van Damme’s acting ability, most everyone can agree he’s a great fighter who would kill any of us if we stepped up to him. But as it turns out, there’s at least one person convinced Van Damme can hardly fight a lick: the guy who inspired Van Damme’s first major film.
As the Las Vegas Sun reported, in 1997 Frank Dux, the kickboxer who Van Damme portrayed in Bloodsport, sued Van Damme for $50,000 (later upped to $1.5 million). He said the star didn’t pay him for helping co-write his 1996 movie The Quest. During the suit, Dux made sure to dig at Van Damme, saying the man has no idea how to fight. As he claimed, "I asked Jean-Claude to do a simple forward roll [when tutoring him for Bloodsport], and he landed on his head." As for that legit kickboxing career, the one with footage to back it up, Dux insists "Van Damme … lied to the public that he was a martial arts champion."
Unfortunately for Dux, the lawsuit went nowhere. The next year, a jury cleared Van Damme, saying the star didn’t owe anyone anything. Dux was optimistic about an appeal, saying, "If you remember Rocky, he didn’t win his first fight either." But it doesn’t seem like Dux ever filed the appeal, which is like Rocky staying retired and working with Adrian at the pet shop instead.
He brought the laughs to Armenia
Jean-Claude Van Damme is a native French speaker, and as such is a big fan of Charles Aznavour, the francophone singer and French superstar who passed away in October 2018. Van Damme was beside himself with grief. "I will miss you for the rest of my days on earth, Charles. Your songs will go on forever! My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones," Van Dame wrote on Twitter, alongside a picture of himself with Aznavour.
That death came just weeks after Van Damme proved his deep love for Aznavour with a work trip to Armenia (Aznavour’s family is from there). "I love Armenia so much, and Charles Aznavour has been my favorite singer since childhood," Van Damme professed in a statement. And for some reason, he paid that love forward by participating in the Armenian capital of Yerevan’s first-ever Humour Fest, a comedy festival. Because when you think Armenian comedy, think Jean-Claude Van Damme.