Interview: Sylvia Kristel, the world's most famous porn star

What did life hold in store for her after Emmanuelle?

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.

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 sell!

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 this.

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 Entertainment

 

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 Orgy.

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 hilarity).

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.

Simon Usborne

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