Today the woman whose gorgeous young body was coveted the world over adjusts her grey tunic top — she dresses purely for comfort — and announces, “I think I must be invisible to men now. Getting old is a bummer but you have got to learn to grow old gracefully. You could smile your sexiest smile and stand on your head but it wouldn’t make any difference, you would stay invisible to most of them anyway.”
These are hardly words you expect to hear from the star of the world’s most famous erotic movie. Yet, time marches on and Sylvia Kristel, always Emmanuelle even after all these years, is nothing if not a realist. Still, she pauses and her humorous green eyes open wide with surprise when I ask her how it feels to be turning 60 next year. “Oh, will I be? Somehow I still seem to be back in 2009,” she laughs.
She does not yet have grandchildren but hopes to be called ‘Oma’ (granny in Dutch) one day.
Sipping a diet coke in an Amsterdam neighborhood café — she lives in a rented flat upstairs — Kristel is softly spoken and reserved, and is now partially deaf as a result of throat cancer surgery.
If you had seen her performances in the l974 soft porn Emmanuelle films you would have witnessed her making love to both men and women, and getting up to all kinds of sexual shenanigans.
The year that Emmanuelle came out Sylvia was pregnant with her only child Arthur (now 36 and with whom she has a great relationship, she says) and she remembers “a wonderful visit to Ireland and touring in the west” with her then partner, the father, renowned Belgian writer and artist Hugo Claus. “Nobody there would have known who I was and I heard the film would not be shown in Ireland — it was far too racy,” laughs Kristel.
Her mother refused to go and see Emmanuelle in the cinema but relented once the first movie was shown on TV. “She figured that if it was going out into people’s living rooms then it was okay to watch.”
And her mother’s reaction to seeing her daughter gambol naked, simulate oral sex and fake orgasms? “When I was making the first film she told me, ‘Whatever happens keep your knees together’. Then she saw it and was relieved and astonished that it was so tame”.
Educated at a convent boarding school, Kristel was cast as Emmanuelle after winning a Miss Europe TV beauty contest. By then, she already had a healthy modelling career which included appearances on the cover of Elle magazine.
Kristel claims it was only her burning ambition to have a film career that persuaded her to take the role. One scene from the film she does have regrets about is a ‘fantasy’ rape scenario. “I was always shy — still am — and I was also prudish after four years with the nuns, and being made to attend mass every day.”
She feared acting, particularly having to remember the lines. Yet, she stayed with the profession, despite often being typecast in explicit roles. Reviews of her stage performances and roles in recent TV series in Italy and Croatia have been good. Kristel is also an accomplished artist.
She admits it’s a struggle making ends meet these days. “I don’t own a washing machine and if my laptop or TV break down I can’t afford to replace them,” she reveals.
It is a strange state of affairs, considering the fortunes still made by others from the Emmanuelle brand and the fact that another film she starred in, Private Lessons, was a huge success in the US.
Kristel is the first to admit that she was rather naïve and made some bad financial decisions. Chief among them was selling her interest in Private Lessons in the early 1980s to her then agent for a pittance of $150,000, because of a expensive cocaine habit and her dependence on alcohol during her time in Hollywood.
On the other hand, she does not believe that being wealthy means one is necessarily happy, remembering being wealthy but depressed and unhappy in a big house in St Tropez. No wonder — she had recently married a man who squandered her remaining fortune on failed film projects. “He was a complete mistake,” she reflects.
As to Emmanuelle and her international image as a sex kitten, Kristel shrugs and laughs, lowering her voice so the couple at the next table wouldn’t hear: “The Emmanuelle films were never good for my own sex life. Maybe men were scared that I had a 12-hour programme of sex games planned and I would be rating their performance along the way.”
She has been married twice, has had a string of lovers including Roger Vadim, Gerard Depardieu and Warren Beatty, and a number of serious long term affairs.
One of the most well-known was a disastrous relationship with the British actor Ian McShane, known to Irish audiences as the antiques dealer in Lovejoy or the saloon owner in Deadwood.
He took her to Hollywood where they “fought, threw things a lot, drank and did cocaine, then made up … and had some great times”.
She is more discrete about Warren Beatty, refusing to spill the beans on his rumoured sexual prowess.
Kristel’s wakeup call in Hollywood came when a doctor told her that her liver was shot and her accountant told her to choose between keeping her house or keeping the cocaine.
It was always difficult to shake off the Emmanuelle stereotype and keep her clothes on during her earlier career. But now the wheel of life has gone full circle because Kristel will be the only one to keep her clothes on when she appears in a forthcoming Dutch stage production of Calendar Girls.
We talk about what women want in men. “I am seeing a man for the past three years, we don’t live together. He is reliable, kind, interesting, a year younger than myself and I am happy. We laugh and enjoy being together.
As to her fading beauty, Kristel says she is content to let nature take its course.
“I was never tempted to have a facelift or other work done, I have seen too many botched jobs.
“No, I don’t mind becoming invisible, I rather like the freedom it gives me … to shake off Emmanuelle at last”.
EMMANUELLE was a ground-breaking erotic movie which brought soft porn out of the backstreets into ‘normal cinemas’, but not in Ireland where — in 1974, the year it came out, and for decades to come — it was banned.
Based on a scandalous bestseller about the sex lives of French expatriates in Thailand, a string of sequels followed. Thanks to YouTube, Emmanuelle, already seen by hundreds of millions, is back in vogue.
The first Emmanuelle ran for 13 years in one cinema on the Champs-Elysees, Paris, with posters of the beautiful star, Sylvia Kristel, who was not French as most people thought but in fact Dutch, sitting topless in a wicker chair, fingering a string of pearls.
The poster caption read: “at last — a film that won’t make you feel bad about feeling good”. In the years that followed Sylvia Kristel survived drug addiction, alcoholism and cancer. But despite appearing in four of the Emmanuelle movies, the good life in Hollywood got the better of her and cocaine and the party circuit took priority for a time, robbing her of her savings and a financially secure future.