In the bone-crunching world of biceptual movie heroes, there's little room for modesty. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, Seagal? Bah, hamburger! "I think I've got the best body of all of them," declares Van Damme, 31, as he relaxes by the swimming pool of his five-bedroom, English country—style home in California's San Fernando Valley. "Honest to God. I can put a suit on, I look elegant. If I take my clothes off, I look enormous. I'm not big," admits the 5'9", 185-lb. Van Damme, "but I'm well proportioned."
The not-so-little woman agrees. "He has the physique of an Adonis. It's like a gymnast's—light but muscular," boasts Van Damme's wife of five years, Gladys Portugues, 35, a former U.S. bodybuilding champ turned full-time mom, as their kids, Kristopher, 5, and Bianca, 1, romp naked on the toy-strewn pool deck.
Van Damme turns around and gives his derriere a hard slap. "I've got a very strong butt. It's like a horse butt. It's very powerful [for an audience] to see a guy with a strong bull."
The Van Damme rear end is prominently displayed in his latest movie, Universal Soldier. A $23 million Terminator-esque sci-fi thriller, it teams the emerald-eyed Jean-Claude with burly Swedish costar Dolph (Rocky IV) Lundgren as Vietnam grunts killed in action, cryogenically frozen and brought back to life two decades later as members of a top-secret team of superhuman commandos. Though the film took in $10 million its opening weekend, some critics Eurotrashed its leading he-man. "Van Damme's job here," noted The New York Times'' Janet Maslin, "is to feign blankness and speak in a monotone (not exactly a stretch)."
"I am a very good actor!" Van Damme insists. Says Lundgren: "He's a charming, likable guy, and that comes across onscreen."
Van Damme indeed cuts a charismatic figure, but his reputation, unlike his body, is far from perfect. Thrice married, he has in the past confessed that his "one weakness is women." And as recently as last spring, the tabloids alleged that the star romanced Darcy LaPier, 26, an aspiring actress whose screen test (which included a kissing scene) Van Damme directed and costarred in. For Darcy's then husband, Ron Rice, founder of the Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion company, it was the last straw in a rocky relationship. Says Rice: "She ran off with Jean-Claude, and that's when I filed for divorce." Both Van Damme and LaPier deny the affair. Says Van Damme: "She is a very good friend." And Gladys backs her husband. Reports of his infidelity are "irritating," she says, "but I know what we have together. I'm too strong to let it get to me."
Van Damme has had a go-for-broke intensity ever since his childhood in Brussels, where he was born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg. "He was nervous, exuberant, all the lime up the wall," recalls his father, Eugene, who juggled jobs as a florist and an accountant to support Jean-Claude, his sister, Veronique, now 33 and a clothier, and their mother, Eliana. At 11, fed up with looking "like a nerd," says Van Damme, he took up karate—earning a black belt—and weight lifting, winning the Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title at 18. In 1981, after acting stints in European commercials and low-budget French films, he flew to Hollywood, where he plastered producers' windshields with photos of himself while taking jobs as a pizza delivery man and an aerobics instructor. At casting calls, though, he met with rejection. "I was like, 'Tell me, God, why a guy with so much talent has to suffer?' " he says.
His destiny changed when Chuck Norris, who responded to Van Damme's Hollywood letter-writing blitz, got him hired as a bouncer at his wife Dianne's Newport Beach restaurant. That led to a small role as a heavy in Norris's 1986 chopsocky No Retreat, No Surrender and an even less visible appearance as the title alien in Predator; his scenes were ultimately redone by the taller Kevin Peter Hall.
Spotting producer Menahem (Missing in Action) Golan at a local restaurant one day, Van Damme demonstrated his scissor kick for him. The producer told him to come to his office the next day, when, Van Damme says, he delivered an impassioned plea: "If you sign me now, I'm going to make lots of money for you!" Recalls Golan: "His English wasn't good, but he was so confident of his talent we decided to take a chance." The producer signed Van Damme for Bloodsport, the first in a siring of low-budget box-office hits.
Belgian actor Michel Qissy, a friend since childhood who accompanied Van Damme to Golan's office, says that he inflated the champ's part in the then unreleased Predator for the producer and that the hype rather than the kick is what impressed Golan. Although Qissy was given roles in several of his friend's movies, he claims his buddy never paid him his $22,000 salary for Lionheart, and Qissy now speaks bitterly about his former pal. "I trusted him," he says. "I thought he believed in God, but he believed in money." Van Damme maintains that they are still friends, and "I don't owe him money."
Van Damme does have a charitable side, however. He belongs to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which helps children with cancer meet the stars. "People may think my films are bad," says Van Damme, "but these kids tell me that because of my movies, they are going to fight [their] cancer."
Now, tired of being thought of as nothing more than a pair of fists—and feet—Van Damme is trying to alter his image. His next picture, Pals, a remake of Shane costarring Rosanna Arquette, eschews karate kicks for characterization. It's the sort of canny career adjustment Schwarzenegger made during his climb to big-screen respectability. Not that Van Damme is making any other concessions to his colleague in mesomorphy. With typical modesty, Van Damme remembers Arnold's visit to the set of Universal Soldier. "He gave me a cigar," he says, "but I said it was too small for me."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles
- John Griffiths.
DONT MOVE!" JEAN-CLAUDE VAN Damme commands a visitor. The Belgian-born bodybuilder and karate champ turned martial-arts film star (Bloodsport, Kick-boxer) then leaps into his patented 360-degree scissor kick, his foot blurring within a hair of his guest's head. "Whoosh!" Van Damme even provides his own sound effects.