Nicknamed the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the few Belgians to achieve global superstardom in the movies. Thanks to hits like Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Hard Target, he was one of the biggest action stars around from the late 80s to the mid-90s, and he remains a big fan favourite to this day. But did you know the following facts about the man born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg?
25. He became a black belt in karate aged 18
They say it takes over 10,000 hours to ever become a master at any skill, so it’s no surprise that Van Damme is so unbeatable in so many ways.
From karate to kickboxing, to weight training and bodybuilding competitions, Van Damme has had over half a century to become the master.
It started when he was 10 years old, when Van Damme was enrolled in Shotokan karate school by his father.
Unsurprisingly, the young Jean-Claude trained relentlessly, and had earned his black belt by the time he was just 18.
By 16, he was competing on the national Belgian karate team in non-contact matches, where he held a record of 44 victories to only 4 defeats.
At times there have been some in Hollywood (most notoriously Steven Seagal) who questioned Van Damme’s record, but the martial artist-turned-movie star has always been able to back up his claims.
24. He also studied ballet as a youngster
Training for years to turn your body into a honed weapon might seem like a pretty violent thing to do.
By contrast, the art of ballet dancing seems like training for years to be beautiful and graceful.
However, it turns out that the two disciplines are more similar than you might think, and doing one can make you even better at the other.
Van Damme understood the importance of both disciplines, and trained classically in Ballet from the age of sixteen.
He trained all the way into his early twenties, and credits it for his balance, precision and flexibility.
He even cautioned people that training for the ballet is just as brutal and physically demanding as any other sport, and can set you up to successfully tackle any training.
23. He made his film debut as a breakdancing extra
In 1982, Van Damme and his friend Michael Qissi moved to the US to try and fulfil their dream of becoming actors.
Their first job was as extras in the 1984 hip hop dance film Breakin’, where they can be seen dancing in the background at a dance demonstration.
It was a production of Cannon Films, the notoriously schlocky 80s film company who would later give Van Damme his first leading roles.
Breakin’ is a movie that does exactly what it says on the tin, since the whole plot centres around a group of breakdancers struggling to be taken seriously within the dance community.
In a curious way, Van Damme’s Breakin’ cameo foreshadowed what would become another of his most famous scenes.
In 1989’s Kickboxer, he dances drunk whilst wearing a black vest, busting some quite similar moves to those displayed in the 1984 movie.
22. He was good friends with Chuck Norris before he was famous
- Credit: CBS via Getty Images
Whilst in the US, Van Damme became good friends with action movie star Chuck Norris, who gave him a job as a bouncer at a bar he owned.
Van Damme also went on to work as part of the stunt team on Chuck Norris’ movie Missing in Action.
As fellow martial artists, Norris and Van Damme also became sparring partners, as can be seen from the video above.
However, despite the fact that the two of them have been fast friends for decades, they also have been friendly rivals for just as long.
Fans have wondered for years which of the two would emerge victorious in a fight, and many tongue-in-cheek memes have been created pondering this.
The two men united in a 2013 Christmas TV commercial for Volvo which addressed the matter in a tongue in cheek way.
21. He was originally cast as the monster in Predator, but was fired after a row with the producer
- Credit: 20th Century Studios
Van Damme was originally cast as the Predator in the original 1986 film, with filmmakers hoping that his martial arts skills would help the alien to appear extremely agile.
However, Van Damme had issues with the suit being too hot and causing him to faint, and it was also decided that a larger man was needed to make the Predator appear more threatening.
- Credit: 20th Century Studios
- At the very least, that’s one story about how it all went down, but there are actually numerous accounts of why Van Damme left the project.
They vary from the awful conditions to his huge falling out with the producer Joel Silver, and it’s still not exactly clear what happened. Either way, Silver and Van Damme both parted on extremely bad terms, and never worked together again.
- Credit: 20th Century Studios
Van Damme’s departure prompted a significant rethink. Firstly, a new, radically different (and much, much better) design was created for the Predator suit.
Secondly, it was decided the Predator needed to be far bigger than his human prey, so Kevin Peter Hall (who stood 7’2.5″ tall) was cast in Van Damme’s place.
20. He’s co-starred with Dolph Lundgren six times to date
Van Damme’s most frequent collaborator was also one of his main contenders for the crown of the world’s top action hero back in the late 80s/early 90s.
We are of course referring to his fellow European character champion-turned-musclebound Hollywood leading man, Dolph Lundgren.
Van Damme first co-starred with the Swedish superstar back in 1992, in the sci-fi action hit Universal Soldier.
The duo went on to co-star in the sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, as well as The Expendables 2.
Van Damme and Lundgren have since co-starred a fifth time in 2018’s direct-to-DVD action movie Black Water.
In the near future, both of their voices will be heard in 2022 animated sequel Minions: Rise of Gru.
19. There is a statue dedicated to him in Belgium
A statue of Jean-Claude Van Damme statue was unveiled in Anderlecht, Belgium in 2012.
Van Damme himself has been quoted as saying that the statue “represented the dream of a Brussels kid”.
- Credit: Eric Lalamnd/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images
He went on to explain further, saying: is for “all the children who want something bad”.
He ended his address at the site of the statue with the simple but inspirational message that “if you believe in something strongly enough, it can come true.”
Nor is this the only statue honouring the action star, as another was erected in 2019 in the perhaps unexpected location of Azerbaijan.
You may see images online of another mighty statue of the actor in splits pose, but this was a fake created for his 2017 TV show Jean-Claude Van Johnson.
18. Mortal Kombat character Johnny Cage is based on him
The original Mortal Kombat video game was originally meant to feature Van Damme, but the deal fell through.
Instead, the Mortal Kombat character Johnny Cage was created, but he was still closely based on Van Damme.
As if that wasn’t an obvious enough tell, the outfit he wears is pretty much indistinguishable from what Van Damme wears in Bloodsport.
Even his charismatic but slightly goofy and cocky persona is a choice that reinforces who their original model was.
With that said, if the creators wanted to ensure people knew it wasn’t actually Van Damme as a character, tattooing ‘Johnny’ on his chest was a pretty smart way to go.
Ironically, Van Damme later turned down the part of Johnny Cage in the first Mortal Kombat movie, and instead played Guile in the movie adaptation of rival video game franchise Street Fighter.
17. He once had a $10,000-a-week drug habit
Van Damme developed a serious cocaine habit during the 1990s, at one point consuming up to 10 grams per day at the cost of $10,000 a week.
After stints in rehab proved unsuccessful, he managed to kick the habit himself by going cold turkey and throwing himself into exercising.
He was even allegedly dealing with the effects of high doses of substances while filming Street Fighter, and it was so obvious that even the director noticed.
The studio hired an assistant to keep an eye on him, but the assistant was such a bad example that he allowed him to go missing for hours.
While this was going on, Van Damme’s Street Fighter co-star Raul Julia was seriously ill; he would sadly die before the film’s release.
Director Steven E. de Souza would reportedly ask assistants at the start of the day if Julia had taken his meds, and if Van Damme was off his.
16. He has been married five times
- Credit: Eduardo Parra/Getty Images
A notorious lady’s man, Van Damme has been married five times to four different women.
Before his career took off, Van Damme was first married to María Rodríguez from 1980 to 1984.
- Credit: Georges Biard via Wikimedia Commons
After their divorce, the actor went on to wed Cynthia Derderian in 1985, but they split the following year.
Van Damme then wed actress and bodybuilder Gladys Portugues in 1987; this marriage was over by 1992, and the actor then wed Darcy LaPier (above) in 1994.
- Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
After his marriage to LaPier also fell apart in 1997, Van Damme reconciled with Gladys Portugues (above).
The couple remarried in 1999, and although they reportedly came close to separating in 2015 they are still together today.
15. He had an affair with Kylie Minogue on the set of Street Fighter
Whilst married to actress Darcy LaPier (whom he initially had an affair with whilst married to Gladys Portugues), Van Damme admitted to having an affair with yet another celebrity.
In this case, the celebrity was Kylie Minogue, with whom he co-starred in Street Fighter.
Van Damme hooked up with the Australian pop princess during the film’s Thailand shoot, whilst LaPier was pregnant with their son Nicholas.
LaPier did not become aware of the affair until Van Damme admitted it publicly in 2012, over a decade after they had split up.
Not only that, but until he decided to go public with the information, his ex-wife said she had absolutely no idea and hadn’t even considered the possibility.
Van Damme confessed, “It happened. I was in Thailand, we had an affair. Sweet kiss, beautiful lovemaking. It would be abnormal not to have had an affair [with Minogue], she’s so beautiful.”
14. He has been diagnosed as bipolar
Jean-Claude Van Damme has revealed in recent years that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 90s.
He was quoted as saying “I’m an extreme bipolar, and I’m taking medication for this.”
“When I was young, I was suffering those swing moods. In the morning, the sky was blue going to school, and to me, the sky was black. I was so sad.”
He started taking medication in 1998, after a decade that was filled with the most extreme drug use, partying and infidelity of his life.
After starting on the meds, he realised that a lot of those habits were an attempt to self medicate his symptoms, or were actually caused by them.
He credits his new lifestyle with his ability to reconcile with his ex-wife, as during the worst times of his illness he was completely convinced that she had hurt and betrayed him.
13. He was sued by Frank Dux, the man on whom Bloodsport was based
- Credit: Foto Archivo
Van Damme got his big break in Bloodsport, in which he portrayed real-life martial artist Frank Dux, who said the film was based on true events.
Dux himself was closely involved in Bloodsport, both as a creative consultant and a fight scene choreographer.
The two got along famously at first, as Dux trusted Van Damme to appear as him onscreen for Bloodsport, but that happy relationship did not last.
In 1997, Dux took out a lawsuit against Van Damme, demanding over $50,000 in damages.
This was because Van Damme allegedly did not acknowledge the co-writing and consulting work that Dux did for his movie The Quest (also Van Damme’s directorial debut).
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Dux also claimed that Van Damme was lying about his personal fight record.
12. Dux’s case was dismissed when he claimed his evidence had been buried by an earthquake
- Credit: Maury Philips/Getty Images
In the end, Dux’s lawsuit against Van Damme was thrown out of court due to lack of evidence.
Dux had claimed to have in his possession documents and recordings that backed up his story.
However, when the matter came to court, Dux said that all this evidence had been destroyed in a recent earthquake.
Unsurprisingly the jury didn’t believe this, and so Van Damme won the lawsuit by default, and walked away without having to pay a penny.
In the years since, most of Frank Dux’s claims about his own fight record and personal history have been largely dismissed as pure fiction.
This includes the allegedly true story of Bloodsport, which martial arts experts insist never happened.
11. He’s only ever lost a single kickboxing match
Many celebrities make the switch from competitive sports to acting, and Van Damme actually made the transition relatively early in his career.
That was a risky move, given that many athletes become way less formidable after getting used to the pampered world of Hollywood.
However, whether or not that has become true of Van Damme recently, it definitely wasn’t a description that applied to him in the early years.
That’s because he kept up his kickboxing career while still working on films, and kept up his truly impressive record.
As for exactly what that record is? 19 professional match wins to one loss, and 18 of those wins were knockouts.
Even better, his only loss was a disqualification when he accidentally hit someone while they were down, due to how quickly they fell.
10. He has been violent with film extras in the past
Nowadays, Van Damme is the very picture of wholesome. He has a loving wife, a bunch of children, and is lovely to each and every fan he meets.
With that said, we’ve already explored on this list the fact that he wasn’t always so family friendly, especially in his early movie career.
As his film career took off, the actor’s bipolar disorder had not yet been diagnosed.
As a result, the pressures of stardom made him pretty difficult to work with, and sometimes he lashed out.
On the worst occasion, he lashed out at an extra, deliberately attempting to gouge him in the eye while the two were filming Cyborg.
Plus, while Van Damme is basically a weapon all by himself, the alleged attack took place while they were both holding swords.
9. His ‘action movie’ hero is Charlie Chaplin
Van Damme is one of the most iconic action stars of all time, and many aspiring martial artists and actors cite him as the reason they were inspired to get into the genre.
It makes sense that Van Damme would have his own heroes that inspired him, but the person he picked to admire above everyone else might not be who you would expect.
Whenever he’s asked about the person that has inspired him most, he always says Charlie Chaplin, a silent and early movie star.
Though he mostly acted in comedies of his own creation, he was famous for his innovative stunts and special effects, and blending of drama and comedy.
When you look at it that way, it makes perfect sense that Van Damme would idolise him, and even take inspiration from him in his own work.
Van Damme isn’t the only action star to be influenced by the silent movie comedians; Chaplin and Buster Keaton have both been cited as key influences by Jackie Chan.
8. He learned English by watching cartoons
Van Damme’s nickname is The Muscles From Brussels, which explains the country he was born and grew up in pretty well.
It also explains his accent, as he predominantly grew up speaking Dutch and French, the two languages most commonly spoken by people in Belgium.
However, most people in Belgium also speak English, and Van Damme is no different, even though he didn’t take to it right away.
Since it wasn’t spoken all that often in his home, he taught himself in English by watching old school cartoons on TV, most notably The Flintstones.
As if those three languages weren’t impressive enough, he also can understand Spanish perfectly, even though he can’t speak it.
That’s because his nanny growing up was Spanish, and spoke it around him constantly at home.
7. He was homeless before he got famous
Van Damme might seem to have the perfect life right now, but stardom didn’t come to him without effort.
His initial move to LA with his buddy Michael Qissi could have worked out very differently for him.
As it is, Van Damme found his first few months in America very difficult, as he literally had no money and no place to live of his own.
For a pretty serious amount of time, the actor was literally living on the street between auditions, and was struggling to find food to eat on a daily basis.
He scavenged and did everything else he could think of to keep a healthy weight and physique, as he knew it would be essential to his career.
The dedication and hard times paid off though, as they gave him a resilience to keep auditioning even when it seemed like he was getting nowhere.
6. He played an insane version of himself in a recent TV show
Van Damme has tackled a lot of different kinds of roles across the decades he’s been in the industry.
He’s done over the top martial arts films, campy war flicks and even gritty action movies, as well as some more character-driven stuff.
However, one thing he’s not particularly known for is deep introspective drama, especially not drama that goes to a dark place.
With that said, he got the opportunity to do exactly that in 2016, when he played a fictionalised version of himself in Amazon Prime series Jean-Claude Van Johnson.
The series showed Van Damme living a double life as both an actor and a secret agent, but featured episode after episode of him making things worse and screwing up.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson won enthusiastic reviews and went down well with audiences, but sadly only lasted one season.
5. His parents had far more peaceful, down-to-earth jobs
- Credit: SGranitz/WireImage/Getty
It’s pretty much impossible to imagine Jean-Claude Van Damme being anything other than an international action movie superstar.
Yet as with so many actors, he came from far humbler beginnings, and could easily have lived a more humble life.
- Credit: Kristy Sparow/WireImage/Getty
It was actually his father who encouraged him to get into martial arts and dance, both of which set him down the acting path that he’s still on today.
What’s funniest about his parents introducing him to those hobbies, is that their own jobs are the exact opposite of violent and extreme.
- Credit: Jan De Meuleneir/Photonews via Getty Images
His mother Eliana Van Varenberg worked as a florist, while his father Eugène Van Varenberg was an accountant.
With that said, they are all united by being jolly and determined people, so in that sense the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
4. He’s famous for talking complete nonsense
Van Damme is an incredibly intelligent person. He can dance, he can act and he’s trained in a bunch of different fighting styles, all of which take decades to master.
As if that wasn’t enough, he can speak three languages, and understand perfectly a fourth.
All that aside, he does have a reputation for saying things that don’t immediately make sense, whether that’s due to a language barrier or just his own personality.
For example, he once said that cookies have no soul, just out of the blue in the middle of an interview.
When asked to explain further, he offered the explanation that “A cookie has no soul, it’s just a cookie.”
But Van Damme went on to philosophically explain, “before [the cookie] was milk and eggs. And in eggs there’s the potential for life.”
3. He had a cameo in Kung Fu Panda
Van Damme has cultivated a reputation as someone with a decades-long film career, but for a while there was one significant gap in his resume.
That gap was animation, as he had never appeared in an animated movie or done voice work for one.
The closest he’d gotten was being the base inspiration for a Mortal Kombat character, but that all changed with Kung Fu Panda.
The franchise loved giving characters to classic martial arts stars to voice, and so the second and third instalment both featured Van Damme.
As to the character, he played a crocodile who was also a Kung Fu Master called, appropriately, Master Croc.
After playing Master Croc in Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, Van Damme will lend his voice to another animated sequel, Minions: The Rise of Gru.
2. He’s also a documentary maker and film director
- Credit: Daniel Colin via Flickr
Most people know Jean-Claude Van Damme as an actor. If they don’t, chances are they know him as a professional fighter, model or bodybuilder.
With that said, Van Damme has done a lot more for the film industry than just act, even if his other contributions have gotten less attention.
Over the years, he has racked up eleven whole writer credits, for everything from feature-length action movies to documentaries.
He’s even directed two movies himself, first 1996’s The Quest and later on the 2009 production The Eagle Path, which he also wrote.
Unfortunately, The Eagle Path (alternately known as Full Love, Soldiers and Frenchy) remains unreleased due to problems behind the scenes.
What’s maybe the most surprising is that he only has one stunt credit to his name, for 1984’s Missing In Action, right at the beginning of his career.
1. His son has been in serious trouble for violent behaviour
The children of celebrities are often prone to acting out, whether through spending their wealth in ill-advised ways, having difficulty dealing with the pressure of the spotlight, or getting into actual trouble.
Van Damme’s son Nicholas Van Varenberg fit the bill of getting into serious trouble, when he was arrested for violent behaviour.
Van Varenberg’s university security cameras saw recorded him acting in a total frenzy, punching the wall of an elevator and generally acting aggressively.
He then threatened his college room mate at knife point, and when arrested by police he bragged about his famous father, declaring he would get off scot-free.
This was not the case, as Nicholas Van Varenberg was sentenced to 18 months of probation in October 2018 (not long after he made his acting debut in Kickboxer: Retaliation, a sequel to his father’s 1989 film Kickboxer).