A sensual Dutch actress, Sylvia Kristel became a global star after portraying the sexual adventurer "Emmanuelle" (1974). Achieving unprecedented mainstream success for a soft-core project, the actress, the film, as well as even the name itself, became pop cultural shorthand for a certain romantic, European style of erotica. Kristel went on to appear in "Emmanuelle" sequels in 1975, 1977, 1984 and 1993, as well as in multiple made-for-TV installments of the long-running franchise. She poked fun at her lusty image with roles in "The Nude Bomb" (1980), "Private School" (1983) and "Mata Hari" (1985) and scored a mainstream Hollywood hit as the maid who initiates a lucky teenage boy into the mysteries of sex in the hit "Private Lessons" (1981). Romantically linked to actor Ian McShane for a time and having battled a cocaine addiction, Kristel was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and died of complications on Oct. 17, 2012. Considered by many to be one of the silver screen's most captivating love goddesses, Sylvia Kristel earned her own unique place in the immortal pop culture pantheon.
Born Sept. 28, 1952 in Utrecht, The Netherlands, Sylvia Kristel won the 1973 Miss TV Europe crown, which helped her break into films with appearances in such movies as "Frank en Eva" (1973), "Because of the Cats" (1973) and "Naakt over de schutting" (1973). She achieved an unexpected international breakthrough, however, when she was cast as the titular pleasure-seeking housewife "Emmanuelle" (1974), a soft-core sexual fantasy with ample lesbian content that took everyone by surprise with how well it was received. The tale of an alluring young woman (Kristel) who travels to Thailand to join her husband but instead embarks on a sensual odyssey of self-discovery, "Emmanuelle" became a global blockbuster, with the name itself as well as Kristel forever associated with a certain brand of soft-focus, European erotica. Swept up in the same movement that made the pornographic film "Deep Throat" (1972) a mainstream phenomenon, the film earned a major Hollywood release as well as a reputation as a female-friendly, high-minded approach to the genre.
Although the actress appeared in many other projects, she continued to earn her greatest fame from her most famous character, starring in "Emmanuelle II" (1975), "Emmanuelle 3" (1977), "Emmanuelle IV" (1984), "Emmanuelle VI" (1993) and a string of made-for-TV movies throughout the early 1990s. So popular and enduring was the franchise that it continued without Kristel, with a mind-boggling number of spin-offs and spoofs. In fact, the character was used as the title and running joke of a particularly memorable episode of "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006- ) in which Jenna (Jane Krakowski) stars in the sequel "Emmanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land." Kristel maintained a good sense of humor about her immortalization as the ultimate sex goddess, and played off her image with appearances in "The Nude Bomb" (1980), "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (1981), "Private School" (1983) and "Mata Hari" (1985). Her biggest non-"Emmanuelle" success came as a gorgeous French maid who lovingly seduces the teenage son of her employer in the mainstream Hollywood hit "Private Lessons" (1981), which fired up the fantasies of countless viewers and ensured Kristel a place of affection in their hearts.
Romantically linked to actor Ian McShane, whom she met on the set of "The Fifth Musketeer" (1979), Kristel was never quite able to advance her American movie career. A developing cocaine addiction that nearly derailed both her life did not help matters. In 2006, she won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival for directing the short film "Topor and Me" (2004), and in 2007, she published her autobiography, Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir. Her focus, however, largely turned inward after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 after having smoked unfiltered cigarettes since age 11. Although she sought treatment, her health never fully recovered and she died on Oct. 17, 2012, of complications of her cancer. Nevertheless, Sylvia Kristel lived on in the fantasies of millions who had fallen in love or lust with her decades earlier.
By Jonathan Riggs