Van Damme was born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg, on 18 October 1960, in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, Brussels, Belgium, the son of Eliana and Eugène Van Varenberg, who was an accountant and florist. His father is Walloon (French-speaking) from Brussels, and his mother is Flemish (Dutch-speaking). Van Damme's paternal grandmother was Jewish.
He began martial arts at the age of ten, enrolled by his father in a Shotokan Karate School. His styles consist of Shotokan Karate and Kickboxing. He eventually earned his black belt in karate at 18. He started lifting weights to improve his physique, which eventually led to a Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title. At the age of 16, he took up ballet, which he studied for five years. According to Van Damme, ballet "is an art, but it's also one of the most difficult sports. If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport." Later he took up both Taekwondo and Muay Thai.
At the age of 12, Van Damme joined the Centre National De Karaté (National Center of Karate) under the guidance of Claude Goetz in Belgium. Van Damme trained for four years and he earned a spot on the Belgian Karate Team; later training in full-contact karate and kickboxing with Dominique Valera.
At the age of 15, Van Damme started his competitive karate career in Belgium. From 1976 to 1980, Van Damme compiled a record of 44 victories and 4 defeats in tournament and non-tournament semi-contact matches.
Van Damme was a member of the Belgium Karate Team when it won the European Karate Championship on 26 December 1979 at La Coupe Francois Persoons Karate Tournament in Brussels.
Van Damme placed second at the Challenge Coupe des Espoirs Karate Tournament (1st Trials). At the 3-day tournament, Van Damme defeated 25 opponents before losing in the finals to teammate Angelo Spataro.
On 8 March 1980, in Brussels, Belgium, Van Damme competed against his former teammate Patrick Teugels at the Forest National Arena on the undercard of the Dan Macaruso-Dominique Valera Professional Karate Association Light-Heavyweight World Championship bout. Prior to this match, Teugels had defeated Van Damme twice by decision, including a match for the Belgium Lightweight Championship. Van Damme had a 1977 victory over Teugels. Teugels was coming off an impressive showing at the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations World Championships four months earlier, and was favored by some to win this match. According to reports, and Patrick Teugels' own interview (with photos), Teugels lost to Van Damme by TKO in the 1st round. Teugels was kicked in the nose and was unable to continue as a result. In a 2013 interview, Van Damme called this fight his most memorable match.
Van Damme began his full-contact career in 1977, when Claude Goetz promoted the first ever full-contact karate tournament in Belgium.
From 1977 to 1982, Van Damme compiled a record of 18 victories (18 knockouts) and 1 defeat. He was even named "Mr. Belgium" in a bodybuilding competition.
In 1980, Van Damme caught the attention of Professional Karate Magazine publisher and editor Mike Anderson, and multiple European champion Geert Lemmens. Both men tabbed Van Damme as an upcoming prospect. Van Damme retired from competition in 1982.
Since 2009, Van Damme has been planning to make a comeback to fight former boxing Olympic gold-medalist Somluck Kamsing. The fight was a focal point in his ITV reality show Jean Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors. The fight has been repeatedly postponed, with many critics doubting it will occur, especially due to the difficulty of booking the venue. December 2012, Van Damme was seen as part of Kam Sing's ring crew when Kam Sing fought against Jomhod Kiatadisak.
In 1982, Van Damme and childhood friend Michel Qissi moved to the United States in the hope of becoming action stars. They did a variety of jobs to support themselves; their first role in a Hollywood film came when both were cast as extras in the film Breakin' (1984), which was released by Cannon Films. Van Damme also had a small part in Cannon's Missing in Action (1984).
Van Damme's first sizeable role came when he was cast as the Russian villain in the martial arts movie No Retreat, No Surrender (1986), directed by Corey Yuen and released through New World Pictures. Van Damme worked for director John McTiernan for the 1987 film Predator as an early (eventually abandoned) version of the titular alien, before being removed and replaced by Kevin Peter Hall. Van Damme also had a non-speaking part as a Secret Service agent who carries a polio-crippled President Franklin Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) out of a pool in the 1988 TV miniseries War and Remembrance.
Van Damme's breakout film was Bloodsport (1988), based on the alleged true story of Frank Dux. Shot on a $1.5 million budget for Cannon, it became a U.S. box-office hit in the spring of 1988. Producer Mark Di Salle said he was looking for "a new martial arts star who was a ladies' man, [but Van Damme] appeals to both men and women. He's an American hero who fights for justice the American way and kicks the stuffing out of the bad guys."
Before that film was released, Van Damme played another Russian villain, in Black Eagle (1988), opposite Sho Kosugi. After the success of Bloodsport, Cannon Films offered Van Damme the lead in Delta Force 2, American Ninja 3 or Cyborg, a cyperpunk martial arts movie directed by Albert Pyun. He chose the latter although he later admitted "I didn't like [the film] so much." The film was a box office success and led to two sequels, neither of which Van Damme appeared in.
Cannon used Van Damme again in Kickboxer (1989), playing a man who fights to avenge his brother who has been paralyzed by a Thai kickboxing champion (Qissi). It was highly successful, returning over $50 million on a $3 million budget. Van Damme did not appear in any of the film's four sequels, though he did return as a different character in the reboot series.
Also successful was Death Warrant (1990), the first script credit for David S. Goyer; Van Damme played a cop who goes undercover in a prison. He followed it with Lionheart (1990) aka Wrong Bet, where he played a French Legionnaire who deserts his post to return to Los Angeles after his brother is murdered. Lionheart was directed by Sheldon Lettich who had co-written Bloodsport, and who claimed the film was "the first movie to demonstrate that Van Damme was more than just a flash-in-the-pan "Karate Guy" who would never rise above simplistic low-budget karate movies." It also featured rear nudity from Van Damme which Lettich says "became a very memorable moment for the ladies in the audience, and for the gay guys as well. Showing off his butt (clothed or unclothed) almost became a signature trademark of his after that."
Double Impact, directed by Lettich, featured Van Damme in the dual role of Alex and Chad Wagner, estranged twin brothers fighting to avenge the deaths of their parents. This film reunited him with his former Bloodsport co-star, Bolo Yeung and was very popular.
Van Damme then starred opposite Dolph Lundgren in the action film Universal Soldier, directed by Roland Emmerich for Carolco. While it grossed $36,299,898 in the U.S., it was an even bigger success overseas, making over $65 million, well over its modest $23 million budget, making it Van Damme's highest-grossing film at the time.
After making a cameo in Last Action Hero, Van Damme starred in Nowhere To Run (1993) alongside Rosanna Arquette, based in part on a script by Joe Eszterhaus The film was the first in a three picture deal between Van Damme and Columbia Pictures and his fee was $3.5 million. Columbia said the film is ”true to his audience and goes beyond his audience." However it was a box office disappointment.
More successful was Hard Target (1993) for Universal, the first American film from director John Woo. Van Damme did not appear in the sequel. Also for Universal he did Timecop (1994), playing a time-traveling cop, who tries to prevent the death of his wife. Directed by Peter Hyams, the film was a huge success, grossing over $100 million worldwide, and remains his highest-grossing film in a lead role to date.
Van Damme starred in Street Fighter (1994), written and directed by Steven E. de Souza for Universa and based on the video game. It was poorly received critically but still a commercial success; Van Damme's fee was now $8 million. Universal reteamed Van Damme and Hyams on Sudden Death (1995) (1995). It was far less successful than Timecop but still made money.
Van Damme turned director for The Quest (1996), which he directed; Roger Moore co-starred. It was mildly popular; more liked was Maximum Risk (1996) for Columbia, the first American film from Ringo Lam.
Van Damme's first box office bomb since he became star was Double Team (1997), a buddy film with Dennis Rodman directed by Tsui Hark for Columbia. He and Hark reunited on Knock Off (1998), a Hong Kong-US co production which also flopped.
Van Damme tried a costume action movie, Legionnaire (1998) co-written by Lettich. Despite a $35 million budget it was not even released theatrically in the US.
Van Damme then made his first sequel, Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) but it too was a box office flop. It would be Van Damme's last theatrically released film until 2008.
Van Damme's films from this point on were only released to DVD/video in the US, although they were seen theatrically in some other markets: Inferno (1999), the last film directed by John G. Avildsen; The Order (2001), a more jokey action film, directed by Lettich; Replicant (2001), directed by Ringo Lam; Derailed (2002), shot in Bulgaria; In Hell (2003), directed by Lam. In 2003, Van Damme employed his dancing training in the music video for Bob Sinclar's "Kiss My Eyes."
Lam was to have directed Wake of Death (2004) but quit during filming and was replaced by Philippe Martinez. He had a cameo in Narco (2005) then reunited with Lettich for The Hard Corps (2006). He followed it with Second in Command (2006) directed by Simon Fellow; The Exam (2007), a Turkish movie; Until Death (2007), also with Fellows; and The Shepherd: Border Patrol (2008) with his real life daughter.
Van Damme returned to the mainstream with the limited theatrical release of the 2008 film JCVD, which received positive reviews. Time Magazine named Van Damme's performance in the film the second best of the year (after Heath Ledger's The Joker in The Dark Knight), having previously stated that Van Damme "deserves not a black belt, but an Oscar." While promoting the film Van Damme indicated that he had experienced a period of homelessness "sleeping on the street and starving in L.A."
Van Damme directed himself in the barely released Full Love then reprised his role as Luc Deveraux in the 2009 film Universal Soldier: Regeneration, directed by John Hyams, son of Peter.
Van Damme was offered a lead role in Sylvester Stallone's 2010 film The Expendables. Stallone called Van Damme personally to offer him the role, but Van Damme turned it down. He also starred in Assassination Games (2011) and provided a voice for King Fu Panda 2 (2011). He starred in his own reality TV show Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors (2011).
He worked with Joe Hymans again on Dragon Eyes (2012) then appeared in commercials for Coors Light beer, showing him on a snow-covered mountain wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, and for the washing powder Dash.
On 21 October 2012, Van Damme was honored with a life-size statue of himself in his hometown of Brussels. He told reporters during the unveiling, "Belgium is paying me back something, but really it's to pay back to the dream. So when people come by here, it is not Jean-Claude Van Damme but it's a guy from the street who believed in something. I want the statue to represent that".
Van Damme returned to the Universal Soldier series with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which again co-stars Dolph Lundgren. He followed it with Six Bullets (2012) andU.F.O. (2012) then starred in the thriller Enemies Closer (2013), which reunited him with Timecop and Sudden Death director Peter Hyams.
Van Damme indicated that Stallone might include him in The Expendables 3, in which Van Damme would play Claude Villain, the brother to his Expendables 2 character Jean Villain. The casting of Mel Gibson as the film's villain, however, made this less than likely. Van Damme ended up not featuring in the film.
In 2015 he features in a new situation comedy television series JC 1er which is set to broadcast on French television channel Canal+.
He appeared in the 2013 comedy Welcome To The Jungle directed by Rob Meltzer, in a role as a workplace team building trainer opposite Adam Brody, Rob Huebel, Kristen Schaal, Megan Boone, and Dennis Haysbert.
He was in Swelter (2014) and Pound of Flesh (2015) and reprised his performance in Kung Fu Panda 3. Later films include Kickboxer: Vengeance (2017), Kill 'Em All (2017), Kickboxer: Retaliation (2017) and Black Water (2018).
In 1997, Frank Dux, the martial artist whom Van Damme portrayed in Bloodsport, filed a lawsuit against Van Damme for $50,000 for co-writing and consultation work Dux did on the 1996 film The Quest. According to the lawsuit, Dux also accused Van Damme of lying to the public about his martial arts fight record, stating that when Dux tutored Van Damme while Van Damme was laying carpet for a living, Van Damme exhibited a lack of martial arts skills. Van Damme's lawyer, Martin Singer, responded, "There are records to document his martial arts acclaim. Why, just look at his movies; he didn't get those roles on his acting ability! He's the one who does those splits on chairs. He doesn't have a stuntman to do that."
In October 2011, Van Damme, along with other celebrities including Hilary Swank, Vanessa-Mae and Seal attracted criticism from human rights groups for attending an event in Russian federal subject Chechnya's capital Grozny on the 35th birthday of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov on 5 October. Human rights groups, who had urged the celebrities to cancel their appearances because of abuses carried out under Kadyrov, criticised the celebrities for attending the event. Human Rights Watch released a statement which said, "Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a litany of horrific human rights abuses. It's inappropriate for stars to get paid to party with him [...] And getting paid to be part of such a lavish show in Chechnya trivializes the suffering of countless victims of human rights abuses there."
In the French-speaking world, Van Damme is well known for the picturesque aphorisms that he delivers on a wide range of topics (personal well-being, the environment, etc.) in a sort of Zen franglais.
The original video game Mortal Kombat was conceived as a fighting game based on Van Damme. Creators Ed Boon and John Tobias had originally wanted to star Van Damme himself in the game. That fell through as he had a prior deal for another game under the auspices of the Sega Genesis platform. Ed Boon and John Tobias eventually decided to create a different character for the game named Johnny Cage, who is modelled after Jean-Claude Van Damme, primarily from Van Damme's appearance and outfit in the martial arts film Bloodsport. In the German version of Donkey Kong 64 website, DK greatest hero is Jean-Claude Van Kong.
On 13 November 2013, Volvo Trucks released an advertisement on YouTube that shows Van Damme doing the splits while perched with each of his feet on the outer rearview mirrors of one semi-trailer truck and one box truck moving backwards, which Van Damme describes in the commercial as "the most epic of splits". The video quickly went viral around the web, receiving more than 11 million views in three days, 35 million in the first week.
In January 2017 Van Damme featured in an Ultra Tune television advert which was part of a controversial series of ads. Two women were confronted in a car park by a gang of youths in a threatening manner, Van Damme appears to defend them and then the mood lightens and they take pictures with the star.
By the mid-1990s, the stress of the constant filming and promotion of his films, as Van Damme explains, led him to develop a cocaine habit, on which he spent up to $10,000 a week, and consuming up to 10 grams per day by 1996. He was arrested for driving under the influence in 1999. Attempts at drug rehabilitation were unsuccessful, and he resorted to resolve his addiction via quitting cold turkey and exercise. In 1998, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 2011, he discussed the condition on the British reality show Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors, saying, "Sometimes you're gonna like me, and sometimes you're gonna hate me. But what can I do? I'm not perfect ... 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 [when I was] going to school, and to me, the sky was black. I was so sad."
Van Damme has been married five times to four different women. He was married to his third wife, bodybuilder Gladys Portugues - with whom he has two children: Kristopher (born 1987) and Bianca (born 1990) - until 1992, when he began an affair with actress Darcy LaPier, whom he married in February 1994. That same year he had an affair with his Street Fighter co-star Kylie Minogue during filming of that movie in Thailand. LaPier, who was pregnant at the time with their son, did not become aware of this until Van Damme publicly admitted it in 2012. After leaving LaPier, Van Damme remarried bodybuilder Portugues in 1999, and they later again separated. In early 2015, Portugues has filed for a second divorce from Van Damme – citing irreconcilable differences. However, in May 2015 they appeared to have reconciled and called off the divorce.Corcoran, John; Farkas, Emil (1988). Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York City: Gallery Books. pp. 60, 265. ISBN 978-0-8317-5805-9. (Wako)
Corcoran, John; Farkas, Emil (1988). Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York City: Gallery Books. pp. 285–286. ISBN 978-0-8317-5805-9. (PKA World Heavyweight Title)
Corcoran, John; Farkas, Emil (1988). Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York City: Gallery Books. pp. 210, 393. ISBN 978-0-8317-5805-9. (Eku)
Soet, John Steven (March 1990). "Jean-Claude Van Damme". Inside Kung-Fu Presents: Martial Artists One on One. pp. 16–25.