The Look: Jean-Claude Van Damme

GYM DANDY

It's a broiling Southern California afternoon, and the further into the San Fernando Valley you push, the hotter it gets. Proof positive that not all celebs reside in Beverly Hills, Jean-Claude Van Damme lives way, way out there, in the shadows of the towering rock formations where they shot low-budget westerns and the old "Rin-Tin-Tin" TV series, way back when. But once inside Van Damme's personal gym - behind his electric gates, beyond his children playing in the Olympic-sized pool, and past his matched set of deadly serious Rottweilers - things are cool.

And they keep getting cooler because every five minutes the martial arts movie star jumps up to pump up the air conditioning. Adjusting it to the perfect work-out temperature? Is the frigid air some ancient kick-boxing secret? Um, no- "It makes your nipples hard," Van Damme grins, as he slips out of his robe and into a purple sports coat for the next shot. He climbs into a huge leg lift machine that makes him look like an astronaut in happening after-dinner wear. It's an incongruous image, to say the least, but Van Damme manages to look as natural and stylish as, say, James Bond in a tuxedo fending off an ultra-villain.

You've never seen anything like this gym in a private home-it's large enough to start accepting members. There are some 20 pieces of cutting edge weightlifting equipment, a changing room the size of most people's apartments, a sauna, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Above the walls of mirrors hang dozens of magazine covers Van Damme has graced, with names ranging from the familiar (Muscle and Fitness) to the downright strange (Super - Siyahkusak). Another wall holds posters for the slew of films that have turned this slim, trim 30-year-old Belgian karate pro into the next big Hollywood action hero: Lion-heart. Death Warrant, Bloodsport, Kickboxer. However lethal he may be on screen, he's a good-natured jokester in person. In fact, he's the funniest Belgian we've met in ages.

"Producer, hey producer!" as Van Damme insists on calling the editor from the magazine. "Where should I send the bill for all this rented gym equipment?" Oh yeah? So now we're wondering, maybe this whole spanking-new two-story house isn't really his either? "Right," says Van Damme, with another grin. "I even rented my family." When the stylist, reaching out to flatten Van Damme's lapel, notes that "it makes his chest look really big," Van Damme laughs and shoots back, "It is really big."

Van Damme is serious about a few things, though: his workouts, and his Hollywood success Growing up in Belgium with American movie heroes like McQueen and Newman, Van Damme, a small kid, took up karate at ten, and by 18 owned his own gym-optimistically called "California Gym." He gave it all up a year later to come to America, where he says he learned two things: English, and the fact that "Los Angeles is like a jungle. If you don't become vicious, then the big fish are going to eat you." He may still need a little work on his metaphors, but Van Damme's career, at least, is right on track. His next film, Double Impact, is an attempt to broaden his audience-it's his first with a big budget, and it adds some comedy to the martial arts/action mix. Most intriguingly, Van Damme plays twins, separated at birth. But each brother can kick some serious butt, you can rest assured. He's also planning a film with Dolph Lundgren, which he modestly describes as being "like The Terminator, times five."

Towards the end of the shoot, Van Damme relaxes and the smile returns. "This guy's good photographer, man. You either have it, or you don't." He raises his voice to carry across the gym. "That's always the answer to give when they ask you, 'Where'd you learn to act?'"

Jeremy Westaig



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