Born in Utrecht on 28 September 1952, the daughter of an Utrecht innkeeper, Sylvia began modelling at age 17. Fluent in five languages, she entered and won the Miss TV Europe contest in 1973. Just a year later, she was baring all as the lead character in the original Emmanuelle, which still remains one of the highest grossing French produced movies ever. She would become the darling of mainstream erotic cinema. She starred in the likes of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Mata Hari and the sexually charged Hollywood smash Private Lessons. The latter, in which she played a maid who seduces a teenage boy, was surprisingly one of the biggest grossing movies of 1981.
Due to an expensive cocaine habit, Kristel made the poor decision of selling her interest in Private Lessons to her agent for $150,000. The film went on to gross more than $26 million just in the US. Sylvia last played her signature character Emmanuelle in the early 1990s. She continued acting until 2010. She was married three times and also had a five year relationship with British actor Ian Ian McShane, whom she met while filming The Fifth Musketeer. A heavy smoker all her life, Sylvia tragically suffered an untimely death from cancer in 2012.