Vogue recently ran a profile on Kirin Dejonckheere, the modeling world’s latest “It Girl,” and there was an interesting piece of information amongst the details of her life that caught our eye: the model, who was discovered on social media,appears to prefer sports – particularly martial arts – to her newfound career. “[Before modelling] I was doing lots of sports. I played football with the boys and I could spend hours in the woods. Together with my father I practice Jeet Kune Do, a kind of kung fu from Bruce Lee,” she told the outlet.
Dejonckheere is far from the only martial arts and combat sports-practicing model these days. New York has entire classes dedicated to teaching models how to box and Gig Hadid famously showed off her own self-defense skills earlier this year when a man attacked her on the street. But Dejonckheere is also part of another storied tradition: the celebrity Jeet Kune Do student.
Ever since Bruce Lee started teaching some of California’s finest half a century ago, his martial art has remained popular with actors, filmmakers, musicians, and even competitors from other sports.
In celebration of JKD’s reemergence in popular culture – and its continued existence as one of Hollywood’s most favorite disciplines – let’s take a look at some of its most famous students and the role that training has played in their lives and art.
GLENN DANZIG : Musician Glenn Danzig, who recently reunited with his groundbreaking band, The Misfits, always had a fondness for sparring and combat sports. As a kid, he’d play-fight with his friends. As he grew older, he took up Muay Thai for a few years. Then he met Jerry Poteet through one of his training partners and his martial arts journey changed forever.
“His girlfriend was there training for a movie, and he saw that I was training after everybody left and I was asking my teacher to teach me some crazy stuff that no one else knows. My first meeting with Jerry became my first lesson. The first three weeks I was there, I was kicking a pole with my bare shins to see if I would go home or not. I didn’t go home,” Danzig told LA Weekly in 2012, shortly after Poteet’s death.
“Somebody told me not to train him because I’d create a monster,” Poteet confessed in a feature on his famous new student’s training in the September 1994 issue of Bikini Magazine. “And I said ‘He’s already a monster. I’m just going to make him a better monster.’”
In Jeet Kune Do, Danzig found lessons that changed his outlook both as a martial and musical artist. The rock star went on to earn his black belt in the discipline and become an instructor in his own right.
Here he is talking about some of that philosophy and how it relates to his training and work:
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: In 1976, the legendary basketball star (and excellent columnist) now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar approached the editor of a martial arts magazine to see who was teaching in the area. The editor referred him to an instructor named Bruce Lee.
“My first impression was this guy is really in shape,” he told writer Dave Cater in 1988. “He knew what he was doing and he was really committed to his style of martial arts. It is very hard to have a difference of opinion with a guy like that. My impressions only got stronger as I got to know him longer.”
Abdul-Jabbar spent the next four years training in Jeet Kune Do under Lee, and even appeared in The Game of Death with the star.
Adbul-Jabbar, who was on his way to see his friend and master when he heard the news of Lee’s untimely death, hasn’t been able to bring himself to keep up with his practice since, though.”I hope stopped studying martial arts because I have not found anybody to motivate me. I learned enough from Bruce to be considered well trained.”
JAMES GARNER: Actor and veteran James Garner first met Bruce Lee on the set of a 1969 mystery film called Marlowe. Garner played the film’s titular detective. Lee, in his only prominent role as a villain, played a mob-related Kung Fu expert named Winslow Wong.
Lee was impressive in their scenes together.
Garner was, perhaps, in need of better instruction.
Which is exactly what he got after Marlowe wrapped. Garner was so impressed with his co-star as a man and a martial artist that he started taking pricey private lessons from Lee and became part of the Dragon’s famed Hollywood posse.
According to Jeet Kune Do master Ted Wong, who was present for some of those lessons, it was the mental side that appealed to the future star of The Rockford Files the most. “James Coburn was more philosophically oriented. Bruce could be very philosophical, and I think that was main draw for James,” Wong told Black Belt Magazine in 2008.
According to Dan Inosanto, another Jeet Kune Do instructor who trained under Lee, the master would have liked to see a bit more physical fire from Garner. “He often told me ‘I would like to see Steve McQueen be a little bit more like Coburn and Coburn be a little bit more like Steve McQueen,” Inosanto said in the 2013 documentary I Am Bruce Lee.
And Garner must have learned at least some physical skills from his time with Lee, because the actor went on to do many of his own stunts well into his fifties.
STEVE MCQUEEN: He might not have been Bruce Lee’s most dedicated or most skilled student – his booming acting career and his bad boy hobbies tended to get in the way of a proper and steady martial arts training regimen – Hollywood heavyweight Steve McQueen was, arguably, his most famous one.
And when the Bullitt and Great Escape star was training, he trained hard. “As a student, Steve can be good,” Lee told M. Uyehara, the author of Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter. “Because he’s a hard worker. One day I went to his place to work out and that guy doesn’t know the meaning of quitting. He just kept pushing himself for hours – punching and kicking without a break – until he was completely exhausted. His gym clothes were completely soaked by the time we gave up.”
Here’s some more McQueen-related praise from Lee:
There were even some moments when McQueen started to show a more James Garner-esque fondness for the mental side of his martial arts training, especially when he flew Lee to film sets to help him train and remain connected with the world outside of his filmmaking bubble. Jeet Kune Do’s philosophy was likely a rare source of grounding for a star who could be notoriously paranoid and competitive. “Steve flies me in because he wants to talk to somebody else besides the same guys he works with all day,” Lee told M. Uyehara. “I guess he gets sick of seeing them day and night. We usually talk about life or philosophy and work out a little. It gives Steve a break from what he’s going through.”
Lee also served as a pallbearer at his friend and student’s funeral when McQueen died of cancer in 1973.
Do you practice Jeet Kune Do? What do you think of its latest famous pupil? Let us know in the comments!