Liliane Bettencourt, L'Oreal heiress and world's richest woman, dies at 94

21 September 2017, 20:11

Liliane Bettencourt, the heir of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire who lived surrounded by wealth, politics and scandal, has died.

Her death was announced by her daughter and representatives of L'Oreal. She was 94.

Named by Forbes in 2017 as the world's richest woman, Ms Bettencourt was L'Oreal's largest shareholder and was thought to be worth €33bn (£29bn).

The cosmetics group started by her father Eugene Schueller now controls not just L'Oreal but Maybelline New York, Lancome, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

With 2016 sales of €25.84bn (£22.72bn), nearly 90,000 employees, and an established presence in 140 countries, L'Oreal is France's fourth largest firm.

But Ms Bettencourt herself refrained from playing a key role in the business, instead focusing on the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation's funding of films, art and research projects.

Though she inherited the empire on her father's death in 1957, it was a friend of the family, Francois Dalle, who was credited with making the brand what it is today.

Ms Bettencourt went on to have an eventful and scandal-hit life, enjoying the company of artists and prime ministers, becoming embroiled in a public fight with her daughter and failing to avoid associations with the Nazi party.

During the Second World War her father funded a pro-collaboration group and her husband wrote several anti-Semitic screeds. He later joined the French Resistance and reneged on his previous statements.

It was after her husband's death that scandal made its way into Ms Bettencourt's own life, however.

Her only child, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, gave the family's weaknesses a thorough airing when she accused photographer Francois-Marie Banier of exploiting her mother's frailty to cheat her of her fortune.

Ms Bettencourt, a close friend of Banier, had given the socialite nearly €1bn (£879m), along with other gifts rumoured to include an island in the Seychelles.

Banier denied wrongdoing and Ms Bettencourt rejected her daughter's legal pursuit.

The ageing socialite even told Paris Match that she had enjoyed watching Banier manipulate her, describing their "irresistible friendship" as "greatly amusing", "impossible" and "expensive".

It is rumoured that, when asked why she gave Banier the money, Ms Bettencourt simply replied "because he's worth it".

The anecdote, however, is thought to be apocryphal.

Banier was not the only acquaintance to be accused of exploiting Ms Bettencourt's mental weakness - by the end of her life creeping toward dementia - for personal gain.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy was accused of exploiting her mental frailty to fund his 2007 election campaign, but the case was eventually dropped.

When a court ruled in 2011 that Ms Bettencourt was suffering from a form of dementia, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers was awarded control of her mother's wealth.

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