More than two decades before Madonna finally admitted to going under the knife — albeit only after being branded “unrecognizable” at February’s Grammys — there was the Swiss-born New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein, aka “Catwoman”, “the Bride of Wildenstein” and “the poster child for plastic surgery gone wrong”.

Catapulted into the spotlight — and the pages of the world’s tabloids — in the late Nineties thanks to her bitter but record-breakingly lucrative $2.5 billion divorce, Wildenstein and her face soon became the story itself, certainly in the UK where dramatic cosmetic surgery was still relatively rare, even among the ranks of the ultra wealthy.

Wildenstein was publicly and brutally vilified, cruelly cast as a freakish cosmetic surgery addict. And sympathy was not stoked by the stories of her Bonfire of the Vanities-style largesse: dropping $350,000 on a Chanel dress, $10 million on jewelry. She reportedly once calculated her yearly telephone bill at $60,000, her food and wine costs at $547,000, and, at one point, her average monthly spend at $1 million.

“The Bride of Wildenstein.”

In 1998, while the divorce was being slugged out over two years in Manhattan courtrooms, Wildenstein and her future ex-husband, Alec — scion of the world’s most powerful art-dealing family — traded blows via interviews in Vanity Fair. But in the 25 years since, Wildenstein, now 77, has largely kept her counsel — “I’ve never been public. It’s not my nature,” she says — and little has been seen or heard of her beyond a few front row fashion show appearances, occasional reports of financial challenges, and the odd paparazzi picture with her longtime fiancé, the 56-year-old French-Canadian designer, Lloyd Klein.

Now, Wildenstein is seemingly ready to step out again — and to speak out. She is the subject of a forthcoming two-part HBO documentary, and has just finished filming the pilot for a reality TV show, produced by the team behind Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

The obvious question (among others) is, why now? “I have a huge problem with my settlement,” she tells me in a heavily accented, idiosyncratic mix of English and French, over drinks on the terrace of the elegant Maybourne hotel in Los Angeles. “Since eight years, they have completely cut me off.”

On top of the $2.5 billion lump sum, Wildenstein says she was receiving $100 million per year “to follow the lifestyle and the work of the 20 years [in the marriage]”. But, she says, in 2015, the family of her late husband — Alec died of prostate cancer in 2008 — terminated the annual payments.

In May 2018, she filed for bankruptcy with, reportedly, no savings, no retirement fund and no investments. Her three luxury apartments in Trump Tower were repossessed.

She reportedly once calculated her yearly telephone bill at $60,000, her food and wine costs at $547,000, and, at one point, her average monthly spend at $1 million.

Nevertheless, she maintains an enthusiasm for shopping. But her income, she says, is now “zero — nothing in eight years”.

“The documentary is her reply,” says Klein. “Jocelyn wants to tell the story with her own voice.”

The Entourage

It’s a cool, cloudy May morning in L.A., and in a sprawling and strangely sterile house high in the hills above the city, I am waiting for Wildenstein. It’s 10.30am, and beyond the slightly rusting electric gates there is little sign of life. The large but somewhat dated kitchen shows evidence of a party the previous night — half-empty bottles of Grey Goose vodka and Silver Patrón tequila litter the countertops.

In the vast open-plan lounge, however, I find a small army of individuals, all of whom appear to be employed, however loosely, by Wildenstein and Klein: Christian, Klein’s snappily dressed Italian business partner; Andrew, the couple’s burly, tattooed security guard; Mohammed (“Family”); and Elliot, who describes himself as Wildenstein’s personal make-up artist, but whom I later discover is also the drag queen Alexis Stone, who uses prosthetics to transform himself into various celebrities, including Dolly Parton, Madonna and Wildenstein herself. It’s a curious coterie, but I conclude that perhaps this is just the way the super-rich (or at least the formerly super-rich) roll, keeping a posse on the permanent payroll.

“The documentary is her reply,” says Wildenstein’s longtime fiancé, Lloyd Klein. “Jocelyn wants to tell the story with her own voice.”

This isn’t actually Wildenstein and Klein’s house — they are based primarily in Miami these days — but it has been rented to film the reality show pilot. It manages to somehow be both gaudy and shabby, with brass swan taps in the bathroom and an outdoor rockery water feature like something from a Flintstones theme park.

Today, we’re supposed to be photographing Wildenstein and were scheduled to start at 10.30am. At 11.30, Elliot brings the news that she is not yet out of bed. She is a socialite, I suppose, and the previous night the TV crew threw a “surprise pool party” for production purposes (hence the tequila). But still…

By 1.15pm, our admirably patient photographer is beginning to get a little jumpy, while a steadily swelling film crew tramps into the house to film too. It’s all starting to feel like a bit of a circus.

Finally, at 2.30pm, Wildenstein appears on Christian’s arm, ready to begin — or, at least, ready to spend another three and a half hours in hair and make-up.

Almost four hours later, and an hour after the scheduled finish time, at 6.15pm we begin shooting.

Surgical Elephant in the Room

The next day, Wildenstein and I are due to meet again, for lunch at 2pm. Understandably, I’m trepidatious about timings. However, Klein calls me before I leave home to meet them, asking if we can make it 5.30pm instead. Still, I am not predicting punctuality, and take a book with me to the Maybourne, just in case.

Wildenstein, meanwhile, is poised yet warm, charismatic, girlish and giggly, occasionally remonstrating with “LouLou”, as she calls him, and sharing with me her thrill at her teeny-tiny pocket-sized bottle of Chanel No5.

But while they are both great company— witty, cultured, well travelled (Wildenstein is an accomplished hunter and a qualified pilot) — there is, of course, a sizeable, surgical elephant in the room.

Lurid stories over the years have included the legend that Alec, fond of big cats, had encouraged his wife into surgeries that would make her facial appearance more feline. But in the Vanity Fair interview Alec claimed, “She was crazy. I would always find out last. She was thinking that she could fix her face like a piece of furniture. Skin does not work that way. But she wouldn’t listen.”

Today, Wildenstein says Alec planted stories about her apparent surgery — “And hired a publicist and paid a plastic surgeon to certify that I completely changed my face” — to, she says, “win the divorce”. (In the event, Wildenstein won, including the right to keep the surname, and the settlement was uncontested.)

“He couldn’t say I betrayed him; I never betrayed him,” she says. So, she claims, he alleged instead that, ” ‘She became a monster…I don’t recognize her.’ He put all the blame on my face.”

Klein pulls up old pictures on his phone to show me, of Jocelyn and Alec at their wedding celebration in Lausanne, of Jocelyn with her daughter, Diane, as a baby, and of a leggy, gamine teenage Jocelyn in a ballet tutu. The intention is clearly to show me how little she has changed, but I can’t buy into the pretense. Beyond her slightly feline eyes as a teenager, Wildenstein is unrecognizable from the woman in the pictures.

American model, singer, and performance artist Amanda Lepore and Wildenstein paint the town.

“So, obviously Jocelyn did surgery — we know that,” Klein admits, while pulling up another old photo. “But not like people say,” she insists.

Born in Lausanne as Jocelyne Périsett (“People in Europe want to put the ‘e’ and in America, they don’t put the ‘e’ — it came on and off, this ‘e’,” she shrugs), she grew up an only child. Her mother did some modeling before working (ironically) for a law firm that specialized in divorce, while her father ran a small couture atelier.

Wildenstein’s interest in both art and Africa began, she says, long before she met her French-American future husband or ever visited his family’s Kenyan ranch. As a child, she was taken often to galleries, and by her late teens was living in Paris and dating Cyril Piguet, whom she describes gleefully as “a small art dealer”, with whom she soon worked, selling art to wealthy Americans living in Europe. She also traveled widely, including to Africa, with which she’d had a fascination since finding a box of picture books about the continent at six years old: “The lions, the buffalos — for me, it was fascinating.”

She was thinking that she could fix her face like a piece of furniture.

She met Alec Wildenstein in 1977 at his family’s Ol Jogi ranch, north of Nairobi. She was on safari with friends, including the billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who owned the nearby Ol Pejeta reserve, and on whose private jet they had travelled (“It was comfortable,” says Wildenstein, with comedic understatement).

Ol Jogi, at the time, was a simple, rustic lodge, she says — “A cottage… No sophistication, but nice, and you could really feel Africa.” When Alec arrived, he learned that a particular lion was killing a lot of antelope in the area, and, “He prepared the ambush to kill this particular lion,” asking Jocelyn if she would like to accompany him.

“I love to wake up early… in Africa,” she laughs. “But this was earlier than the sunrise.” They waited in the dark with a local tracker. “And then suddenly, you see him — huge mane, one bullet,” she says. “But you always put a second one in, to be sure.” And then, she says casually, they cut out the lion’s heart and ate some.

“You must eat a part of the heart of your game,” she says earnestly. “It’s legend. Maybe to take the power of the lion.” An element of the ritual involved daubing blood on their necks. “It’s honoring the lion. It’s a respect of the lion,” she says.

As first dates go, it certainly beats meeting for a drink.

“It became like a certain bond right away,” she says. “And later on, in the afternoon, he says, ‘Why don’t we go to make a ride on a motorcycle to go to “the top of the world”?’ ” The top of the world, she explains, is “a mountain on the ranch where you see the entire property. And you see Mount Kenya with its snow. And it was the first timid kiss.”

Alec Wildenstein was from one of the most powerful art-world families, with a sideline in breeding and training racehorses.

Less than a year later, five weeks after a proposal in Paris, Alec and Jocelyn eloped to Las Vegas.

And at first, it seemed, they were highly compatible as a couple. “We both had the same interests — Africa was a big interest. Painting was a big interest,” she says.

They had two children in rapid succession: Diane in August 1979 and Alec Jr in July 1980. “Ten months, twelve days apart. Like Irish twins.”

It was a high-rolling life. The Wildensteins were one of the wealthiest and most powerful art world families, with a sideline in breeding and training racehorses, and Alec and his brother, Guy, were gradually taking on the mantle from their father, the family patriarch, Daniel. They were also close family friends of the Rothschilds. “Alec grew up with them, playing together on the sand in Deauville,” says his ex-wife, who worked alongside her husband, building collections for wealthy art buyers from Texas to Tokyo.

Home was a Manhattan townhouse on East 64th Street, where the couple installed a basement swimming pool, with an aquarium that contained “a small shark”. There was a private family compound in the British Virgin Islands, home to rare black coral, the Château de Marienthal, an elegant Renaissance mansion in the Paris outskirts, and there was the Ol Jogi ranch, with which Jocelyn fell in love and transformed from a “cottage” to a 66,000-acre luxury reserve, with 200 buildings, 55 man-made lakes and 366 servants, plus bulletproof glass in place of electric fences, so guests could get close — safely — to lions, leopards and tigers, even swimming in the same, partitioned pools. Parts of the film Out of Africa were filmed at the ranch.

And, of course, there was the art. The family sold to some of the world’s biggest collectors, and at one point, the Wildenstein inventory was said to include two Botticellis, eight paintings by Rubens and eight by Rembrandt, five Tintorettos, three Velázquezes, nine El Grecos, seven Watteaus and a vast collection of impressionist works.

And then, she says casually, they cut out the lion’s heart and ate some.

“Plus $100 million hanging in the living room,” quips Wildenstein. I ask who that particular work was by, but Wildenstein says she cannot tell me. There are longstanding rumors of a Vermeer.

In spite of the lifestyle provided by being a Wildenstein, Jocelyn claims it was she who called time on her 20-year marriage when Alec’s extramarital affairs were no longer discreet. “It was getting too obvious. It was young girls and going to the same restaurants we went to. It was no discretion, nothing,” she says.

Jocelyn Wildenstein and her face soon became the story itself.

Alec then “jumped in his plane and filed for a divorce in Switzerland”, she says — there, his wife would almost undoubtedly receive a less generous settlement.

But pulling the plug also pulled the family apart. Alec Jr was 17 at the time and Diane was at university in Montreal. She lost contact with both immediately.

Wildenstein tells a lengthy, dramatic story of that summer following her request for a divorce, when she spent a lot of time in Kenya, returning to New York in September. She tells me about arriving back at the East 64th Street townhouse, taking the elevator to the first floor, and finding her husband at the end of the corridor “in a towel with a pistol”, and, beyond him, in their bedroom, a naked — and very young — woman in their bed. According to The New York Times, Alec was given an order banning him from his home, and to stay away from his wife. Divorce proceedings began immediately.

Family Feud

Today, Diane is 44, lives in London and breeds racehorses with her father’s former trainer, André Fabre. Her partner was killed in a plane crash in Kenya, but they have two sons, the older of whom is 20. Wildenstein claims she has not seen her grandsons since the oldest was three. “It’s a really long time when you lose the connection,” she nods.

Alec Jr, meanwhile, is 43 and runs the Ol Jogi ranch, no longer a private family estate but open to paying guests — rates start at $3,000 per person, per night. He also has a son, but is estranged from Jocelyn too.

Do you think money causes more problems than it solves, I ask. “Yes,” she nods.

Alec was 67 when he died in 2008, seven years after inheriting half of his father’s business empire, estimated at $10 billion, and one of the world’s largest private art collections.

His brother, Guy — a close friend of the former French president, Nicholas Sarkozy — still runs the family business. Guy is facing charges of tax fraud.

In 2011, French police seized 30 works of art from the Wildenstein Institute, alleging that many had been reported as missing or stolen. They included highly valuable sketches by Edgar Degas and a pastel by Eugène Delacroix.

In 2017, Guy was charged with hiding an estimated $580 million from the French tax authorities in offshore accounts. The prosecutor had asked for Guy to be fined $265 million and demanded that the Wildenstein family pay $650 million in unpaid tax.

Guy was cleared. He was also cleared for a second time in 2018 following an appeal.

But in January 2021, the Cour de cassation, France’s highest court, annulled the acquittal and ordered a retrial, which Jocelyn tells me is due to begin this September.

Lurid stories over the years have included the legend that Alec, fond of big cats, had encouraged his wife into surgeries that would make her facial appearance more feline.

Beyond the documentary and the potential reality show — which, given Wildenstein’s wit and charisma, could well be a hit — Klein has further media ambitions. “I want to have a movie series on Jocelyn’s life, and I would like to have Jennifer Lawrence as a young Jocelyn,” he says. Rami Malek would be his pick to play Alec.

We talk about the British royal family, Harry and Meghan and Covid — Klein started cooking in the pandemic, and they reproduced complex menus that they’d eaten in top restaurants. “Time stopped a little bit. It was good,” says Wildenstein.

I forget for a moment the circles that Wildenstein has long moved in, and start talking politics, including my relief at no longer living in the US with another potentially polarizing election coming up. I mention Donald Trump and the wild notion that he could be campaigning for the presidency while also facing a prison term. “But he changed, something changed in him,” muses Wildenstein, who, I suddenly realize, knows the former president personally. “Maybe he feels the leash of his power is going away. And he always really loved power…”

Klein, meanwhile, who has dined with Trump at fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago, reports him to be “so generous and very, very, very polite. I think he puts on a show when he goes on TV.”

Wildenstein invokes her Swiss heritage. “This is the big difference between America and Europe or France,” she sighs. “A president [in France], in his private life, can do anything.”

That respect for privacy is crucial, she believes. “Why [should there be] prevention of enjoying whatever is your private life? It’s yours. It’s private. You don’t judge.”

Jane Mulkerrins is a London-based associate editor at The Times Magazine. She is also a regular contributor to Times Radio