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Legacy of Parisian Behind L'Oréal, Richest Woman in the World

Picture of Jade Cuttle
Updated: 2 October 2017
Liliane Henriette Charlotte Bettencourt was the richest woman in the world, controlling the world’s largest cosmetics firm, L’Oréal. She died in Paris on September 20, aged 94, with $39.5 billion to her name and a fascinating life story.

L’Oréal, now world-famous with its hair-swishing slogan ‘because we’re worth it’, is the world’s largest cosmetics company. There are over 90,000 employees today, but its beginnings were surprisingly humble, involving just one man and his daughter tinkering away at formulae in a test-tube.

Until this week, the company fortune lay in the name of a certain Liliane Bettencourt, heiress and businesswoman who befriended the likes of presidents and pashas, and was once awarded the coveted Legion of Honour.

It was her trailblazing father, Eugène Schueller, who paved the path for l’Oréal’s international success. He developed an innovative hair colour treatment in 1909, which he named Oréale and then sold off to Parisian hairdressers. His flair for innovation only widened in scope, and later sparked a cosmetic craze for tanning when he invented the Ambre Solaire in 1935.

L’Oréal cosmetics line, 2014
L’Oréal cosmetics line, 2014 | © Laurent Grassin/Flickr

Lilianne was born on October 21, 1922, and brought up in the city of Paris. She was home-tutored as an only-child and doted on by servants. Her mother, Louise, died when Liliane was aged five, at which point an unbreakable bond was forged with her father. He let her go with him on visits to offices, factories, and occasionally even business lunches, before finally undertaking an apprenticeship in his lab and fiddling with the perfume bottles herself. Liliane inherited her father’s fortune and control of L’Oréal after he died in 1957.

Bearing the title of being the richest woman in the world has not come without its fair share of problems. A notable scandal came in 2007, when Liliane’s daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, sued the celebrity photographer François-Marie Banier.

For two decades he had been the object of a platonic love affair – platonic given the lack of physical intimacy, what with Liliane’s husband, André Bettencourt, looking on, and the 25-year age gap and homosexual orientation of Banier. He opened up an exciting world for her, escorting her to the latest art and theatre shows, introducing her to an array of stimulating artists and actors. She was captivated by him, and wrote in a letter to Banier in 2008: ‘With you, I am like a mother, a lover, all the feelings pass through me. It makes me tremble.’

Liliane Bettencourt at her home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France | © GRAF JACQUES/JDD/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
Liliane Bettencourt at her home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France | © GRAF JACQUES/JDD/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

The lawsuit took place on the grounds of abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), with the daughter insisting that he swindled her mother out of almost one billion dollars (€850 million). Banier was sentenced to two-and-a-half years of prison time in 2015, and forced to pay €158 million ($187 million) in damages back to Liliane. But the legal discrepancy was not resolved, and has been playing out to tabloid delight for the last two years. With her death, the feud is now reaching a close.

Liliane Henriette Charlotte Bettencourt died 20 September 2017, making daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers now the world’s richest woman.