The Famous Life and Face of Jocelyn Wildenstein

What to know about Jocelyn Wildenstein beyond the fact that people call her "Catwoman"

Jocelyn Wildenstein wearing a red jacket and heavy gold necklace.
Photo: Evan Agostini/Liasion

Even if you don't know Jocelyn Wildenstein's name, you've seen her face.

The New York socialite is no stranger to the media. In 2016, she faced charges for allegedly attacking her then-boyfriend with scissors at her Trump World Tower Apartment in N.Y.C. Two years later, in 2018, she filed for bankruptcy even though she was reportedly worth billions.

But Wildenstein is also famous for other reasons.

For one — and perhaps the most obvious to those unacquainted with Wildenstein's personal life — there is her face, which has undergone so many plastic surgeries that it's taken on a kind of feline quality, leading Wildenstein to be derided "Catwoman" in certain circles.

Wildenstein's surgery journey started with an eye lift during the first year she was married to Alec Wildenstein, a French-born, American-raised art dealer, racehorse owner, businessman and heir to a billion-dollar fortune. She told him his eyes looked baggy, he recalled to Vanity Fair in 1998, so they went in for his-and-hers facelifts. That was the beginning: "I don't think I've known her when she wasn't healing from something," a friend added.

Jocelyn Wildenstein
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Alec, who died in 2008, and some of Jocelyn's friends suspected she was trying to look like a lynx (she has one for a pet).

"The lynx has perfect eyes," she told Vanity Fair, but suggested her face dimensions were at least partially natural, adding, "If I show you pictures of my grandmother, what you see is these eyes — cat eyes — and high cheekbones."

Wildenstein — who grew up lower-middle-class in Switzerland before shuttling off to Paris and Africa — met Alec in 1977. The pair had two children, Jocelyn continued her plastic surgery odyssey, and things were relatively normal for the family until the late 1990s. The pair eloped a year later, and their spending became a legend: In 1998, she estimated they would spend $1 million a month on average.

"They were a reclusive couple," one longtime friend told PEOPLE in 1998. "They had a tight group of friends and were very quiet people. Instead of hobnobbing with New York society, Jocelyn oversaw the sprawling Ol Jogi ranch [in Africa], apartments in Paris and Lausanne, a French château and a Caribbean retreat."

The pair raised their children, but the marriage ended in the mid-'90s, and Alec filed for divorce in April 1997. On Sept. 3 that year, Jocelyn claimed she found Alec in bed with a 21-year-old Russian model named Yelena Jarikova. A gun was involved, and Alec was charged with menacing his estranged wife with a handgun, per The New York Times.

Jocelyn Wildenstein stares with her cat-like eyes into the camera.

It was the couple's divorce in 1999 that made them a household name. During the proceedings, much of the attention was naturally drawn to Jocelyn's looks, along with various sordid rumors about her personal life, such as that she'd worked as a prostitute for the famous Paris bordello owner Madame Claude. Over the course of the proceedings, which dragged on for two years, Jocelyn was awarded an astounding $2.5 billion settlement, per Reuters, with $100 million for 13 years afterward. (The judge stipulated that she was not allowed to use any portion of that sum to fund further cosmetic surgery.)

Three years later, Alec inherited half of his father's sprawling business holdings, an estate that included one of the world's largest private collections of art and was estimated at $10 billion. Needless to say, portions of it went to fund alimony payments to Jocelyn.

Jocelyn kept mainly out of the public eye following the divorce, though she's been through various legal battles since then, mostly with landlords. She dodged eviction from an apartment at the United Nations Plaza over owed rent through a settlement and was sued in 2015 by American Express over $70,000 in credit card debt. Another 2015 lawsuit concerned a $15,000-per-month Beverly Hills bungalow that Wildenstein allegedly trashed and abandoned, leaving $165,00 in unpaid rent and almost $15,000 more in assorted fees.

The New York Post reported that while in court for the assault charges in 2016, Wildenstein used a contraband cell phone in the courtroom to fix her hair and apply makeup. A court officer took the phone from her. Wildenstein left the courthouse, guided by her lawyer, her famous face almost entirely covered with a pashmina scarf.

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