Heir to the French L’Oréal cosmetics empire who was the world’s richest woman

Liliane Bettencourt’s only hands-on encounter with the business that made her wealthy from childhood to old age was her flirtation, aged 15, with an apprenticeship in the lab of her father, the creator and head of the L’Oréal cosmetics company. It caught Papa’s attention, and amused her briefly, to toy with bottling shampoo, but the moment soon passed. She had no need to work as she eventually inherited her father’s not-always-well-gotten fortune. He made it, she spent it, L’Oréal replenished it, and when she died, aged 94, she was the world’s richest woman, with $39.5bn. (On paper only – she no longer controlled a single cent, or her many daily medications.)

For the last decades of her life, she was at the centre of economic, political and family scandals, and of huge interest in, and to, France, where L’Oréal had grown from an experiment in safe chemical hair colouring to the world’s biggest cosmetics conglomerate, owning famous firms across cultures, complexions and hair types. Every leak in l’affaire Bettencourt revealed so much more than Madame’s imperious behaviour.

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