How Billionaire Jocelyn Wildenstein Lost Her Money

Former billionaire Jocelyn Wildenstein became a favorite target of the New York City tabloids in the late 1990s after the divorce that made her so filthy rich. The media gave her the derogatory nickname "Catwoman," because, well, after years of plastic surgery, she looks like a grumpy cat. In a classic example of how far removed billionaires truly are from reality, Wildenstein has always maintained that her catlike features are due to her "Swiss background," as though any rational person couldn't figure it out just by looking at her. In her first interview in almost two decades, she told Paper magazine in 2018 that her ex-husband, French billionaire art dealer Alec Wildenstein, blew her plastic surgeries out of proportion.

In a change almost as drastic as the one on her face, however, Wildenstein has reportedly gone from billionaire to bankrupt in less than 20 years. The New York Post reported in 2018 that her divorce in 1999 padded her bank account to the tune of $2.5 billion. But that little factoid came at the end of an article concerning her recent filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. She was apparently living on a measly $900 a month like a grubby peasant and was depending on friends and family to help her get by. But really, exactly how does a billionaire so quickly lose an amount of money that the rest of us couldn't spend if we had an extra lifetime or two to fritter away?

Jocelyn Wildenstein had some extravagant spending habits

According to a 1998 Vanity Fair profile, the woman whom the tabloids would also dub "Bride of Wildenstein" didn't come from a billionaire family, but it didn't take her long to jump right into the role of the wife of a super-rich art dealer. She met Alec on an African safari in 1977, and she immediately left the people she was with to be with him. After they eloped in 1978, she started doing extremely cliché billionaire wife things, like paying $350,000 for a Chanel dress and icing it down with $10 million worth of jewelry. She estimated their monthly expenses to be around $1 million at that time.

Another huge part of those bills was Jocelyn's increasingly expensive plastic surgery habit. "She was thinking that she could fix her face like a piece of furniture," said her ex-husband. "Skin does not work that way. But she wouldn't listen." An unnamed friend quoted in the profile said Jocelyn had "mutilated herself." Although Jocelyn herself — an avid lover of wildlife — has said, "The lynx has perfect eyes," she still claimed that her obviously overwrought facial features were natural. She said her grandmother had cat eyes and high cheekbones, but her face tells the story of a person obsessed who spent way too much money to look like a wild cat with a bad attitude.

In addition to her surgeries, Jocelyn Wildenstein also denied her spending

Although she spent money with reckless abandon, if you ask Wildenstein how she lost it all, she would unsurprisingly deny that she had anything to do with it. As Express Digest reported, the woman who was able to run up a $5,000 phone bill each month (remember the dark ages before unlimited calls and texts?) didn't spend her way to ruin. She said that the trust she received from her divorce was "guaranteed" by a painting by 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez which turned out to be a forgery, as well as a Cézanne that ended up being worth less than she'd expected. She told The New York Post that the supposedly $35-million painting only sold for $4.7 million.

Still, that doesn't really explain what happened to the other billions she supposedly doesn't have. It appears that Wildenstein is just terrible at managing money. The Blast reported in 2018 that she and her boyfriend Lloyd Klein wrote some bad checks for a $250,000 emerald and diamond necklace, then conveniently "lost" the thing once the jeweler wanted it back. But hey, she's not the only billionaire to be bad with money. There are actually quite a few who have lost their entire fortunes, though "going broke" is relative for these people. When Indian playboy Vijay Millya filed for bankruptcy in 2019, he was actually spending $24,000 a month while evading extradition to India on charges of embezzlement.