L’Oreal heiress, the world’s richest woman, dies age 94

You may not know her name but Lilianne Bettencourt lived an event-filled life, on a fortune made from your face.

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The 94-year-old, who was the only child of L’Oreal founder Eugene Schueller, died peacefully at home in France, reports said late on Thursday. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index put her wealth at US$42.5 billion (A$56.6 billion), while Forbes called her the 14th richest person in the world, because she owned a third of the company’s shares.

During her lifetime, Paris-based L’Oreal grew from a small hair-dye supplier – Schueller, a chemist by trade, patented his own dye – into the world’s biggest beauty products-maker, with more than 30 brands in its stable.

Bettencourt lived an unusual childhood, however, having been raised by nuns after her mother died when she was just five years old. Her workaholic father her to work at one of his factories at the age of 15, where she glued labels onto bottles.

Bettencourt married French politician Andre Bettencourt in 1950. He died in 2007, and her later years were spend embroiled in legal cases.

In one, her only child, daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, alleged that a friend of her mother, Francois-Marie Banier, had taken advantage of Bettencourt, convincing the dementia-stricken heiress to give him billions of dollars worth of gifts, including an island in the Seychelles.

Banier was found guilty and given a prison sentence, but the case ended up embroiling then-French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who allegedly benefitted from illegal donations from Bettencourt’s fortune. Sarkozy denied any wrongdoing and charges against him were dropped but he defeated by Francois Hollande amid public ill-feeling over the scandal.

The case also saw Bettencourt fall out with her daughter, with the heiress accusing Francoise of jealousy and defending her friendship with Banier.

Bettencourt had also struggled with accusations of anti-Semitism against her father – who allegedly received property from German Jews stolen by the Nazis – and her husband.

But she was a noted philanthropist, having donated millions of dollars to good causes including education and medical research.