Socialite to alleged sex trafficker: Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?

On the cover of tabloid magazines and invited to the biggest events in Britain, socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was part of high society. Now she's charged with helping to recruit three girls — one as young as 14 — to be sexually abused by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died last year.

From parties at the palace to a prison cell. An inside look at Jeffery Epstein's accused accomplice

Ghislaine Maxwell’s ties to powerful men, Buckingham Palace

The National

11 months ago
Accused of recruiting underage girls for convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was by his side for his years, rubbing shoulders with his rich and powerful friends, including Prince Andrew. 2:31

She was once the toast of high society, graced the cover of tabloid magazines and was invited to the biggest events in Britain. 

Now 58-year-old Ghislaine Maxwell is facing charges she helped recruit girls to be abused by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died last year.

Appearing via video link in a New York courtroom Tuesday, Maxwell — in a plain brown T-shirt, her signature short hair now long and pulled back in a bun — was denied bail after pleading not guilty to six criminal counts; four related to transporting minors for sexual assault and two for perjury.

The judge ruled the wealthy socialite — who holds American, French and British citizenship — was a flight risk.

"Ghislaine Maxwell is quickly becoming the most notorious, infamous woman in British society," said Andrew Pierce, a consultant editor for The Daily Mail in London, who has reported on high society in Britain for decades.

"She loves being talked about but she didn't want to be talked about in this way."

Ghislaine Maxwell, longtime friend of Jeffrey Epstein, is shown at the United Nations in 2013 speaking about sustainable development. She was arrested earlier this month in New Hampshire. (UNTV/Reuters)

Maxwell was born into privilege — the daughter of British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell. 

Pierce says she was often by his side and is said to have been his favourite child.

"That opened many doors for her because newspaper owners are still people of considerable influence in this country, just think of Rupert Murdoch," said Pierce, "She would be a regular at receptions at Buckingham Palace for instance."

Robert Maxwell died in 1991. His body was found floating in the Atlantic after, it's believed, he fell off his yacht, which was named for his daughter, the Lady Ghislaine. The circumstances around his death remain unclear.

At the time his media empire was on the brink of financial collapse, and it was discovered that he had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from employee pension funds to try to save it. The family was left virtually bankrupt.

Maxwell watching a soccer match with her father Robert, in 1984. (Getty Images)

"It certainly was a pivotal moment in her life," says Nigel Cawthorne, author of Prince Andrew: Epstein and the Palace, a book that looks at connections between Epstein and the prince, including Maxwell's relationship with them.

Cawthorne says after her father's death, Maxwell left London with a modest trust fund and moved to New York where she met Epstein.

"She got friendly with Epstein and seemed to have lived an extraordinary luxurious lifestyle — presumably on his money," Cawthorne said.

Through the years, the couple socialized with the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump, former president Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew. 

Cawthorne says Maxwell was good friends with the prince. "He really supported her during the time after her father died, which is why they are so close," he said. 

Andrew has been embroiled in accusations linked to the pair. One of Epstein's accusers, Virginia Giuffre, says she was forced, by Maxwell, to have sex with the prince when she was 17 years old. Andrew denies the allegations.

Maxwell appears via video link during her bail hearing, in New York on Tuesday, in this courtroom sketch. (Reuters)

Activist and journalist Conchita Sarnoff travelled in the same social circles as Maxwell and Epstein — dating back to the '90s. She says she even visited Epstein's Florida home. 

"The last time I saw her, we were together and laughing and with the former president of Colombia at the Clinton Global Initiative," she said of an event in New York in 2007.

Sarnoff is an advocate against human trafficking. In 2010, she learned about Epstein's 18-month sentence for soliciting a minor for prostitution, which he received in 2008 after pleading guilty in Florida to two state felony charges. She started looking into the case and got a copy of the arrest documents. 

Sarnoff says she immediately called Maxwell — who was mentioned in them. 

"And I said, 'Ghislaine, I don't know if you have seen the documents, but you need to hire the very best lawyer because the accusations are serious,'" said Sarnoff.

She says Maxwell's reaction shocked her. "She was just very nonchalant, and she said it's ridiculous and she told me about how the victims were just after money and she made light of this serious issue." 

Sarnoff fell out with the pair and went on to write a book, TrafficKing, about the investigation that led to Epstein's 18-month sentence in Florida, which followed a controversial plea deal.

Epstein died by suicide in jail in August 2019. He was awaiting trial on new charges that he sexually exploited dozens of girls and women from 2002 to 2005.

Following Epstein's arrest in 2018, Maxwell went into hiding.

She was arrested on July 2 at her estate in New Hampshire, which she bought late last year under a pseudonym in an all-cash transaction. 

Maxwell's lawyers argue she is a scapegoat and, during the bail hearing, said "she is not the monster made out by the media."

Two of her accusers asked the court to keep her detained while awaiting trial, including Annie Farmer who said "the danger Maxwell poses must be taken seriously."

"She is a sexual predator who groomed and abused me and countless other children and young women," Farmer told the court.

The trial is scheduled for July 2021. Maxwell faces a maximum penalty of 35 years in jail.

Prince Andrew and Maxwell at the Royal Ascot Race in 2000. With them are Edward, far left, and Caroline Stanley, far right, the Earl and Countess of Derby. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)


  • A previous version of this story said Conchita Sarnoff last saw Ghislaine Maxwell at a Clinton Global Initiative event in 2005 and learned about Epstein's 18-month sentence for soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008. In fact she last saw Maxwell at a Clinton Global Initiative event in 2007 and learned of Epstein's 2008 sentence in 2010.
    Jul 16, 2020 11:29 AM ET