There was once a time in New York City when Ghislaine Maxwell was a bona fide, Olympic-level social marathoner. “Ghislaine was at literally every lit candle in New York City and the Hamptons, both public and private. If there was a red velvet rope she was there,” says publicist R. Couri Hay, who ran into Maxwell at events for more than a decade. “She was at art openings, movie screenings, book parties at the Four Seasons,” a former friend says. “In the 2000s, you couldn’t go out at night without bumping into her.”
And photographers were there to capture all of it. Party chronicler Patrick McMullan snapped more than 400 pictures of Maxwell between 1995 and 2016. There are images of her with Prince Andrew at Ascot, and next to Naomi Campbell at a fashion show. She was photographed with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago and at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, where she was a guest. She seemed to know everyone—and even if she didn’t exactly know them, she posed with them anyway. “She was just very good at the photobomb,” Hay says.
Now, of course, Maxwell is far better known as convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged fixer (and sometime girlfriend), and she is awaiting trial in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center on six federal charges, including enticement of minors, sex trafficking, and perjury. And those photographs have come back to haunt the many people who worked a step-and-repeat with her. There is even an Instagram account, @celebswithghislaine, devoted to the famous (and fame-adjacent) snapped with Maxwell. “Everyone I know is embarrassed by these photos with Ghislaine,” says Hay.
How do you explain having had your arm around someone who is charged with child sex trafficking? That calls for an entirely different form of social distancing, the kind that preserves the health of your reputation. Many people have quietly established plausible deniability, making it clear to friends that they never saw anything inappropriate happening, much less criminal. Campbell went so far as to shoot a video of herself saying that she has been photographed with hundreds of thousands of people and can’t possibly know what all of them are doing.
To be sure, if you go out enough in New York, you run a distinct risk of being photographed with someone who later becomes infamous. (Think of everyone who now regrets smiling for the camera next to Harvey Weinstein in his Miramax heyday.) “Society people have gotten more practice over the decades dealing with people in their ranks who are in major trouble,” says writer William Norwich. “Usually it’s financial trickery, but there was the Claus von Bülow murder trial, and O.J. Simpson.”
But plenty of people can’t escape the fact that they socialized with Maxwell for years. “She was the best possible company. She had wit, intelligence, and a sense of mystery,” says Christopher Mason, a British author and journalist who was friendly with Maxwell in the 1990s. “It never struck any of us that she might be involved in this horrifying sexual depravity.” Mason says that while most of her social circle isn’t running to visit her in jail, he hasn’t heard about anyone from Maxwell’s past pretending that they barely knew her. Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, who has known Maxwell since the 1970s, agrees. “I certainly am not embarrassed. There is no reason to be,” he says. “None of us had the faintest idea of what she was doing.”
But the awful realization that Maxwell was up to something very dark has left many former friends deeply unsettled. “It’s a nagging feeling of distrust,” says one former friend who was photographed with her multiple times and who visited Epstein’s Little James Island in the early 2000s in a helicopter Maxwell piloted. This friend says that what she knows about Epstein and Maxwell’s alleged crimes she learned from the Netflix documentary Filthy Rich. “It’s a lesson that while you think you know someone, it may turn out they are not who they pretend to be.”
At this particular moment, having a photograph surface of yourself with Maxwell or Epstein is a worst-case, call-the-PR-team scenario. Does that mean everyone will avoid the cameras from now on? Probably not. Eventually parties will start up again, and the casual snap—by paparazzi or another attendee—is as much a part of the ritual (not to mention a signifier of one’s relative importance) as getting whisked through the door. People go out to see and be seen. Usually it’s a nothing moment. Sometimes it goes terribly wrong, but occasionally it pays off.
A recent example: As election season heated up, think of all the people who posted photos of themselves with their favorite candidate, posing at fundraisers past. Those photos were stored in camera rolls for months or even years, just waiting for the perfect moment to make their debut.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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