New York (AFP) - A friend to British royalty who romanced billionaires and dazzled elites, Ghislaine Maxwell was once the toast of the jet-set party circuit, a knows-everybody socialite with an aura of mystique.
But now the daughter of late British newspaper baron Robert Maxwell passes her days in a Brooklyn jail cell she's branded inhumane, complaining of rats and rotten food, as she awaits her trial -- set to begin Monday -- on charges of sex trafficking minors with the late Jeffrey Epstein.
She faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted of conspiring to run a sex crimes ring, which prosecutors say subjected dozens of underage girls to lurid abuse.
It's a tawdry fall for the 59-year-old fixture of society's upper echelons, who was arrested in July 2020 in a tiny New Hampshire town after seemingly vanishing following the shock death of Epstein, her lover-turned-close friend.
The 66-year-old financier was arrested amid scandal before dying while awaiting trial on child sex trafficking charges.
New York's official coroner ruled Epstein's death a suicide, with prosecutors vowing to pursue the alleged predator's co-conspirators, resulting in the arrest of the French-born, Oxford-educated Maxwell.
Epstein's accusers describe Maxwell as the registered sex offender's shadowy right-hand confidante and accomplice, who acted both as paramour and madam at the behest of his proclivities.
Together the pair allegedly crafted a scheme to procure young girls for Epstein, who, according to 2,000 pages of court documents released just before his death, claimed a "biological" need for sex three times a day.
The plaintiffs in his case -- some underage at the time of the alleged abuses -- said Epstein's "recruiters" approached them outside their schools or at their workplaces.
Prosecutors accuse Maxwell of taking girls as young as 14 under her wing starting in the mid-1990s, later cajoling them into offering Epstein nude massages and sex acts.
She's also alleged to have sometimes participated in abusing the girls at her London home and at Epstein's various luxury US properties.
One indictment passage describes how Maxwell would stay in the room as Epstein abused minors, which "helped put the victims at ease because an adult woman was present."
Maxwell's name was thrust into the spotlight in 1991 when her father -- a British media tycoon who also spent six years as a member of parliament -- went overboard off his yacht, which he had christened "Lady Ghislaine" after his beloved youngest daughter.
Rumors churned following the apparent accidental drowning of the Czechoslovakian-born businessman, along with details of his financial misdeeds at Mirror Group Newspapers that tarnished the family name.
But it didn't stop Maxwell's life of opulence: she revamped her image in Manhattan and became a regular on the glitterati's party circuit.
Her circle included Britain's Prince Andrew, former US president and real estate baron Donald Trump and the Clinton family.
A Vanity Fair writer in 2011 described the socialite as "always the most interesting, the most vivacious, the most unusual person in any room."
Maxwell was an avid scuba diver and pilot, founding a now-dissolved environmental charity, the TerraMar Project.
It's unclear how she met Epstein, whom she reportedly dated for a time in the 1990s before forming a close friendship.
A 2003 Vanity Fair article said Maxwell was the ringleader of much of Epstein's life, with the hedge fund manager describing her as his "best friend."
The six-count indictment against Maxwell followed years of accusations against her, with a New York FBI agent branding her a "villain." She has denied any wrongdoing.
The holder of multiple passports, authorities deem Maxwell a flight risk, repeatedly denying her bail.
She's lodged complaints about the conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where she's been held for over a year in isolation, including with United Nations human rights offcials.
Her legal team says the unsanitary conditions have left her frail and unwell.
But during jury selection earlier this month, she appeared looking relatively sleek in a black turtleneck and gray pants, the dark hair she complained of losing in prison once again shiny.
Her defense is expected to concentrate on discrediting the four women referred to in the indictment.
But according to prosecutors, it's Maxwell who's mastered the art of manipulation.
"She pretended to be a woman they could trust," Manhattan's lead federal prosecutor has said.
"All the while, she was setting them up to be abused."