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“Magic Cheese” Trial Begins in France

Would you say that Gilberte Van Erpe, also known as “Madame Gil,” sounds like a) a baroness, b) a con artist, or c) the proprietor of a high-end brothel? Try b). In more cheese crime news, the 74-year-old Madame Gil is on trial in France for the “magic cheese” cosmetic scheme targeting 6,000 Chileans to the tune of $16 million, one of the largest pyramid swindles in Chilean history.

This is how the scheme worked: Madame Gil held a series of public lectures extolling the virtues of her home cheesemaking kits. She sold these kits, valued at less than $4, for about ten times that amount to impoverished folks looking for a steady source of income. The instructions were simple enough: Add 2 liters of milk to the mysterious “Yo Flex” powder, allow the mixture to ferment for nine days, and presto! You get little pats of cheese that the charismatically crooked Madame Gil would “buy” back. The enterprising French woman would then supply the cheese to French cosmetic companies churning out pricey face creams, moisturizers, and shampoos for the elite, including celebrities like Michael Jackson. (As dubious as it seems, these dairy-based products can be legit, if a bit texturally troubling, as we discovered with Korean moisturizer Enprani Bounce Cheese Cream.)

While everything started off copacetic with the Chileans-cheese-cosmetics triad, more than just cheese turned rotten pretty quickly. After the investors received their initial dividends, they were lured by the promise of increasing returns as well as rewards for recruiting friends and family. They started selling everything from their cattle to their cars, and in some cases, even mortgaged their homes, all in the name of beauty cheese. As these things go, the payments stopped coming, and Madame Gil disappeared with all their money.

And what about that worthless magic cheese? A Chilean TV crew unearthed all that funky stuff in a warehouse. Positively putrid.

It seems that the Madame is finally getting her comeuppance. She was apprehended in Nice back in 2008, sometime after a few of her Chilean chums were charged. It’s no surprise that she’s a career criminal. She was convicted of similar fraudulent activity in the 1980s in Belgium. She then fled to Latin America, where she first ran the same magic cheese pyramid in Peru, scamming 20,000 people, before moving on to Chile. Now the gig’s up. She could take a lesson from MJ.

Feature Photo Credit: modified from “Illustration of a team on a pyramid scheme” by Toncsi | Shutterstock

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.