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The case of Jeffrey Epstein made headlines globally when he was arrested and charged with child sex trafficking in 2019 – a criminal pattern that spanned decades. How could a sexual predator act with such impunity for so long?
But perhaps most mysterious, was the woman at Epstein's side, Ghislaine Maxwell, who remained an elusive presence, even after Epstein was found dead in a federal jail and she was arrested following a year in hiding.
In the new Peacock docuseries “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell,” which also airs on Oxygen on Tuesday, August 10 at 8/7c, director Barbara Shearer and executive producer Nina Burleigh set out to explore this Maxwell's motivations. How could she have stayed with such a depraved man? What secrets does she know? And is she guilty of sex trafficking and procuring girls as young as 14 to be sexually abused by Epstein?
“We focused on Ghislaine because I think we all agreed she's much more complicated, she's much more interesting, her background is fascinating,” Shearer told Oxygen.com in an interview with correspondent Stephanie Gomulka. “It had a lot to do with her trajectory and where she is sitting today and so I think there was much more of a meatier story there that we were all excited to sort of dive into and investigate and figure out who is this woman.”
She noted that Maxwell was shrouded in mystery and surrounded by powerful men, including Epstein and her father, British billionaire media tycoon Robert Maxwell who also died under strange circumstances. He disappeared from the Lady Ghislaine – the multi-million-dollar yacht he’d named after his daughter – in 1991 while in the Canary Islands. A Spanish fisherman found his body floating in the Atlantic 12 hours later. An official inquiry into his death determined he’d died from a heart attack and accidental drowning but rumors continue to swirl about how exactly he met his fate.
Epstein, who was found dead in his jail cell in August 2019 at age 66, just one month after he was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges, referred to Maxwell as his "best friend" in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile. However, their relationship was allegedly much more sinister than mere friendship. As the indictment states, Maxwell is accused of recruiting and grooming teen girls, as part of Epstein's pyramid of sexual abuse. She was arrested by the FBI in the summer of 2020 in New Hampshire, after nearly a year in hiding following Epstein's arrest and death.
Burleigh told Gomulka that, as a New Yorker, she came into this project already knowing many of Maxwell's acquaintances from the city's social scene. She thought surely there would be no issue getting people to come forward to speak in the documentary. However, she said nearly everyone she reached out to was avoidant and “running for the hills.”
Still, the creators did manage to talk to a few of the socialite's former friends as well as individuals who crossed paths Maxwell, and were photographed with her on the high society scene.
“I was basically like their therapist. I spent hours and hours working the phones and they had their different reasons,” Burleigh said. “Some went on because they felt compelled to express their surprise or it was slowly dawning on them who this person was, or the allegations about her.”
She called the people who spoke up publicly “brave” but also credited those who spoke off the record because they were “extremely useful.”
“We tried to weave in that information as best as we could,” she said.
Shearer told Oxygen.com that as far as survivors of Epstein’s abuse, Maria Farmer became a “predominant voice” in the docuseries. Maria had explained in "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich" that Epstein arranged for her to do an artist's residency in Ohio in the mid-1990s. Epstein and Maxwell visited her during that residency, and they both sexually assaulted her, Farmer has alleged.
“What Maria Farmer brings to the series is she's a great representation of many of the survivors,” the director said, adding that Farmer worked as a receptionist at the front door of Epstein’s townhouse for 18 months. “She hung out with Epstein, she saw them together, she saw them separately, she traveled with them. So, she brought to the table so much more than just the abuse allegations.”
Burleigh told Oxygen.com that, because the charges are still pending and the allegations are just that, they were careful to tow a very narrow legal line.
That being said, Shearer said that the docuseries is full of “vetted facts.”
“We have about 30 subjects that speak out in three hours so there’s assertions and opinions but if we were going to be using them [...] they had to be [corroborated] and they were all corroborated by court documents and affidavits [...],” she said. “So, you’re getting a full picture.”
Shearer explained that Maxwell’s father, his life and death, were a crucial part of the series. .
“The father was an enormous figure,” she said, adding “The Maxwell name is a household name [in the United Kingdom]. I think people in America know the Maxwell family but not to the same degree at all.”
She said the American version of the docuseries is titled “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell” because they want the audience to “know who they are speaking about, the woman who was aligned with Epstein.” However, in the UK, the title is flipped with Maxwell’s name first “because they didn’t need Epstein’s help.”
Shearer says she hopes all audiences come away with a “much more comprehensive understanding of a woman who's basically lived in her father's shadow and then lived in Epstein’s shadow and now she's out there and exposed as just her name.”
For more on Ghislaine Maxwell, watch “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell,” produced by Blue Ant Studios and streaming now on Peacock.
Oxygen.com correspondent Stephanie Gomulka contributed to this report.
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