Cinderella to couture queen: meet Mouna Ayoub

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GENNEVILLIERS, France (AP) - She emerges Venus-like out of a mist of hairspray with tousled hair, a shimmering 50,000-euro Chanel jacket and a 1,000-watt smile.

“Hello daarling,” says Mouna Ayoub huskily with the warm familiarity of old friends (even though we’ve met only once before) - walking around a decor of gigantic silver oyster shells and blue glass buoys to kiss me.

The billionaire divorcee’s claim to fame: owning the world’s largest collection of haute couture - a 1,600-piece wardrobe in which each gown costs between 50,000 and 290,000 euros ($70,000-$400,000). She never wears the same dress twice, and sometimes never at all.

The couture diva may hide it well, but she’s stressed today.

She’s working hard to prepare an auction of the sparkling sea-themed contents of her old yacht, the Phocea, and has ditched her nicotine patches and gone back to Marlboro Lights.

The Lebanese socialite is perhaps the best-known member of an uber-elite group of superrich women who keep alive haute couture, the 150-year-old Parisian tradition of making astronomically-priced, made-to-measure gowns. She’s also perhaps its most eccentric.

Her wardrobe alone may be enough to bankroll a small country. But she still prefers to take a 60-cent coffee from the machine in the auction warehouse in Gennevilliers, near Paris, instead of ordering in.

It’s glamour mixed with down-to-earth.

She doesn’t even have time for a proper lunch, and offers me one of the egg sandwiches that she produces from a bag with her well-manicured hand sporting fingerless gloves and a huge rose-shaped diamond ring.

Lying around her (and the egg sandwiches) in the warehouse outside Paris are trinkets resembling the cavern of a billionaire Little Mermaid that lined the inside of what was, until 2004, the largest sailing yacht in the world that she refurbished for $17 million.

The 56-year-old has friends in high places. Her good friend King Carlos of Spain was a frequent sleepover visitor on her yacht and fashion designer pal Karl Lagerfeld once stripped her naked for a photo-shoot.

She’s also a couture philanthropist. She has just donated what’s been described as the most expensive dress ever made to Paris’ Musee de la Mode - a gold Chanel traffic-stopper that cost over 300,000 euros ($412,000).

Ayoub’s is a living rags-to-riches fairytale. It goes like this: beautiful but impoverished waitress in Paris spotted by a billionaire prince charming who falls in love and sweeps her feet to a life of luxury and glamour.

Ayoub now wears couture every time she has a public engagement before stashing the gown away in a sleepy French village to be preserved forever.

But even this Lebanese Cinderella has moments when reality bites.

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