Meet Mysterious Madame Giselle, Allegedly Married To Two World Leaders And An Adviser To The White House
The irresistibly charming woman in Apartment 713 can hold forth for hours with tales of her luxe life among the intercontinental elite, neighbors say.
Madame Giselle, as some call her, is forever boasting of being the secret wife of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, even saying she facilitated the first phone call between the Middle Eastern leader and President Donald Trump, according to two of her neighbors in an upscale high-rise building just beyond the Washington, D.C. border in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Over homemade Turkish coffee in her lavishly appointed apartment or across the table at pricey restaurants, the neighbors say, she has shared in a confiding tone that she occupies a prime White House office next to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.
“I’m kind of a mom figure to her,” Madame Giselle says, according to those who live in her building.
In this gilded age of Washington excess, Madame Giselle’s casual references to her private jet and to her collection of glitzy residences in the tony D.C. neighborhood of Foxhall, as well as in Spain and Manhattan, seemed entirely plausible to some of the friends she accumulated in the hallways and elevators of a building occupied by a sophisticated array of capital insiders. For a time, the elegant woman in Apartment 713 appeared to be just another fascinating curio in a city thick with the creme de la creme of foreign dignitaries and financiers, an only-in-Washington sort of apparition.
Then she started promising to make her neighbors a lot of money.
That’s when things got messy.
On one level, the saga of Madame Giselle is a story about, in no particular order, allegations by two neighbors who say they were swindled in an elaborate scheme to sell T-shirts to the Venezuelan army, a cash-stuffed envelope slipped under a doorway, a legendary bygone scandal involving the Colombian military and a glamorous woman known as “The Blonde,” an ongoing multimillion-dollar Colombian fraud case, and a supposed helicopter ride into Syria. But on another level, as illustrated in interviews and in hundreds of text messages obtained by The Washington Post, it’s a story about friendship and trust, about what we can make ourselves believe and how we can sometimes suspend disbelief when dreams are in sight.
At the edges of the story there is a little girl who adores stuffed animals, a father on the horns of a rough divorce, a former ambassador with a TV star son, and an out-of-towner who longed to get a Ph.D. But the central figure is the woman in Apartment 713, an enigmatic presence who calls herself Giselle Yazji.
In the weeks since The Post began examining the many lives of Madame Giselle, her activities have drawn the attention of investigators in the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office, according to several people who have been interviewed by authorities. (The office declined to comment.)
Reached by phone recently, Yazji – who said she was in Colombia but planned to return to Maryland soon – issued a string of denials before abruptly hanging up. She denied boasting of a secret marriage to el-Sissi and arranging a call between the Egyptian leader and President Trump, and she brushed aside the allegations of the two neighbors in Maryland who say they were swindled by her. One of those neighbors has sued her, and she has responded in court documents by denying all allegations of wrongdoing.
Giselle, who did not respond when asked if she’d claimed to have a White House office, offered to make herself available for a sit-down interview upon her return to the United States. But later she did not respond to requests to schedule the interview. She also did not respond to follow-up questions sent via email, saying instead in a typo-filled email that “if you want to publish fake information given to you as a gossip from somebody ir neighbors and try to damage my name ease feel free to do it. I really don’t think that a responsible person would do that knowing that I will sue you and sue the newwspaper.”
Bob Underwood didn’t know what to make of the unusually ornate toy bird he found his 7-year-old daughter playing with one night in early 2015.
“It entranced her,” Underwood recalls in an interview. “It was like a fairy had come and dropped it at the door.”
Neither Underwood nor his daughter knew the provenance of the toy his daughter had discovered outside their apartment, a glass-and-steel prestige address just a few steps from a thicket of luxury department stores. It wasn’t until a few days later that Underwood learned that the friendly woman across the hall had left it there, he says.
Underwood, who is now 53 and works in international development, says gifts soon started appearing every few days from the woman his daughter called Miss Giselle. A box of candy. An enormous stuffed giraffe. Children’s clothing.
Miss Giselle, who is in her late 50s, appeared in Underwood’s life at an unsettled time. He was in the midst of a divorce. Underwood didn’t become romantically involved with his neighbor, he says, but they formed a close bond centered on his daughter. The neighbor started inviting Underwood’s daughter over for tea parties and to watch movies, he says.
In an interview, Giselle confirmed that she’d had the little girl over to her home.
“I really have a beautiful apartment – very rich in many things,” she said. “I said, ‘Of course you can come.’ I very much like this girl.”
Giselle, who said she was born in Lebanon and had lived around the world, tugged at his emotions, Underwood says, by telling him that she was estranged from her own children.
“She gave me the impression of being absolutely heartbroken,” Underwood says. “It was visceral.”
Giselle invited Underwood to her house for coffee and to restaurants for lunches and dinners, he says. He saw her doling out $100 tips “like she was handing out Coca-Colas,” he says. Her apartment was filled with expensive crystal figurines, and there were pictures everywhere of well-dressed people. She would pull out her phone and show him photos of her home in Spain. She claimed to have a monthly income of $2.1 million, he says, and said she was renting an apartment in their building only because it was convenient, given her heavy travel schedule, while she was renovating a much larger residence in Foxhall.
As the weeks passed, Underwood says, his neighbor dribbled out details of what seemed like a charmed and exotic life. Giselle said she was giving sotto voce advice to the Obama administration on Pakistan policy, and had the use of a White House office. She also said she’d been married to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
She told richly embroidered stories about going to Cuba with the ailing Chavez. The way the hospital looked. What the doctor told Chavez. Meeting Raul Castro.
“Very elaborate detail,” Underwood says.
Giselle and her attorney did not respond to questions about Chavez and the Cuba trip.
When Underwood expressed some skepticism, he says, his neighbor rattled off names. Obscure names. Cousins of Venezuelan leaders. Minor officials. At night he’d go to the computer in his apartment and Google the names. They’d show up. Her knowledge was nothing short of “encyclopedic,” he says.
Underwood often has trouble getting to sleep, and on one of his restless nights, he stumbled across English-language articles published in African blogs in the mid-2000s about his neighbor serving as an adviser to the president of Ghana, John Kufuor. Kufuor’s foundation did not respond to a request for comment. (The Post recently showed a photo that accompanied one of the blog posts to Giselle’s neighbors in Maryland, all of whom confirmed that the woman pictured was the mystery woman in Apartment 713.)
Giselle regaled Underwood with stories of her adventures in the free-for-all of Ghanaian politics, he says. Still, for all the bravado, Underwood says, he sometimes questioned whether his neighbor was actually as wealthy as she claimed. Once, when he raised doubts about her financial status, she flung open her closet so that he could see the dozens of designer dresses she owned, he says.
Underwood couldn’t help but be impressed.
“I’d never met anybody like her in my life,” he says.
– – –
Underwood’s finances were strained by the divorce, and he was sending his daughter to a public school. Giselle, he says, pressed him over and over to move the child to a private school, saying it would be best for the little girl.
When he said he couldn’t afford it, she offered up a plan. Giselle said she could fold him into a special investment opportunity: They would bid to sell T-shirts to the Venezuelan army, a deal that she said they were sure to get because of her high-level connections there. He’d make a ton of money, he says she promised, enough so that he could set up a college fund and provide a better lifestyle for his daughter.
“I love your daughter,” Giselle wrote in a text message provided to The Post by Underwood. “She’s the sweetest, kindest girl.”
Looking back, Underwood says, that may have been the moment when he was hooked.
“That hit me in the gut,” he says.
In an interview, Giselle painted a different picture of her relationship with her neighbor and his daughter. Without offering any proof of her claims, she portrayed Underwood as an inattentive father – an allegation he vigorously denies.
“I’m really very kind,” Giselle said in the interview. “He is a really bad person. I think he was born bad.”
Giselle said Underwood was “always talking about his daughter. Not because he likes her. It’s because he used her. It’s amazing. Amazing, really.”
By November 2015, Underwood says, he was all in for the Venezuela deal. Even though he says he’d never received paperwork about the business, he agreed to give Giselle $1,870 to cover the cost of registration fees for their bid. She asked him for the money on a bank holiday, so he couldn’t deposit it in her account. But she said that shouldn’t be a problem – he could merely slip the cash under her door in an envelope and she’d have her assistant pick it up, according to a text message.
The payment would be secure, Giselle texted, because the only other people with keys to her apartment were her assistant and “one of the secret service.” The comment made sense to Underwood since he says Giselle had told him that members of the U.S. Secret Service had access to her apartment because of her relationship with the White House.
The Secret Service had no comment. In an interview, Giselle denied claiming the Secret Service had access to her apartment.
“This is a confabulation against me,” she said.
At the time of their exchange about the Secret Service, Underwood was upbeat about his prospects.
“If it goes through I’ll walk over to the Church of Santo Spirito and say my thanks,” Underwood, who was about to leave for Italy, texted her. He said he also would toast Giselle with Chianti. Later, Giselle sounded celebratory, too, texting that she had bought 24 Beanie Boos, a popular stuffed animal, for Underwood’s daughter. Giselle knew Beanie Boos were his daughter’s favorites.
But as time went on, Giselle kept asking for more money. On Nov. 25, 2015, she sent an apologetic text requesting $1,200 to pay a lawyer working on the project.
“He asked for more I told him to make you a discount,” she wrote.
Underwood was getting nervous. She pushed back, seeming to use shame as a tool to overcome his hesitancy.
“It is not going to look good,” she wrote, “he [is] one of the most prestigious lawyers.”
The messages from Giselle came amid an aura of jet-setting glam. Once, Giselle texted that she would soon be flying to Damascus, Syria, and explained that she’d get there by first traveling to Greece, then taking a helicopter through Beirut. She told of hobnobbing with Venezuelan generals. In another text she said that her purse, which she said cost $7,000 and contained $3,000 in cash, was stolen in Egypt when she’d left her hotel without her bodyguards.
She texted Underwood that she would not tell “the president” about her mishap. Underwood presumes she was talking about Sissi, the Egyptian president who she’d claimed was her clandestine husband.
That December, Venezuela held elections that did not go well for the ruling party, seemingly imperiling their inside track to get the T-shirt deal. But days later Giselle sent a text with big news: “Hello Bob how are you they just signed the contract.”
She asked him to give his daughter a kiss for her, and told him to go ahead and toast their business success. But within eight hours, she was texting from Buenos Aires to ask for a favor: Her assistant had called and told her that she would need to complete another registration the next day. Giselle she’d brought the wrong debit card, and was wondering if Underwood would put $1,000 into her account to cover the cost.
Sure, Underwood said. He thought he’d just scored a big contract. What was another $1,000?
But he still had nothing to show for his investment, and in the days to come, his anxiety levels spiked.
“I’m faced with something that if it goes poorly for me I’m sunk,” he texted to Giselle the day before Christmas.
After New Year’s, Giselle was asking for still more money. She texted to say that she’d just spoken to Venezuela’s economy minister about the deal, and needed an additional $3,673.
“Please try to find the money I am worry I want to finish the deal,” she urgently texted him.
Her claims were getting more and more dramatic. Underwood was getting desperate, torn between his pique at the lack of information and a desire to keep the deal alive so he could at least recoup the tens of thousands of dollars he’d already put in. When he complained, she responded with all-caps text messages.
“OH MY GOD I HAVE PAID MORE THAN YOU IMAGINE TO HELP YOU FOR WHAT YOU PAID IS NOTHING COMPARED TO THE MILLIONS I PAID.”
Underwood says he moved to a different floor in the building just to avoid the woman he once thought would deliver him a new kind of prosperity. In February 2016, Giselle sent him an email saying she would repay him for the cost of the registrations related to the bid once she sold the T-shirts. But Underwood says he never saw a dime.
For months he stewed. He felt embarrassed and humiliated. He calculated that he’d lost more than $50,000.
In March, about a year after cutting off contact with his neighbor, he filed a lawsuit against Giselle Yazji, demanding $1.7 million – the amount Underwood says she promised he would make. The case is pending. In a court filing, Harry A. Suissa, an attorney for Yazji, denied that she was involved in fraudulent wrongdoing. Suissa declined to comment for this article or to provide documentation of the Venezuelan business venture.
“In his suit, everything is a lie,” Giselle said in an interview. “I didn’t receive anything. He paid expenses. It wasn’t for me.”
– – –
One evening in June this year, there was a knock at Bob Underwood’s door. In the hallway stood a polite, well-dressed man who spoke near-perfect English in an elegant Middle Eastern accent.
He wanted to talk about Giselle.
The man, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that only his last name, Sadi, be used, works for a foreign entity in the United States. Underwood was not glad to see him, both men say.
Underwood “was suspicious,” Sadi says.
Yet, the more they talked, the more they realized they’d each found an ally.
“She scammed you?” Sadi recalls saying. “She scammed me, too!”
Sadi had found Underwood because another person who lives in the building had conducted a background search after being approached by Giselle about an investment opportunity. The search turned up Underwood’s lawsuit.
As Sadi and Underwood talked, they began to see similarities. Like Underwood, Sadi had met Giselle by chance in the hallway. When Giselle invited herself for coffee one evening in late 2014, Sadi says, he and his wife felt it would be a cultural faux pas to refuse.
The woman he calls Madame Giselle began to give Sadi and his wife expensive presents, he says: Perfume, a designer purse.
“She seemed like a very rich woman,” Sadi says.
As their friendship grew, Sadi says, he confided some of his dreams: Though he did not earn a large salary, he hoped to improve his lot by returning to school to earn a Ph.D. He pined for a larger apartment and wanted to have children.
Sadi provided The Post with copies of hundreds of text and WhatsApp messages that show how their relationship unfolded. In June 2015, the neighbors appeared to be on good terms. Giselle sent a text to Sadi and his wife, addressing him respectfully as “Monsieur,” and he called her Madame Giselle.
“I wanted to talk with you two if you have time about something interesting please let me know when you can receive me for an hour,” she in a text.
Sadi explained to Underwood how Giselle had told him that she’d purchased a cache of T-shirts at auction from the estate of a wealthy textile merchant who had died. Madame Giselle was so convincing that night, Sadi says, that he agreed to give her $5,000 in cash without a scrap of documentation.
“Please I want you to know that I have you both this opportunity because I know you could help many people with it,” Giselle wrote in a text message.
It was all sounding painfully familiar to Underwood. He, too, had placed his blind faith in a woman who seemed to have his best interests at heart. There was the big promise, the pressure for money – always in cash – and the anger when questions about the deal were raised.
In July 2015, Giselle added a new twist, Sadi says, telling him that her brother had been kidnapped. She texted Sadi to say that she’d traveled to Bogota and had paid $3 million for her brother.
Looking back, Sadi says the anecdote seemed to serve two purposes: It showed that Giselle was a person of great means who could afford a multimillion-dollar ransom, and it made her an object of sympathy – not unlike the references to being estranged from her children that tugged at Underwood’s emotions.
As the months raced past and Sadi’s mood darkened, Giselle’s text messages seemed to toggle between furor and hopefulness. Once, as she did with Underwood, she claimed to have paid millions to arrange the T-shirt deal. “And I lost a lot,” she texted to Sadi. She also asked Sadi to get money to her the same way as Underwood had: By placing cash in an envelope and slipping it under her door.
But at other times, she evinced a sunny optimism, citing her religious faith as a Christian in appealing to Sadi, a Muslim: “I know that it will resolve many things and the most important thing I will show the world that between muslim and Christian from the middle east we help each other,” she wrote in a text.
At one point, Giselle was separately sending dozens of text messages to both Underwood and Sadi, though the two men had no idea because they had never met. On Jan. 5, 2016, she asked for precisely $3,673 from Underwood for “transfer costs” related to their deal. Thirteen days later, according to a Post review of hundreds of text messages, she asked for exactly the same amount from Sadi.
Sadi was in agony. He was having trouble making the rent. He wanted his money back. He calculated he’d given her nearly $19,000. When he complained about his financial difficulties, Giselle nudged him to sell some Persian carpets that she’d seen in his apartment, even though the dealer was offering him a low price, he says.
The deal – like Underwood’s, to sell T-shirts to the Venezuelan army – was so opaque that Sadi didn’t even know how to categorize the business they were supposedly launching when he tried to use an online service to register a corporation to receive payments.
“Sorry for upsetting, but what the type of our business?” Sadi texted in July 2015.
Giselle always had an answer, Sadi says. This time, she said she’d register a company under her assistant’s name to collect the profits for Sadi. She even sent him the form. The name she listed on it as the responsible party for the company threw him.
It was Giselle Jaller.
– – –
The name Giselle Jaller didn’t mean anything to Sadi at first. But he got on the internet and started searching. He had something in his favor: He speaks fluent Spanish.
And when he typed that name into Google’s Colombia search field, a torrent of articles came flying at him. A series of deeply reported stories in the respected newsmagazine Semana told the epic story of a spectacular alleged rip-off of the Colombian army.
The alleged perpetrator was a woman named Giselle Jaller, who had been dubbed “La Mona,” a slang term that roughly translates to “The Blonde.” The Colombian media gushed about her appearance, noting her large, dark eyes and habit of wearing miniskirts. The business publication Dinero called her a “stunning blonde.”
The photos Sadi found of Jaller on the internet left no doubt in his mind: His neighbor, the woman he knew as Giselle Yazji, was the same woman who had been at the center of scandal in Colombia, using the name Giselle Jaller.
According to Semana, Giselle Jaller had used her good looks and charm to court customers at two Colombian banks where she worked. In an interview with The Post, a spokesman for the Colombian attorney general’s office confirmed that the authorities in the early 1990s had accused Jaller – who was married to a high-ranking police officer at the time – of stealing the equivalent of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars from each of two banks by opening accounts under fake names. The case expired without a resolution, according to the attorney general’s spokesman.
Three years later, Jaller allegedly resurfaced in Bogota and used the name of her sister, Rolla Jaller, in a convoluted scheme to sell ponchos, backpacks and belts to the Colombian military, the spokesman says. Once again, she ran afoul of the authorities.
Reached recently by phone, Rolla Jaller, who lives in Florida, described her sister as “crazy.”
“We don’t want to hear anymore about her in this life,” Rolla Jaller says. “It’s a nightmare. My sister is a nightmare for all the family.”
Colombian authorities accused Giselle Jaller of failing to deliver materials she’d been contracted to provide to the Colombian military and of defrauding the military of the equivalent of about $1 million.
She was captured and sent to a women’s prison in June 1995, according to the Colombian attorney general’s office. However, a judge released her, on the condition that she return, because she was seven months pregnant.
She never came back. In that instant, she became a famous fugitive.
Things got even stranger from there.
– – –
All throughout her legal drama in Colombia, Jaller appears to have had ties to the United States, according to public records. She is listed as an officer in two Florida companies. Eric Kaplan, who was then an attorney in Miami who specialized in offshore and foreign business, said in a recent interview that he remembered being introduced to Jaller by a prominent Colombian client.
“Gorgeous woman. Incredibly striking,” Kaplan says of Jaller. “She was some kind of banker.”
In July 1997, Jaller appeared on Colombian television for an extraordinary interview. A full copy of the interview was provided to The Post by Canal 1 and the Colombian television program Noticiero CM&. The Post showed the video to two of Giselle’s current neighbors in Maryland, and they said they were absolutely certain that the woman in the video is the same woman who lives in Apartment 713 and now refers to herself as Giselle Yazji.
In the interview, the woman admits that she assumed the identity of her sister, Rolla, so that she could seek contracts with the Colombian military. She also admits to paying bribes to Colombian officials by writing checks to their wives.
In the interview, she shows flashes of the charm that made her famous in Colombia. A slight smile crosses her face as she answers questions. She portrays herself as a businesswoman who paid bribes because Colombian officials demanded them, and she expresses remorse for assuming her sister’s identity.
The scandal made banner headlines in Colombia. But she remained free. The attorney general’s spokesman says the authorities did not know where she was located and therefore could not bring her back to Bogota to face charges.
Years passed. The scandal of La Mona faded from memories. The statute of limitations for her alleged crimes expired, according to the attorney general’s office. Then, the spokesman says, she did something bold – she returned to Colombia in 2010 and tried to collect $20 million from an account in a Spanish bank there.
That set off another round of legal action. Once again, prosecutors accused her of committing a crime, holding court hearings in 2015 and 2016 in Bogota. At the same time, back in Maryland, the woman who called herself Giselle Yazji was pressing Underwood and Sadi for cash. The case, which is still pending, has been plagued by delays related to legal maneuverings by the woman they call “La Mona Jaller,” according to the attorney general.
Sadi did not know all of this when he was researching his neighbor, but he learned enough to make his heart sink. He decided to tell anyone he saw talking to Giselle about what he’d learned. (In the interview with The Post, Giselle alleged that Sadi hates her because she is Christian and he is Muslim – an assertion he vehemently denied.)
As Sadi made his way through the building, rumors about possible Giselle sightings ricocheted through the halls. For weeks at a time, he wouldn’t see her. This summer, Giselle texted friends in the building to ask about a water leak, and said she was in Venezuela after having also traveled to Colombia. Sadi was more convinced than ever that the woman in whom he’d placed his trust was the same woman who had been accused of the big swindles in Colombia.
Many records regarding Giselle’s identity track back to Florida, where she appears to have lived in the Miami area for years before relocating to the Washington area. Numerous Florida records list Jaller and Yazji with the same birth month and year, including driver’s licenses, voter registrations, and marriage and divorce records. (She appears to have been married twice in Florida. Both marriages ended in divorce.) Yazji and Jaller have also been associated with the same Social Security number, according to national database searches.
There are other similarities of note: A news release from the Colombian attorney general’s office about a hearing in Giselle Jaller’s ongoing case makes references to her allegedly assuming the management of a company without permission of two people who are listed as partners: Hernando and Catherine Cano. Neighbors say the woman in Apartment 713 has told them that her children are named Hernando Cano and Catherine Cano, and Colombian media reports say that Giselle Jaller was married to a policeman named Hernando Cano.
Giselle’s children, Hernando and Catherine Cano, declined to comment. People familiar with the family dynamic say they are estranged from their mother.
In the phone interview with The Post, the woman who goes by the name Giselle Yazji denied that she is, in fact, Giselle Jaller, the accused swindler known as “La Mona” in the Colombian media.
Giselle spoke of Jaller in the third person. But she said she had researched the story of La Mona, and she went on to discuss it in great detail.
“She is a very strong woman,” Giselle said.
– – –
Sadi’s quest to warn the world about Giselle brought him to Dick and Patricia Carlson, who have an apartment in the same building. In the past few months, the Carlsons – the parents of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News television host – had been socializing with Giselle.
Carlson’s wife had met Giselle in the lobby of their building. Soon thereafter, Giselle gave Patricia a framed religious icon that she now displays in the foyer of their apartment, two floors directly above Giselle’s.
Giselle never asked the Carlsons for money. Still, her claims about foreign marriages and U.S. government connections made them suspicious. Dick Carlson, a former high-powered television producer who ran the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the early 1990s and served as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles under President George H.W. Bush, is still well connected. He contacted friends involved in the federal government. They asked around. None of their contacts had ever heard of the woman.
At dinner one night at the Capital Grille, an upscale steakhouse around the corner from their building, Giselle regaled the couple with stories of her highflying adventures. She told them about her office next to Ivanka Trump’s in the White House and talked about giving advice to the president’s daughter on Air Force One. She boasted that her marriage to el-Sissi was kept secret because of sensitivities over the fact that she is Christian and he is Muslim, and she said she’d introduced the Egyptian president to President Trump one day in the Oval Office.
“I have him on the speed dial,” Giselle said, according to Dick Carlson. “I called him and then handed the phone to Trump. That’s when they had their first conversation.”
A top official in the Trump White House said neither Ivanka Trump nor anyone else at the White House has ever heard of Giselle. The Egyptian president’s office did not respond to the assertion of a secret marriage.
At another meal, Carlson says, Giselle’s phone rang and she excused herself saying it was the president of Angola.
“He’s always after me,” she said, according to Carlson.
Carlson wasn’t buying any of it. But he kept listening, in part, he says, because it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
“She’s a nonstop talker,” Carlson says, “a monologuist of considerable experience.”
While she spoke, Giselle glanced around the restaurant and told the Carlsons a little secret: She has four or five bodyguards, Carlson remembers her saying.
“They’re here now,” the woman from Apartment 713 told him. “But you don’t see them.”