Jeanne Calment, The World’s Oldest Woman, Had An Awful Diet – And Lived To Be 122

Published March 5, 2018
Updated May 18, 2023

Jeanne Calment lived long due to a heavy reliance on chocolate, olive oil, cigarettes, and cheap red wine.

Jeanne Calment spent her life ignoring doctors’ advice for longevity. She smoked, she drank, she played with guns, she ate excessive amounts of sugar and red meat, and she never ate breakfast, save for a cup or two of coffee.

She also lived to be 122 years, five months, and 14 days old.

Jeanne Calment

Jean-Pierre Fizet/Getty ImagesJeanne Calment smoking a cigarette.

Throughout her long life, from her birth in 1875 to her death in 1997, Jeanne Calment broke several records, all of them after she had spent a century on earth.

At 111, she became the oldest living person in France, and at 113, became the oldest living person in the world. At 114, she became the oldest actress to ever appear on film, when she had a brief spot in the 1990 film Vincent and Me. At 116, she became the first person ever to live to 116, and at 120 she became the oldest person ever verified to exceed 120 years — she also released a funk/rap track called “Mistress of Time.”

Finally, at 122, she was granted the title of the oldest person ever.

However, some have claimed that Calment’s title may in fact be a hoax, and that her daughter assumed her identity in 1934. So, what is the true story behind the world’s oldest person?

Who Was Jeanne Calment?

Jeanne Calment first gained fame when she turned 111 and broke the oldest living person record. In an interview about her shocking age, she revealed that she had only moved into the nursing home in which she lived a year prior and that until the age of 109, she was living on her own.

Calment attributed her long life and youthful glow to her diet and active lifestyle.

Every day of her old age, roughly from age 85 onward, she would wake at 6:45 a.m. and start her day with prayer. Then, she’d sit in her armchair and do gymnastics while wearing headphones, which included arm and leg exercises, and finger flexing. Then she’d shower, without help from her caretakers, and finish getting ready by dousing her body in olive oil.

Jeanne Calmert Drinking

Eric Fougere/Getty ImagesJeanne Calment on her 120th birthday.

For lunch, she’d have braised beef, eschewing the healthier fish options, and a cigarette, with a glass of Port. She often complained, according to The Daily Mail, about her bland foods, and frequently requested fried, spicy foods.

Until she was 116 years old, she’d finish all meals with a dessert, usually eating about two pounds of chocolate per week.

When she could, she’d cover her meals in olive oil, attributing her health to an abundance of it, inside and out.

Throughout her time in the nursing home, Calment participated in several supercentenarian studies, during which doctors noted that she consistently moved faster, had better mental capabilities, and was generally healthier than those who were sometimes 10 to 20 years younger than she was.

When Jeanne Calment died, at age 122, she was 4’6″, weighed 88 pounds, and despite being almost fully blind, was in relatively good health considering her age.

She was still eating sweets and drinking cheap red wine until her death in 1997 and had only quit smoking a year prior, claiming that it was her reliance on all of the above that kept her around so long.

To some, Calment’s claims seemed too amazing to be true. Naturally, scientists were fascinated by Calment. Was she a one-in-a-billion outlier, or could her longevity be replicated? Or, as one 2019 study asked, was her story a complete lie?

Could Jeanne Calment Actually Have Been Her 99-Year-Old Daughter Yvonne?

As Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2019, an investigation by Nikolay Zak and colleagues from the Moscow Center For Continuous Mathematical Education examined Calment’s various claims throughout her life and constructed a timeline that may suggest her story was not what it seemed.

In short, the paper suggested that Jeanne Calment died in 1934, when she was 59 years old, and that her daughter, Yvonne, assumed her identity and died at 99 in 1997. As conspiratorial as the claim sounds, Zak and colleagues did provide substantial evidence to support it — though, much of it is circumstantial.

Yvonne Calment

Public DomainA portrait of Yvonne Calment, often incorrectly presented as a photo of Jeanne Calment at age 22.

For example, the researchers presented photographs of both Jeanne and Yvonne that illustrated how closely the two resembled one another. It was listed in 1934 that Yvonne had died of pneumonia, leaving behind her son Frédéric and her husband, Joseph Charles Frédéric Billot.

Shortly after, Jeanne moved in with them. Billot never remarried, which Zak and the researchers argue, could have been due to the fact that his wife didn’t actually die.

They also pointed to an interview in which Jeanne talked about a maid who took her to school — except, that couldn’t have been true, because the maid was 10 years younger than Jeanne. She could, however, have taken Yvonne to school.

There were also a number of smaller inconsistencies in Jeanne’s story that Zak pointed out. Yvonne’s death certificate had been signed by a woman “sans profession,” for one, not a doctor or coroner. Jeanne also had her family archival material destroyed.

Jeanne Calment Age 20

Public DomainJeanne Calment at age 20

Of course, some experts have argued back against Zak’s claims, questioning how such a convoluted conspiracy could possibly have been carried out. One gerontologist, Jean-Marie Robine, for example, called Zak’s evidence “incredibly shaky” and said that it “rests on nothing.”

Moreover, a significant number of people, including Calment’s family, friends, and neighbors, would have needed to perpetuate this lie.

Zak argued, however, that Calment spent a large amount of time in the 1930s outside the city of Arles, and that the chaos of World War II would have provided Calment the perfect opportunity to solidify her new identity.

“World War II brought chaos with it,” Zak wrote, “and after the war, it all settled if Madame Calment was always Madame Jeanne Calment.”

Zak’s claim has yet to be confirmed, and more research would be required to verify it, but it does raise questions about the validity of Calment’s status as the “world’s oldest person.”

After reading about Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest woman with an impressive diet, read about the richest person in history, Mansa Musa. Then, check out some of the world’s oldest structures.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.