While her children work out the future of this planet, the 70-year-old model is quietly establishing a name for herself as a fashion icon. But she’d rather talk science than shoes, says writer Christina Binkley
Photography by AMANDA DEMME
Creative & Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
I meet Maye Musk in the foyer of her beach-adjacent high-rise apartment — a location that, given her recent fame, she prefers to describe as “Los Angeles.” She gets straight to the point. For this article, the 70-year old dietitian-slash-supermodel would like us all to consider that she has three children: There’s her youngest, Tosca, who works to improve the world’s spirits by turning best-selling romance novels into films. There’s Kimbal, who’s trying to save the planet with farm-to-table food. And there’s her oldest, Elon, with whom we are well acquainted. Ask how Elon is doing and her eyes will narrow. “All three of my kids are doing very well, thank you,” she will reply, and she’ll drop the name of Tosca’s production company, Passionflix, or Kimbal’s learning-garden nonprofit Big Green, because she knows you already know about Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal and the Boring Company. In conversation, Maye attends to her entrepreneurial kids with precise attention to balance. She is leveling the playing field, exuding a mother’s equal love for all her children.
Dressed in simple dark slacks and a stark black sweater with a minimalist ruffle at the wrist, Maye is bare-faced and striking, with her signature shock of white-gray hair. She is still getting accustomed to her celebrity. She’s a CoverGirl, a post more often awarded to women one-third her age who don’t have 11 grandchildren. She has represented global luxury brands, including Tiffany & Co. and Moncler. Just last year, she celebrated her milestone birthday, wearing a sparkling Elie Saab dress loaned by the Paris-based Lebanese couturier. These events mark her emergence as America’s favorite septuagenarian supermodel — more than a half century into her fashion career. She is, I might add, a fully fledged influencer with 229,000 followers on Instagram.
She is fearless in many ways, perhaps most visibly with fashion — her thick silver coiffure inspires hair stylists to tease it skyward in avant-garde geometry, but her wardrobe stylist and publicist note that on her own, she struggles to distinguish colors and needs instruction to properly tie bows. Maye calls herself a “science nerd” because she holds two master’s degrees, in nutritional science and dietetics, and insists she would rather discuss the periodic table of elements and a healthy diet — her own is sans kale because she doesn’t like bitter tastes — than the latest fashion trend. She is, however, eager to share her recipe for 15-bean soup. In short, she is a mass of contradictions and thoroughly good company.
CoverGirl signed her two years ago after IMG submitted her, and Maye was startled to be recognized on the street. “Are you Elon Musk’s mother?” she says people would exclaim. Photographers ignored her first awkward turns on the red carpet, when she was learning to step-and-repeat, so her publicist trailed her, shouting, “It’s Maye Musk!” Photographers responded, “The Tesla mom?” She was breaking the gray ceiling, but without her own identity. Fortune noted her ascent in September 2017: “Elon Musk’s Mom, 69, Is the Newest CoverGirl.” She had some work to do.
Today, with her A-list portfolio growing, Musk is more often recognized for herself. Harper’s Bazaar threw the 70th birthday party in New York with editor Glenda Bailey, Diane von Furstenberg and Christie Brinkley in attendance. Maye has appeared in ads for Virgin America, Target and Macy’s. For the Moncler campaign she was entirely without makeup, bangs swept up to reveal her forehead, its landscape of wrinkles be damned because she’s had no “work” done.
“No one has asked me to have [work] done. I model my age”
“No one has asked me to have it done. I model my age,” Maye says with a shrug. “Sometimes they retouch me and I’m wrinkle-free.” IMG super agent Ivan Bart, who guided the careers of Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen, attests that Maye is comfortable in her own skin. “There’s no apologies from her,” he says.
She’s shocked to learn Barack Obama is one of her 35,000 followers on Twitter. She doesn’t follow him back. She follows only 22 people, but she is the consummate Twitter mom. She promotes all her kids’ enterprises, including Kimbal’s March 20 national Plant-A-Seed Day. She has been chastising Tesla critics, engaging with some directly, and posting updates on the ratio of positive-to-negative press coverage. “Last week, negative @Tesla headlines were 82 vs 23 positive,” she posted in January.
When Elon recently tweeted admiration for a gigantic metallic moose sculpture, Maye hit reply: “Your grandmother was born in Moose Jaw, Canada. What goes around …”
She suggests, in fact, that there is a correlation between the qualities required of survival in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and the myriad ventures associated with the name Musk. There is an affinity for constant work, a knack for self-promotion and an explorer’s arm’s-length relationship with fear.
Maye’s father, Joshua Norman Haldeman, a cowboy and chiropractor who grew up in Minnesota and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, met her mom, Winnifred Josephine Fletcher, a dance instructor and drama teacher, when he signed up for ballroom dancing classes in Regina. When Winnifred said she didn’t date students, Joshua quit the class and took her to dinner instead. They married and had five kids, including Maye and her twin sister, Kaye. When the twins were 2, their father removed the wings from his propeller plane and brought it and his young family onto a cargo ship headed for South Africa, which he had read about. Subsequently, while Maye’s pre-teen and teenage friends frolicked at the beach, her family tooled about the desert, with three weeks’ worth of food, water and fuel, on an annual vacation to Botswana in search of the lost city of the Kalahari.
Maye worked the phones at her father’s clinic and developed X-rays. By 15, she was working as a model in places such as department store tea rooms, and doing printer work. She eventually married Errol Musk, an engineer. They had three children, the eldest of which inherited his father’s engineering genes. “Elon was my honeymoon baby,” Maye says. The couple divorced after nine years.
Elon blazed the family trail back to North America at 17, when he asked his mother to restore her Canadian citizenship. “He said, ‘I want to get to the United States and Canada is closest,’” she recalls. When he landed in Canada, he phoned home to ask what he should do next. “I told him to go to the YMCA,” she says. She describes her child-rearing philosophy as, “You can do what you want but you have to be responsible.” In 30 years Elon’s achievements include becoming the founder, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO and product architect of electric car pioneer Tesla; co-founder and CEO of Neuralink; founder of The Boring Company; and co-founder of PayPal, which was sold for $1.5 billion in 2002. He has a net worth of about $22 billion, is listed by Forbes as the 54th richest person in the world in its 2018 billionaires list and is thought to be the inspiration behind the big-screen incarnation of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.
Maye soon visited Elon in Toronto, telling 15-year-old Tosca she hoped one day to study for a Ph.D. in nutritional science there. Tosca wanted to go immediately. “I was pretty determined that we would move,” Tosca says. While her mother was away, Tosca listed the house with a real estate agent and sold the household furnishings to a family that had recently moved from Tehran — “except for a few items I knew my mother would want to keep.”
Maye says, “I got back to Johannesburg and I found Tosca had sold my house, my furniture and my car.”
Tosca, who is a film producer and director focused on romance films, such as 2018’s The Matchmaker’s Playbook, concedes, “I sold my mother’s crystal for pennies. But we couldn’t take it with us. We didn’t have much money. She was shocked at first, but it was ultimately an excellent decision.”
Maye adds, “I wasn’t upset. It made sense, because it was for me to do a Ph.D. in Toronto.”
In their first Toronto apartment, Maye and Tosca shared the bedroom and Elon slept on the couch for three months until Maye found a larger, rent-controlled space. (Kimbal stayed with Errol in South Africa to finish school.) Maye often slung five jobs at once: she was a home-based dietetic and nutrition consultant, a wellness speaker and media spokesperson, a university research officer, a model and the director of a modeling school. The kids did their homework of their own accord — no helicoptering — and behaved, because there were often clients in the house. “I was working very hard and found helping with homework to be boring. It probably encouraged independence.”
“[Elon’s] not crazy at all. Why do people keep writing stories that make him sound crazy?”
Maye’s doctoral research on kidney dialysis didn’t pan out. Her professors awarded her another master’s degree instead. Her penchant for hard work and rigorous study extended to her romantic life. She spoke English, Afrikaans and French, but when she dated a fellow from Germany, she enrolled in classes at the Goethe-Institut. She studied five hours a day and listened to German children’s tapes in the car. She earned a grade of 99 percent on the final exam, missing one question about the common German greeting — wie geht’s — an error she regrets to this day.
This is the lens through which Maye sees Elon’s efforts to meet his companies’ aggressive goals (which include sending humans to Mars and making it possible for people to travel underground faster than they do on planes). She bristles at media mentions that paint her son’s behavior as extreme. “He’s not crazy at all. Why do people keep writing stories that make him sound crazy?” she asks.
Working to exhaustion and sleeping on the floor in Tesla’s factory? “That’s normal!” she says, her icy blue eyes flashing.
Hair by JOHN D at Forward Artists.
Makeup by JO STRETTELL at Tracey Mattingly.
Manicure by CHRISTINA AVILES at Star Touch Agency using CHANEL Le Vernis.
Feature image: PRADA coat, $4,390. VRAM rings, prices upon request.
This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of C Magazine.