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Model mother

Meet Maye Musk, mom of innovator and futurist Elon Musk

By Cynthia Allum on May 11, 2015

“I was a nerd, but Elon was a super nerd,” Maye Musk said of her son, famed inventor Elon Musk, in a phone interview with Women in the World. “I once told him that when I was a student, there was no one better than me in math and science in school. He laughed because he knew he was better than me.”

From bookish to billionaire, Elon Musk is now hailed as an environmental savior and extolled for his innovative enterprises: SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City. No wonder techies regard him as their new superhero. “I don’t like him being called ‘Billionaire Elon Musk,’ I’d rather have him called, ‘Brilliant Elon Musk,’” his mother quipped. “He’s not buying yachts and islands, he’s investing everything into the future.” She believes he’ll make trips to Mars “shorter and more comfortable,” and that Martian cities will be packed with good, hard-working humans. She’s also a fan of her Tesla, which she likened to driving “a little luxury spaceship.”

He may be leading humanity forward, but Elon’s fame doesn’t sit well with Maye. “I can’t say that I like his fame so much,” she admits. When she’s in public with him, groupies gather around her son, forming flocks six men deep, she said. “All the men talk about themselves all the time. They don’t want to know about him, and they’re boring … If Elon wants to go to the bathroom, they follow him. They just follow him everywhere.” His admirers include fellow innovators who are enthusiastic about the environment, electric cars, climate change, and space travel. “It’s the nerd quotient,” Maye said with a chuckle. “…They’re dumbstruck. Some of them can’t talk at all.”

Maye Musk described the scene in her Southern California condo as she answered questions about her life and her celebrated son. Her Tesla was parked outside, she said, cooling down from an hour-long drive home through Los Angeles traffic after a modeling audition. She mentioned casually that she was lounging in a diaphanous Carven blouse, skintight leather pants from The Row, and Maison Martin Margiela shoes, decompressing by cuddling with her rescue Maltese-Terrier puppy.

At 67 years old, the mother of three and grandmother of 10 exclaimed, “I look hot!” And no one would dispute that. Maye has been modeling since she was 15, and recent gigs include appearances on the covers of ELLE QuebecZoomer, TIME Health, and as “the classy lady in Virgin America ads” and “the pregnant old lady” on the cover of New York.

“People who meet me now think I have the most charmed life,” she said. Along with Elon, Maye is mother to film director Tosca Musk and restaurateur and entrepreneur Kimbal Musk. But rearing them well took determination, especially as a divorced woman who’d had three children in three years. After living in South Africa, the family moved to Toronto, where she labored to feed her family and pay for their rent-controlled apartment. She always excelled at math and science, and with two master’s degrees, in dietetics and nutritional sciences, she worked long days in positions including research officer at the University of Toronto, modeling teacher, dietician, consultant for the food industry, wellness guru, and, of course, model. “My kids sat in the front row by the stage while I was modeling and read books,” she recalled. “I had no money. I was working to survive. Poverty is a really big motivator.”

She was fortunate, too, she added, “really, really lucky” for her “fab” three kids, who never cease to surprise and impress her. They were always well behaved because she didn’t tolerate misbehavior. “I don’t have time for that. They couldn’t disrupt my life. I don’t take nonsense with my grandkids either,” she said.

But she never lectured her children about how to live. Instead, she taught by example, as her diligent parents did for her. “My kids know me as someone who works really hard. Everything should be fair, you should be considerate about others,” she said. “My kids are ethical, very hardworking. They were pretty much independent from the start.” People have called her family brave, too. “I was told I have a lot of courage, but then again I have Elon. That’s beyond what any mother can expect. Elon is just different. And we’re very proud of him.”

Yet, despite attracting legions of devotees now, Elon was not always popular. He was the youngest and the smallest in his class, which made him a frequent target for bullies, she said. Maye, too, was bullied when she was younger, but her twin sister stuck up for her. (The two talk over Skype every night). “I was a nerd but I had some kind of balance,” Maye said. “I enjoyed people.” Elon did as well, but his peers couldn’t understand him, she explained. He also tended to dive deep into his own mind, which made socializing difficult.

“Elon would make profound statements as a young boy that were beyond his years,” Maye said. “He just read everything. People would say, ‘Look at the moon, it’s so far away,’ and Elon would say, ‘No it isn’t,’ and he would give his exact estimate of how many miles away it was. Kids weren’t amazed. They would say, ‘We don’t want to play with you.’ And this confused him because he thought they wanted to be corrected.”

An attentive mother, Maye was often swamped with work. “I couldn’t even go on dates because if we split the bill, I knew I might not be able to feed my kids that week.” She credits her organizational skills with helping her stay afloat during those years.

“I’m very organized, but when something has got to be done, I do it right away…I think backwards in time so I know when to start. That’s the dietician in me, because dietitians are very efficient. We really stick to rules, and research, and we’re not flaky people. I’m always on time and I think I’m more organized than all my kids.”

She made it her business to keep the house filled with healthy food, but she also had very little time to cook. In a speech this week, Maye said, Kimbal revealed that he learned how to cook because the only things in their fridge when he was growing up were “yogurt and whole wheat bread.” To this day, Maye maintains a healthy diet, partly to stay a size six for her modeling career, and partly for longevity.

“The first secret to living for a long time is that you really have to eat well,” she said.

Sharing another no-nonsense beauty secret, Maye noted the virtue of a good haircut. “Change your hair. Get it more exciting looking,” she said. “I’m very happy mine’s all white. I’m very happy with aging because you do more things you want to do, rather than things you think you should do. You learn to say no. Right now, I’m talking to you with my dog, which is relaxing. I’m spending more time doing what I love, like teaching public health and chemistry in my grandkids’ school,” she said. “I celebrate my birthday. I have fun. I don’t care if people know my age. I don’t mind swimming in a swimsuit. Do I look older? Yes, I look older. It’s just the way that I am.”

And is she content with where she is now?

“This is the happiest time in my life.”