Wearing a sleek black top draped over her shoulders, Maye Musk strolled over to the green screen that was set up in a Queens backyard, which had been turned into a makeshift photo studio that morning.
As the photo assistant tossed colourful smoke bombs toward the scene, Musk manoeuvred her body to make it look like her face was peering out of the wafting fog, which ranged in colours from yellow to blue and white.
For Musk, the 67-year old model, nutritionist, and mother of Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk, this is just one of several fun modelling jobs she’s had in recent years.
In one of her most recent gigs, she appeared in a Virgin America campaign where she elegantly held a glass of champagne on an aeroplane. She even has a small role in Beyonce’s music video for “Haunted,” and you can spot her here if you look closely.
One of her most memorable shoots landed on the cover of New York Magazine, where she re-created the iconic photo shoot in which Demi Moore posed naked while pregnant for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Success seems to run in the Musk family — Maye’s son, Elon, is the billionaire entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. Her other son, Kimbal, owns a restaurant chain called The Kitchen that sources ingredients directly from local farmers. And her daughter, Tosca, is an award-winning producer and director of films and television shows.
But that success didn’t come easily for Maye or her children.
Five jobs at once
Musk has been modelling since the 1960s, when she was 15, but it wasn’t until recent years that she could afford to take modelling gigs simply because she wanted to without answering to an agent.
That’s because she was hustling to raise three children while establishing a career as a model, dietitian, and nutritionist. When Musk moved with her family from Johannesburg in South Africa to Toronto in 1989, she worked five jobs to make ends meet.
She worked as a research officer for the University of Toronto so that her children could go to school there for free and taught modelling and nutrition classes two nights a week. All while working on her practice and studying to become a registered dietitian.
The family lived in a small rent-controlled apartment in Toronto. “We spent three weeks just taking staples out of the floor and removing the wallpaper, which was covered in green velvet vines and was peeling,” Musk said.
The apartment was bare when they initially moved in.
“And the first thing we did, after the first salary I got, [was] we got an inexpensive carpet put down because we didn’t have chairs or anything,” she said. “And the second thing we got was a computer for Elon. And so he would sit on the floor at his computer.”
Musk recalls a time when the family couldn’t afford to buy red meat for dinner. In the early 1990s, one of her clients who owned an abattoir (or slaughterhouse) would give the family a roast every month, even though he had no idea the family couldn’t afford to buy one themselves.
“He gave us this huge roast once a month for the three of [my kids],” she said. “And I’d cut it in four, freeze three [pieces], and we would have a roast once a week that we could share.”
The whole Musk family worked hard to support each other during that time, too.
Tosca worked at an upscale grocery store near their apartment while she went to school, and Maye helped Elon get a job at Microsoft before he went to college since the husband of one of her colleagues worked there. Later on, she also helped her sons find jobs at a bank through a friend.
But she insists that her influence isn’t responsible for the success of her children, including Elon.
“I never helped my kids,” Musk said. “I was working too hard, my kids had to be responsible for themselves.”
Elon in particular had tried his hardest in school, but only in the subjects he liked, Musk said.
“He knew everything, but he was the youngest and the smallest in his class,” she said.
Her “best investment ever”
Although Musk says she didn’t have much influence on the success of her children, she played a big role in helping Elon and Kimbal get their first company up and running.
In 1995, Elon and Kimbal started Zip2, a software company that provided business directories and maps to media companies and ecommerce clients.
At the time, Musk was running her dietetics practice in Toronto and was preparing to publish her book, “Feeling Fantastic.”
In addition to the multiple jobs she held at the time, Musk worked tirelessly to help her sons start their first business.
She started by encouraging Kimbal to get more involved in the business after he had racked up her phone bill by constantly calling Elon, who had moved to Silicon Valley.
“[Kimbal] would come over to my office at night to discuss business with Elon by phone,” she said. “When my phone account reached $US800 per month, I told Kimbal to stop working and join Elon.”
Since Musk still lived in Toronto when Zip2 was getting started, she would fly out to Silicon Valley every six weeks. Musk says she helped her sons with everything from the company’s business plan to supervising interns and taking care of printing and office expenses. She also bought them food, clothes, and furniture at the time.
Some time around 1996, Musk donated all of her savings, which amounted to $US10,000, to cover the office rental and expenses.
She calls it her “best investment ever.”
Musk was even up until 2 a.m. with Kimbal at Kinko’s helping him print out coloured copies of Zip2’s presentations to investors.
“That night we were exhausted and exhilarated,” she said. “We went to the best restaurant in Palo Alto and I told them this was the last time I would use my credit card for our dinners. And that has been true.”
By 1997 and 1998, Zip2 began to really take off, and both Elon and Kimbal became busier with board meetings. So Musk was asked to meet with the company every week while running her practice and juggling modelling gigs.
“I would rent a car every Friday night, do the Nordstrom fashion shows on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m. in San Francisco, San Jose, or Sacramento, and then drive to their office for our weekly business meeting,” she said.
Her children made — and kept — an ambitious promise
Musk eventually moved to San Francisco for two-and-a-half years to be closer to her children and the business before moving to New York in 1999.
Back when the brothers and Tosca were all working at Zip2, before the company sold, they couldn’t afford to buy a big gift for their mother’s 50th birthday.
Instead, they made her a promise.
“They gave me a little toy house and a little toy car the size of a matchbox and said, ‘One day we’ll buy you the real thing,'” she said.
Zip2 eventually sold to Compaq Computer for around $US300 million, and the Musk children kept their word.
Musk wishes the world would understand the well-intentioned mind of her son.
“Elon’s intention is just to do whatever is possible in physics and engineering to make this planet better,” she said. “People think there’s an ulterior motive, but there isn’t. That’s all he’s striving to do. And that really upsets me, when they think ‘Oh, he’s looking for more money.’ No, he’s never done that.”
Now most of Musk’s days are spent modelling and maintaining her nutrition practice.
But she and her children still find time to meet regularly.
“We do a lot of get-togethers,” she said. “And I’m really fortunate to have three wonderful kids. We’re in a good position now, that we can actually eat roast beef every day if we wanted to. But we wouldn’t dare!”