Maye Musk On Modelling, Her New Book And The Power Of Perseverance
A few years ago, as Maye Musk was about to step onto the runway at some fabulous fashion show during the fifth decade of her illustrious career, a young model approached her looking for advice. The model was upset, it turns out, because she had been rejected from a casting call for Gucci. “But, she said, ‘I’m doing Dior and Givenchy.’ So I said, ‘Those are three brands that have never even considered me. You’re doing just fine.’ And she felt good about it, because I’m a supermodel. She’s just an ordinary model, but I haven’t done what she has.”
It’s pretty obvious why people love to ask Musk for advice. Her inspiring example as a model who broke beauty barriers when she became a face of CoverGirl in 2017, at the age of 69, and her undeniable positivity are enhanced by a charm that is impossible to resist. Besides that, she’s a dietitian and nutritionist who holds several advanced degrees, and also, famously, a great mum. Her three children are successful in their own right. Her oldest son is so famous that people often introduce Maye Musk, who’s now 72, as “Elon’s mother”, but in the fashion world, he is still just “Maye’s son”.
People have been telling her for years to share her pearls of wisdom in a book. In fact, she had published a nutrition guide in 1996 called Feel Fantastic, Maye Musk’s Good Health Clinic, but that wasn’t really about her experiences, which are far more interesting than counting calories and eating the right things. Given the rise of her celebrity status since then, it finally made sense for Musk to sit down and write A Woman Makes a Plan: Advice for a Lifetime of Adventure, Beauty and Success, which has become an international bestseller this year with releases in the US, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and South Africa. A Chinese edition, unveiled in July, sold out immediately and had to be reprinted.
“Well, it was much easier than I thought because now, what the editor wanted me to do was just discuss my life history and the lessons I’ve learned,” Musk says. “So I did all that. And then it gets transcribed, so I don’t even have to sit and type. Can you imagine how great that is?”
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Musk is being humble, of course. That’s all part of her appeal: this sophisticated, glamorous, gorgeous woman who prioritises family, education and hard work while making it look so effortless to wind up on the cover of a Kellogg’s cereal box or star in a Beyoncé video or raise a billionaire son who builds electric cars and rocket ships.
But reality hasn’t always been pretty, and retelling some of the darker chapters of her life—leaving an abusive husband, scrambling to make ends meet as a young woman in South Africa and moving eight times—gave her pause about sharing them, until her editor insisted. It was learning how she overcame the hard parts, in fact, that gave the book its reason for being, as well as its title.
“When things go wrong, there is a common saying in Afrikaans: ’n boer maak ’n plan. A farmer makes a plan. Because in the farming business, things change all the time, so you better make a plan to fix the problem,” Musk says. “The editor said many women will relate to this story, and it’s funny enough that they do, even in China. It seems that men everywhere can be very dominant and cruel to their wives, and even hit them, and that I was surprised about.”
Putting Plans Into Action
While Musk has modelled professionally since she was a 21-year-old contestant in the Miss South Africa beauty competition, and has worked at various points as a catalogue model, a plus-size model, a mother-of-the-bride model and, much later, as a seniors-division model (all while simultaneously running modelling schools and a nutrition counselling practice), becoming a supermodel happened only recently. In part, her success is reflective of a broader trend to embrace diversity in the fashion industry, from ages to races to genders. But mostly, it’s because she made a plan and acted on it.
“We are living in a time when women have never been so empowered to pursue a more fulfilled and meaningful life,” says her friend Wendi Murdoch, the Chinese-American investor and art collector, who met Musk through a mutual friend, the actor Hugh Jackman, at the 2017 premiere of The Greatest Showman. “Maye serves as a role model and inspiration. She does not lament getting old, but rather embraces every living moment.”
I mean, who knows what’s next? When you don’t know, you just have to keep going
Thirst For Adventure
One of five children of a Canadian chiropractor father and dance teacher mother who had settled their family in Pretoria in the 1950s, Musk’s thirst for adventure can be traced to her unusual upbringing. It was common growing up for Maye and her twin sister, Kaye, to be led on family vacations roaming the Kalahari desert in search of its fabled Lost City.
“Looking back, I realise it was dangerous to go across the desert with a compass and three weeks’ supply of water and food with five kids,” Musk writes in her book. “But my father and mother planned our trips to the last detail. Our family motto was ‘Live dangerously—carefully’.” Petrol got in the drinking water. A lion entered their camp. Things broke, including parts of their truck. But no one ever was seriously harmed thanks to her parents’ careful planning.
One of her best friends encouraged Musk to try modelling, which she found an easy source of income that helped her pursue her interest in science, but she didn’t have the confidence to say no when a former high school flame, Errol Musk, told her parents they were marrying even though she hadn’t agreed. The abuse began on their honeymoon, even as Musk became pregnant with the first of their three children, Elon, Kimbal and Tosca. She says the abuse continued, and her husband kept her away from her own parents and siblings, for nine years, until she finally ran away to Durban when she was 31.
“So that was an improvement,” Musk says in typically understated fashion, in an interview from her home in Los Angeles. “It might be that I fed my kids peanut butter sandwiches every day, but I didn’t have hell at home.”
Keep On Moving
Musk continued to move, next to Bloemfontein where she got a dietetic internship and learned Afrikaans, living in tiny doctors’ quarters. She counselled nutrition clients at home and ran a modelling school from her garage, and occasionally still modelled herself, putting the children in the front row of a runway show when a nanny was not available. “We were there for a year and my kids still say, ‘How come we had so much fun there?’ We lived in one room,” Musk recalls. Within a decade, she was running a successful business from Johannesburg. But she also recognised her own challenges with diet and found herself eating her way through pain and sadness—“burgers and fries and fried chicken and chocolate ice cream, and it was fantastic,” she says. She gained 30 kg.
“I was the top plus-size model in the whole country and the other agencies would then book me because they didn’t have a plus-size model and an older model, because then I was in my late thirties,” Musk says. “I mean, you needed both and I could do both.”
As her children reached adulthood, Musk moved to Toronto in the 1980s to help them pursue their ambitions—Elon had already shown interest in computers and went first, followed by Kimbal, who would go on to work with Elon on their early Zip2 venture and later open restaurants, and Tosca, a filmmaker who now runs the streaming service Passionflix. Musk continued working as a dietitian, eventually becoming chairwoman of the Nutrition Entrepreneurs, Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition, and sometimes still as a model, even years later when she moved to San Francisco, then New York City for 13 years and to Los Angeles in 2013 to be near Elon and Tosca, when her daughter had twins of her own.
“The minute that Elon heard I was moving to LA, he said, ‘I’ll get you a Tesla.’ So now I’m on my second Tesla, the S, of course,” Musk says. (As for her interest in taking a ride on SpaceX, “That could be way in the future”, she says, “because I would like the engineers to get me a luxury dome first.”)
Aiming For The Top
By any account, one could argue Musk had led a full life even before what would normally be considered retirement age. But that’s when things really got interesting. Encouraged by her best friend and long-time stylist, Julia Perry, Musk embraced social media and began posting modelling photos on Instagram. They went to Paris together and borrowed designer clothes during fashion week to stage images that appeared as if they had been captured by street-style photographers.
“Julia said, ‘We’ve got to take a lot of photos of you as if you are a top model’,” Musk says. “I would be standing on the street and smelling flowers, and then go up and change and then I would be walking on the street, and go up and change and be heading to the runway show. Of course, they wouldn’t let me in. I’m not that special.”
But playing the part paid off. In 2016, she signed with IMG, and the following year, when she went to meet executives from CoverGirl, she was astounded to see the Paris photographs posted to a storyboard on the wall. “It was amazing because every model wants a huge beauty contract, and that I got.” And Musk continues to embrace the art of self-promotion in the era of technology. She has 362,000 followers on Instagram and 157,000 on Twitter. “When we got together recently, she was learning how to use TikTok,” Murdoch says. “She made both of us change into different outfits in order to post.”
Having finished her book, Musk thought 2020 was really going to be her year. She was so in demand, she no longer had to audition for jobs. The book was going to keep her travelling around the world. But then things changed and she had to make a plan.
“I’m very busy, because I’m watching French, German and Dutch movies to keep my languages going, because I get rusty if I don’t speak them, and doing about three interviews a day, and then, of course, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and doing virtual talks, virtual interviews, as well as written ones,” Musk says. “I mean, who knows what’s next? When you don’t know, you just have to keep going. You have to do everything you can to survive.”
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- Photography Williams + Hirakawa at Art Department
- Styling Donald Lawrence at The Rex Agency
- Hair Renato Campora using Biolage at The Wall Group
- Make-Up Mai Quynh using Armani Beauty at The Wall Group
- Production Adrian Rae at Art Department