Tech giant and entrepreneur Elon Musk is known for his roles in PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX. But before he began making electric cars and launching rockets into space, he grew up in South Africa with his mother, Maye Musk. Maye, in addition to raising Elon and his fellow successful siblings Kimbal and Tosca, has lived a life that, while different from Elon’s, rivals his in accomplishments and fascination. Here are 10 things you might not know about the billionaire’s mother:
She’s a supermodel
Maye started modeling at the age of 15. Though she was told this career would be over by the time she was 18, she ended up working for decades as a print and runway model. “My friends tell me: I was famous before Elon was famous,” she told Vanity Fair.
After turning 60, Maye became more successful, which she’s attributed to her decision to stop coloring her hair. With a stylish shock of white hair, she landed jobs that included an ad for Virgin America, the cover of New York magazine in 2011 and a cameo in the video for Beyoncé‘s “Haunted.”
By 2015 Maye still had to audition for jobs, but did appear in her first runway show for New York Fashion Week. In 2016 she was signed by IMG, a top agency for models. That year she also made fashion waves when she accompanied Elon to the Met Gala. In 2017, when she was 69, she became an ambassador for CoverGirl. She’s the oldest brand ambassador in the beauty company’s history.
“I think it gives hope to women as they age they can continue to work and be relevant and confident and comfortable with themselves,” Maye told Forbes about her achievement.
Her ongoing success also provides a positive example for her field. “Young girls stop me on the street and say my career gives them hope that if I’m doing this at 70 years old, they can do it at 25,” she told Marketwatch.
She’s a dietitian
Maye holds two master’s degrees, one in dietetics and the other in nutritional science. She built a successful dietitian practice in South Africa and then rebuilt her career after moving to Canada in her 40s. Being a dietitian provided Maye with a stable career when modeling work was slow.
Maye put on weight in her 30s, and in the 1990s she was able to shed about 50 pounds by refocusing on healthier food choices like legumes, vegetables and yogurt. However, she’s been upfront about how hard it is to maintain her weight, particularly because she has a sweet tooth and is tempted by treats such as chocolate and sticky toffee pudding.
She’s a social media maven
Maye disproves the stereotype that older people don’t understand social media. Her Instagram feed garnered interest from IMG Models, and signing with them helped take her modeling career to the next level. Maye has credited connections made on Facebook with leading to her first couture show, which happened when she was 67. Plus, she’s used Twitter to build her career as a dietitian and lecturer.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maye documented some of her runway moves on Instagram to raise funds for the struggling fashion industry.
She participated in beauty pageants
A friend once entered a 20-year-old Maye in a beauty pageant. She decided to go through with the competition and won. In 1969, she was a finalist for Miss South Africa.
She has a twin
Maye has a twin named Kaye, with whom she remains close. Their children spent time together growing up; like Maye, Kaye also raised successful entrepreneurs.
She had an adventurous upbringing
Maye’s family moved from Canada to South Africa in 1950, when she was almost 3 years old. In winter, the family would venture into the Kalahari desert, taking enough supplies for three weeks. They were hoping to locate the desert’s rumored Lost City, though they were never successful.
She is a domestic abuse survivor
Maye wed Errol Musk in 1970. It was the beginning of a marriage that contained physical and mental abuse, as Errol reportedly beat her and forced her to cut off contact with her family. But splitting up was difficult, as Maye felt embarrassed by her situation. In addition, at the time divorce laws in South Africa didn’t consider abuse a sufficient reason to end a marriage.
After divorce laws changed in 1979, Maye finally felt able to walk away. Years later, she shared details about her marriage in her 2019 book, A Woman Makes a Plan. Maye has also voiced encouragement for women in abusive relationships, telling Page Six, “When you make a big change, it will be scary, but you can’t just stay in a bad situation.”
She worked hard as a single mother
A divorced Maye struggled to make ends meet. She shared in an interview with the Huffington Post, “After my divorce, I had to house and feed three kids without maintenance. Poverty makes you work really hard. I remember crying when one of my kids spilled milk. The saying goes ‘don’t cry over spilled milk.’ I cried because I couldn’t buy another milk that day.”
Maye survived by buying secondhand clothes and used her dietitian skills to provide cheap and nutritious meals, such as peanut butter sandwiches and bean stews. Staying afloat also required hard work. But she explained to CNBC, “I never felt guilty about working full-time, because I didn’t have a choice. Taking care of my children was the top priority; I worked hard to keep a roof over our heads, food in our stomach, and basic clothes on our back.”
When modeling, Maye often brought her three kids to shows. Her children also helped out in her dietitian practice, something Maye did for her own parents’ chiropractic practice.
She created a new life in Canada in her 40s
Thanks to Maye’s being born in Canada, her children were able to obtain Canadian passports. At 18, Elon headed there after graduating from high school. His teenage siblings also wanted to relocate to Canada, so Maye went there to assess the potential move.
While Maye was in Canada, her daughter Tosca made arrangements to sell her mother’s house and car in South Africa. When Maye returned from her trip, she had a decision to make: should she walk away from these possessions, and the career she’d spent years building? She signed the paperwork and took the leap.
However, at the time South Africa limited the amount of money that could be taken out of the country, so most of the proceeds from these sales weren’t available. At one point Maye was working five jobs as she built a new life in Canada, telling Forbes, “I was a research officer at the University of Toronto. I was teaching two nights a week at a nutrition college and two night weeks at a modeling agency. I modeled and I gave talks, and I had a private practice.”
She has no plans to retire
Maye has no plans of slowing down any time soon, telling The New York Times, “I will never retire. My mom never retired. I’ll work until no one wants me anymore, and then I’ll find something else and I’ll still be a dietitian doing nutrition research, which I love.”