clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Elon Musk is standing with his shirt open and arm outstretched, all in a style referencing a romance novel cover. He’s squeezing a bird that looks like the twitter logo in his other hand. There’s a huge pile of crashed Teslas, a cloud of smoke and a rocket launching in the background. Alex Fine for Vox

Filed under:

How does Elon Musk get away with it all?

The billionaire’s heroic image is built on media praise, breathless fans, and … romance novel tropes.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Elon Musk is an Ozymandias for our moment.

He’s got wealth and influence. His place as the richest man on earth fluctuates with the market, but he consistently cycles among the top three slots. He’s the CEO of two major companies and the owner of what was, up until he bought it, arguably the most influential social media network in the world. Marvel used him as the basis for Tony Stark.

Since Musk first made his way into public view in the mid-2000s, he has promised to change the world. He is going to solve climate change. He is going to take humanity to Mars. He is going to use AI to unravel the true nature of the universe. He is going to save the human race.

For most of the past decade, the media and Musk’s many super fans treated Musk’s promises as something close to fait accompli. After all, Musk may not yet have taken people to Mars, but he did build reusable rockets. He reinvigorated the electric car industry. Surely, the people who congregate in Musk’s Twitter replies would suggest, he was on the cusp of doing the rest of what he says he’ll do, no matter how abrasive his personality might seem or how many times he’s already failed to deliver.

To understand exactly how this worldview works, it’s illustrative to look at a book by the English writer and actress Talulah Riley. Riley was Musk’s second and third marriages: The pair divorced in 2012, remarried in 2013, and divorced a second time in 2016. (Riley recently announced her engagement to Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the kid from Love Actually — the woman has lived a life.) Also in 2016, Riley published a romance novel titled Acts of Love.

Acts of Love centers on a misandrist magazine profile writer named Bernadette St John who falls for one of her subjects, the enigmatic biotech billionaire Radley Blake. Like Musk, Radley is a man on a mission, committed to using his impressive technological and business acumen to save the world. He is mercurial, snappish, and prone to trolling onlookers, but his rough exterior conceals a heart of gold. Only Radley can understand Bernadette deeply enough to cure her of her misandry.

Radley also knows his tropes.

“As far as women are concerned, billionaires are the new vampires, thanks to popular erotic fiction,” Radley tells Bernadette in Acts of Love. “Fifty Shades did wonders for my love life. … I have a jet, therefore I am a misunderstood romantic.” Radley’s being ironic here, but the irony only masks deeper sincerity. As Bernadette is to learn, he is a misunderstood romantic.

Radley Blake isn’t Elon Musk, but Bernadette does react to Radley the same way Elon’s fans react to him. Reading Acts of Love feels like a decoder ring of sorts, a way of understanding how Musk’s supporters are able to reimagine all of Musk’s missteps and ugly behaviors as proof of his greatness.

Here’s how it works.

Musk’s public image is key to his business plan

“I never said I was a man of conviction. I am a man of action, of pure, unguided effervescence.” —Acts of Love

Elon Musk wasn’t always a Tony Stark-style celebrity known for his ability to command press attention and to publicly overshare. His co-workers used to worry that he didn’t know how to talk to the public enough.

A New Yorker profile of Musk from 2009 makes much of Musk’s awkwardness around an audience. “Musk has five hundred employees at Tesla, and they have faith in his abilities as an engineer and an entrepreneur. But some worry about his aptitude for the most difficult part of the job: selling cars,” the profile goes.

In the piece, Musk confesses that he’s concerned his lack of glamour will hold Tesla back. He compares himself unfavorably to Shai Agassi, founder of the now-bankrupt electric vehicle company Better Place. “Shai is very charismatic and natural in group settings, so his information is always going to seem overimpressive, whereas mine seems underimpressive,” Musk frets.

According to a 2012 Esquire article, Musk became obsessed with the question of how to become famous shortly after he founded SpaceX in 2002 and found himself in need of rocket parts. “Nobody will sell me any parts if they don’t know who I am,” he reasoned to his mother, model Maye Musk. That was when he started talking about going to Mars, a lot, to anyone who would listen. He made himself a public figure through sheer force of will.

These were the glory days of Elon Musk, celebrity billionaire: the days from 2009 up until 2018, when he courted the press assiduously and received one glowing headline after another. All that changed, however, in 2018.

That’s the year Musk called a Thai cave rescuer a “pedo guy,” smoked weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and falsely tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. All of those incidents came with backlash, and two of them came with lawsuits. The SEC sued him for securities fraud for the investment tweet, and the Thai cave rescuer sued him for defamation.

Musk settled the former case for $40 million and won the latter. And after he sewed up the defamation case in 2019, he started blocking journalists who had covered it.

According to a 2020 article in Vanity Fair, winning the defamation suit registered a turning point for Musk. “He was finished trying to be nice to the journalists, seeing them as biased against him,” the magazine reported. “What’s more, he decided he was done being nice to anyone else who didn’t agree with him. He had spent his entire career trying to pretend he gave a shit about what people thought of him, and he was done.” Shortly afterward, he fired his public relations firm and, as communications directors left Tesla, declined to fill their positions.

Now, Musk is his own spokesman. Twitter’s press email has been programmed to autorespond to all emails with the poop emoji.

Given the number of scandals Musk has weathered, we might say that he’s not a very good spokesman for himself. Another way of looking at it is that he’s a very good spokesman for himself and that a scandalous life is part of the strategy.

Musk wants a high profile to boost his companies’ visibility. He has one, and he doesn’t have to pay for it. As Lane Brown put it in New York magazine in 2022, “Some billionaires own magazines and newspapers, but Musk may have built something bigger, a decentralized media empire that amplifies his every utterance into a blizzard of commentary and clickbait so that all praise, honest criticism, and exasperated overreach cancel one another out and he can wear our exhaustion like armor.”

If you read about a new Elon Musk scandal every day, that means no individual Elon Musk scandal can stick in your mind. Instead of remembering the Tesla labor scandals and the defamation cases, you’re left with a vague and blurry sense of friction. What sticks is the image of a man whom the press seems to dislike and who responds by trolling the press. A man, like Radley in Acts of Love, of “pure, unguided effervescence.”

It’s worth remembering that despite that effervescence, Musk has failed to deliver on all his promises. Tesla routinely finds itself unable to fulfill orders because under Musk it promises to sell more than it can make. Musk did not start ferrying tourists around the moon in 2014, as promised in 2009, nor have self-driving Teslas obviated the need for human drivers, as promised in 2014. He has not yet revolutionized domestic travel with hyperloops and underground traffic-destroying tunnels, as promised in 2013 and 2016, respectively. “If you look at Elon Musk’s career — he comes off as a grifter,” opined a Chicago alderman in 2019 as Musk stalled on the high-speed tunnel he planned to build for the city.

One criticism Musk frequently faces is incorrect. His critics often claim that he got his money from an emerald mine he inherited in apartheid South Africa, but that’s not true. Musk did grow up in apartheid-era South Africa in an upper-middle-class family, and his father Errol did briefly own an informal share in an emerald mine in the 1980s. However, the mine was unconnected to apartheid, and Errol’s share was not particularly lucrative. Musk seems to have paid his own way through college, and he started his first company with a $2,500 stake he paid himself and a few grand from his collaborators.

The stuff they say about what he’s done to Twitter since buying it in 2022, though? Well, that’s mostly in public view, so yeah, that part’s true.

Is Elon Musk a bad boss, or are his employees lazy bums?

“I’m perhaps not as good at managing as I am at engineering, but luckily I am a superlative engineer, so even if my management skills fall far short of my engineering skills, I must still be pretty good.” —Acts of Love

In Acts of Love, Radley has a reputation as a hard-nosed micromanaging control freak. But when Bernadette visits the headquarters of his company, Clarion Molecular, she soon learns that his reputation is unearned.

“Radley’s only ever forceful when he needs to be,” a Clarion worker named Sam explains. Certainly, Radley can be set off, but only ever deservedly so, by people who don’t work hard enough.

“He hates to see unused potential,” says Sam. “It’s something that drives him nuts. As long as I do my job and put in maximum effort, I’m not afraid of him. And that works for me, because I’m that type of person anyway. But a lazy bum who felt entitled — he’d see that as a wasted resource. He’d go to war on it.”

Luckily, Sam goes on, there’s “no one like that here” because “we’re all desperate to be here.” Like Tesla breaking open the electric car market, Clarion is the industry leader when it comes to making actually marketable products. (What that specific product is remains obscure; we just know Clarion’s a biotech company out to save the world.) That means all the employees are so motivated they constantly work flat out, yet miraculously they experience no mistakes and no slow-downs.

Plus, the staff all like the perks of hanging out at the headquarters. Their free meals are delicious, and there’s a Japanese tea garden on the roof.

In real life, a lot of Musk’s public record as a boss is damning. Reports of what it’s like to work for Elon Musk range from accounts of frequent and spiteful bullying to negligence to worse.

In 2018, Wired reported that Musk would march through Tesla factories in a fit of rage, red-faced, firing people at random. One manager called these trips “Elon’s rage firings” and forbade employees from walking too close to him so a random encounter wouldn’t send them packing.

In meetings, the Wired report goes on, executives advised each other to hunch over so that they were lower down than Musk (“Elon reacted better to people when he was sitting higher than them”). He once called an executive and yelled at him for not taking phone calls while he was on paternity leave: Having a kid, he declared, doesn’t prevent you from being on the phone. (Tesla disputed these stories to Wired.)

Similar stories emerged after Musk acquired Twitter in 2022, when he promptly fired nearly two dozen employees who had criticized him, then made fun of them on Twitter. “I would like to apologize for firing these geniuses,” he said. “Their immense talent will no doubt be of great use elsewhere.”

According to Musk’s first wife, Justine Wilson, the power dynamics Musk prefers at work can also sometimes leak into his personal life. Shortly after the pair married in 2000, she wrote in a 2010 essay for Marie Claire, she began to find that he spent a lot of time discussing what he perceived to be her shortcomings.

“I am your wife,” Wilson said she told him, “not your employee.”

“If you were my employee,” Musk allegedly responded, “I would fire you.”

Musk doesn’t just yell at his employees and fire them capriciously. He has also been accused of setting policies that put people’s lives in danger.

In 2017, the LA Times found that Tesla factories in 2015 had a safety incident rate that was at times 31 percent higher than the auto industry average, more on par with the rates seen at sawmills and slaughterhouses. In a statement, Tesla chalked up the numbers to growing pains and pledged to improve. The numbers seemed to get better, but in 2018, an investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal showed that Tesla had simply started to leave injuries off the books. Sometimes that meant avoiding calling ambulances to stay away from the paper trail: One employee says that after a hatchback fell and “crunched down” on his back, he was forbidden from calling 911.

According to Reveal, the real rate of major workplace safety incidents at Tesla was still worryingly high. It spoke to employees suffering repetitive motion trauma from improperly handled heavy equipment, surviving severe burns that require skin grafts, and dealing with lingering medical issues after inhaling toxic fumes.

Part of the issue was that Musk had an aesthetic problem with a lot of industry-standard safety practices. Traditionally, car factories mark hazards with swaths of yellow paint, but Musk doesn’t like the color yellow. He also doesn’t like too many signs or that beeping sound trucks make when they’re backing up. On the Tesla factory floor, safe areas and unsafe areas are primarily demarcated in different shades of gray, and caution noises and caution signs are kept to what some would say is the minimum and some would say is way less than the minimum. (In a statement to Reveal, Tesla sent pictures of its factory floor showing that it did sometimes use yellow paint and caution tape.)

Musk’s alleged disregard for workplace safety continued into the pandemic era. In public, he repeatedly downplayed the threat of Covid-19 and promoted anti-vaxxing ideas. At work, he violated public health orders and reopened a Tesla factory during the depths of lockdown. The same factory later reported 450 positive Covid cases.

Employees at Musk’s companies also report consistent patterns of harassment. In a 2022 lawsuit, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleged that Tesla’s Black employees spent a decade filing complaints about being called racial slurs by both co-workers and managers, to no response from the company at large. They describe being segregated into stations referred to by fellow employees as “porch monkey stations,” “the dark side,” “the slave ship” and “the plantation,” and seeing Confederate flags and hangman’s nooses graffitied in bathrooms and workstations.

“At SpaceX, we’re told we can change the world,” said one former engineer at Musk’s rocket company in 2021. “I couldn’t, however, stop getting sexually harassed.” She described being repeatedly groped and stalked by male co-workers as Human Resources stood by. Musk himself has been accused of sexual harassment of a SpaceX flight attendant; he denies it.

In contrast to the reports of what life is like at Tesla and SpaceX, Clarion, the company in Acts of Love, functions as a fantasy version of Musk’s various companies. Clarion is a world in which Radley only ever fires “lazy bums” who refuse to put in “maximum effort,” all his aesthetic choices only lead to greater employee satisfaction, and workplace safety isn’t even a matter for discussion.

As far as I can tell, Musk has only acknowledged Acts of Love to say that “all characters — even those based on real people — are entirely fictional.” Still, Musk frequently talks as though Radley’s world is the one he lives in.

In March, a Twitter employee who found his work computer had been cut off and no one could tell him if he was still employed or not started tweeting at Musk. “The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm,” Musk replied in a quote-tweet. He added, “But was he fired? No, you can’t be fired if you weren’t working in the first place!”

In the real world, Musk was wrong. The employee in question really did have muscular dystrophy, which caused him to be unable to type for long periods of time. Musk issued a public apology and offered to rehire him.

In Radley’s world, though, there would be nothing wrong with what Musk did. He would have just been going to war on another lazy bum out of his own commitment to efficiency and greatness. It would have been his right because he is a genius.

Every romantic hero needs a tragic past

“His eyes were locked desperately on hers, but instead of his usual mesmeric mastery, he seemed … vulnerable.” —Acts of Love

If a bad boy romantic hero is really going to work, he has to be hiding some weaknesses, some soft spots. In fiction, it’s the combination of power and vulnerability that’s so intoxicating.

The hero has to long for love. He has to have had a tortured childhood. Ideally, he should have a fraught relationship with his father. Musk has the hat trick, and he frequently discusses it with the press.

In childhood, Musk was the smallest kid in his class. He was also smart and knew it. His autism made it difficult for him to connect to his peers. (Musk has said he has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder that is no longer an official diagnosis.) He attracted bullies.

“The gangs at school would hunt me down — literally hunt me down!” Musk told Rolling Stone in 2017. Once they pushed him down a concrete staircase and beat him until he needed to go to the hospital.

At home, there was little respite. Musk’s father was allegedly violent toward his mother, although not toward the children, and authoritarian to everyone. When he was 9, Musk’s parents divorced, and although the rest of his siblings decided to live with their mother, Elon stayed with his father. Now there was no one else to deflect attention away from him.

“He was such a terrible human being,” Musk told Rolling Stone in 2017. “My dad will have a carefully thought-out plan of evil. He will plan evil.” Today, they no longer speak.

“It is a surprise to feel empathy for a jet-setting celebrity billionaire,” the New York Times remarked in a review of Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography of Musk. Nevertheless, the book’s portrait of Musk’s childhood was “painful to read about — and no doubt excruciating to have lived through.”

According to Musk, it’s precisely because his childhood was so unhappy that he longs so profoundly for love.

“I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me,” Musk said in that 2017 Rolling Stone interview. (He gave it shortly after reportedly breaking up with Amber Heard.) “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there — and no one on the pillow next to you. Fuck. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that? When I was a child, there’s one thing I said. ‘I never want to be alone.’ That’s what I would say. I don’t want to be alone.”’

“You think I can’t be hurt?” Radley demands of Bernadette in Acts of Love. “You think I’m not as vulnerable as you, just because I’m a man?”

Radley is, in the end, badly hurt by Bernadette, who kisses another man in a moment of weakness. He leaves her sobbing on her own, and she has to beg for his approval by writing a novel about their love.

At the end of Acts of Love, Radley appears at Bernadette’s book signing. He pronounces her book “quite readable” and notes that “I quite liked the genius botanist chap.” Bernadette should dedicate the book, he instructs her, to “Radley, the love of my life, who I wronged most terribly.”

In real life, Musk has been married twice. (Three times if you count both his marriages to Riley.) He has nine children that we know of with three different mothers, and he is estranged from at least one of his kids, allegedly because she is trans and she disagrees with his politics. (“Can’t win them all!” Musk told the Financial Times.) He allegedly had twins with one of his executives in secret just weeks before a surrogate gave birth to his second child with his then-girlfriend Grimes.

Musk manifestly did have a bad childhood, and he assuredly can be hurt in his interpersonal relationships in the same way any human being can be hurt. But his public shows of vulnerability can make him seem uniquely in need of support. Criticism of someone who is so clearly bothered by criticism can become, in this worldview, just another round of bullies pushing the smallest kid in school down a flight of stairs.

“I don’t think people understand how tough he had it growing up,” said first wife Justine Wilson to Esquire in 2012. “I was a really lonely kid and he was a really lonely kid and that’s one of the things that attracted me to him.”

“The fact that he’s flawed is part of his draw. He’s being real,” a Musk superfan explained to New York magazine in 2022. Part of what made her start tweeting in Musk’s support, she said, was that “it was kind of rooting for the underdog.”

As the New York Times put it in that 2015 biography review, it takes a lot for a jet-setting celebrity billionaire to turn himself into an underdog. Yet for Musk, it seems to come easily. The vulnerability of Musk’s carefully crafted image helps mask the power he wields: He becomes a victim at the mercy of a wicked press and an ungrateful human race.

For the romantic hero, trolling is just one more bad-boy affectation to be stripped away by the right person, by the person who can fix him while he’s busy saving the world.

Which surely he will do. Any day now.

Correction, August 18, 9:40 am: A previous version of this story misrepresented Musk’s legal fallout over his inaccurate funding tweet in 2018. He was sued by the SEC and settled.


Love Is Blind season 5 is all about red flags


The movies to watch for this fall

Celebrity Culture

Celebrities can’t stop showing us who they really are

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.