She has had a life of struggle and adventure, and even before being known as the mother of South African-born tech billionaire Elon Musk, was a star sashaying down the runway at the New York Fashion Week at the age of 67, rewriting the rules of the modeling industry. Maye Musk speaks to us from her home in Los Angeles about her new memoir, A Woman Makes A Plan, released by Jonathan Ball Publishers, and how Elon was always her ‘genius boy’ and is now set on exploring Mars.Excerpts from the interview:
You are 72 years old and a grandmother to 12 grandkids. How do you manage to look great and also be a model, dietician, author and entrepreneur?
Women can do anything and everything… I have to eat very well to maintain a healthy weight and have a lot of energy. I have also never smoked, which is great and I wear a hat in the sun and sunscreen. You need to look after yourself and stay healthy and then, of course, the world is the limit. And then there’s Mars…
You grew up in Pretoria (South Africa) and in your book, recount your trips traveling with your parents across the Kalahari Desert every winter. Your family motto was ‘live dangerously — carefully’. Have you always been adventure-seekers?
With my parents coming from Canada, from a small town, to South Africa, they just wanted to explore Africa and the world in a single engine plane. They did a lot of that and then they took all five children to the Kalahari Desert… with a compass and we would map it out and we would map the hills… [when] all my friends went to the beach… but it’s so weird my parents were so adventurous, it was wonderful!
Your older son Elon Musk, as the founder of Tesla, makes electric cars and launches rockets into space. Your second son Kimbal is a food entrepreneur and your daughter Tosca a filmmaker. What was it like raising three successful kids as a struggling single mother? How did you navigate great sadness and stress along the way?
Funny enough, when I told my children my book agent wants me to write about my life and the lessons I’ve learned and they said, ‘you’ve got to bring your struggles into your book’, and I said, ‘oh you know, I never complain’, so they said, ‘no, people need to know what you’ve been through’. So I put the struggles in and then when I read it with my editor, I said ‘oh, I have got to take some of these chapters out’, and she said, ‘no, women will relate to them’, and that’s why my struggles are in there.If you are in a bad situation, you just have to get out; you have to get out quicker than I did. You have to find a way and share your problem with your family and friends. Interestingly, my twin sister and my two brothers had no idea what I was going through. I never came across as struggling as I never complained. I was always happy. My point is, if you complain all the time, then you’re not interesting or fun or beautiful because you are just miserable. That’s why I never told anyone what I had been through, but nowadays, if you need help, you need to tell people.
What is your advice for overcoming stress and depression?
I never went through depression. Depression means you can’t get up in the morning. I had to get up, get the kids to school and be at work at 7.30AM. So I didn’t have depression but I had a lot of sadness and rightly so, because I was scared and had to feed the kids. And then my ex-husband, after my divorce for 11 years, had me in lawsuits. That was exhausting and you live in constant fear. When it comes to depression, because I’m a dietician, and I’ve counseled patients for 45 years, and many of them were depressed and some had a reason, sometimes poor health, and I could help them eat better. If there is a reason for the depression, you need to talk it out. If it is because of things that have happened in the past, then I recommend they don’t continually complain about their past, because it just makes them less interesting.When it came to dating, every time I met a man, he would tell me about his miserable life and I would say, ‘I feel like I’m counseling, I am getting out of here!. When they want to date someone, men also need to be fun and have some kind of interest other than their miserable lives.
You have called Elon your ‘genius boy’ in your book. He got his first computer at 12, and learned to use it and wrote a computer program, BLASTAR. He published it at the age of 13. How did you see that interest in technology in him bloom?
I told people when he was three that he was a genius and people were like, ‘oh, you are such a mother’, because all mothers think like that. Then, I would say, ‘no, really’. He would read the encyclopaedia and remember everything in there, so he really was our encyclopaedia. I mean I can read a book and I would forget it soon afterwards but he does not forget those things. It was when he was 12 [that] he showed me his computer program when I was teaching modeling to university students. I showed it to some of the computer students and they said, ‘oh, he knows all the short cuts, it looks great’. So, I told him he had to submit the program to a magazine and he did. I don’t think they knew that he was only 13, and he got R500 for it; how cool is that?
What does it take to raise a billionaire?
I did not raise a billionaire – [Elon] was sleeping on the floor on a mattress. And that wasn’t his aim [to become a billionaire]. His aim is to save the planet and he also loves the thought of going to Mars. I raised all three of my kids the same way my parents raised me, to be independent, to make your own choices and be responsible for them, and also to take on work that will benefit other people. For example, Tosca has a platform called Passionflix and she takes best-selling romance novels and makes them into movies. In these movies, the women are paid as much as the men and they are strong, and confident and successful. They aren’t beaten up, violated and abused and there are always happy endings. It makes me feel good she is making movies that make people happy.
With Kimbal, besides his farm-to-table restaurants, which helps the farmers, he does vegetable gardens in underserved schools. He has built 650 vegetable gardens in schools; he wanted to do 1,000 by the end of the year, but of course, everything’s got delayed with the lockdown. The children get so excited to plant seeds and water them and pick them out of the ground and prepare them and eat them. I mean to get kids excited about vegetables; well, it makes a dietician like me very happy.
Your son Elon’s pioneering work is to one day inhabit Mars. Did you always see that interest in him for space? Do you share that with him?
I get very excited every step of the way. We all do. Kimbal and Tosca and I go to the main launches, we can’t go to all the launches, as Elon has launched, how many now… 50 rockets? I’m not sure. I lose track. But we go to the main ones, and we are anxious beforehand and excited afterwards and we are very proud of him and support him with all this. He just feels that we should be inter-planetary, starting with Mars. Mars seems to be the most friendly [planet], and that is what he would like to explore.
What do you call Elon Musk’s youngest son (whose name is X Æ A-12)?
I call him ‘X’. We are all still in quarantine so we are Covid-free. We see each other when we can but not as often we used to.
What next for Maye Musk?
I am just getting started and once the airports open up and will accept Americans into other countries, my book launch will go into all the major countries, hopefully South Africa too, and then I can give talks in [all these] different countries. The goal of my book is to inspire people to have happier lives.
What is the strength of South Africa’s women according to you?
I have always found South African women to be strong, confident and fun. I miss their sense of humor. They just need to support each other, and the men need to support women so they can advance, because when women advance, the country does better.