On Friday morning at 9:30 a.m., Maye Musk was on her way to her final fitting for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala, which she’d be attending for the first time.
“Some shoot days start at 7 in the morning, so this isn’t early for me,” she said over the phone. Musk's voice is buttery and charming, yet authoritative. For the interview, she wore no makeup, black jeans (“really tight jeans,” she emphasized, at the recommendation of her stylist of 25 years Julia Perry), a black shirt, a leather jacket, and a fringed shawl. The only distinguishing sign of age is her snowy white hair.
At 68 years old, Musk has only just embarked on a new phase of her career. Over the weekend, she announced she signed with international talent agency IMG Models, one of the most prestigious in the industry.
“Suddenly there’s a demand for models in their sixties,” she said — not that the lack of demand seems to have hindered her thus far. With piercing eyes, arched brows, and just a hint of crow’s feet, she’s a self-professed chameleon on camera. Her likeness was splashed across Virgin America billboards nation-wide last year, and her work has run the gamut from sweet, family-oriented catalogue images to more recent, edgy, Tilda Swinton-esque drama. (Her resume includes both a Beyoncé video and a fantastical, witchy shoot for C Magazine.)
If her name sounds familiar, it might be thanks to her son, tech mogul and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, but Maye has been in the public eye since long before she became a mother. (“I was famous until Elon became famous,” she told the New York Times.) She began modeling at age 15 in Praetoria, South Africa — and she’s been in the game for more than five decades.
“I was a nerdy student,” she said of her early start. A friend’s mother asked her to model while she was still in high school, but “because I was such a good student, I wouldn’t take off any school.” She became adept at fitting modeling in on weekends and holidays, a skill that would prove to her advantage as she juggled a career as a registered dietician with surplus work as a model.
“I always said modeling was the foam on top,” she recalled, adding that most of her work appeared in catalogues or on the runway. Her nutrition practice paid the rent; modeling allowed her family to take the occasional modest vacation.
Her intertwining careers occasionally placed her in a double bind when agencies referred their models to her practice: “Sometimes, a model would come and see me and she’d say, ‘I have to drop 10 pounds because I want to do couture work,’” Musk said, adding that it saddened her to see young women succumb to industry pressures.
But Musk hasn’t experienced that pressure to conform, she said. Quite the opposite: Her career has thrived on the certain cachet that her size and age lend her.
“I’m considered a huge model because I’m a size six,” she said, candidly. “But … I had a standard body size for catalogues.” With a dearth of older models, Musk often flies around to various gigs, sometimes walking as many as eight shows in a single day.
Over her five decades of experience, Musk has also observed the industry’s evolving beauty standards.
“In the beginning, it was pretty. You had to be pretty to be a model,” she said. “Nowadays, you have to be interesting.” What happens off the runway might be just as important as a model's look; girls who also do relief work have become popular, and social media has changed the role of personal branding. For evidence, look no further than Liya Kebede, the Ethiopian model who moonlights as a maternal health activist, and Katie Moore, the Alexander Wang model whose daring haircut suddenly placed her in high demand.
This mold also applies to multihyphenate Musk herself: in addition to her work as a dietician and nutritionist and her modeling, she speaks Afrikaans, Dutch, German, and French. She’s also a savvy Instagrammer with over 15,000 followers, posting a range of selfies, throwbacks, editorial clips, and behind-the-scenes shots to her account @mayemusk.
Her work has become more varied in recent years. She’s increasingly turned to modeling, and her schedule has grown unpredictable, forcing her to forego her dietary practice. She now teaches at a private school in Los Angeles, which affords her more flexibility, and she gives the occasional talk. But the emphasis is now on fashion. She let her natural hair color grow in eight years ago, when she turned 60, a move that may have lent a hand in revitalizing her career. It’s now Marie Antoinette-white, the kind of pure color that one might think only exists in the form of a powdered wig.
“You have to change — you have to always be updated,” she said.
Since then, she walked her first New York Fashion Week, for Malan Breton Spring 2016; she signed with a new manager and then with IMG; and she was featured in Beyoncé’s 2013 video “Haunted.”
Working with Beyoncé was true cloak-and-dagger, “highly secret,” Musk said. “You weren’t allowed to say anything about it; you weren’t allowed to know anything about it.” At midnight, she received a call directing her to a Los Angeles parking lot at 6 a.m. From there, she was bussed to a separate location for wardrobe and filming. Though she appears just three times, each just a brief flash in the video’s proto-American Horror Story fantasy, she strikes an eerie figure in a white gown and shawl, sky-high heels adorned with black crosses, and a massive, spiky necklace dangling from her neck.
Musk’s upcoming projects have a Beyoncé-like cone of silence. She couldn’t name names — or even really genre (“a really cool catalogue” and “a really cool beauty product” were all she could say) — but she assured me they’re excellent.
But first, it's the Met Gala, where Musk will make her debut in something fabulous and modern, of course.