what is elon musk?

An Elon Musk Photo Diary

Has the world changed and/or has he changed?

Illustration: Cold War Steve
Illustration: Cold War Steve

Showman, chief executive, troll, international lover: The visual record of Elon Musk shows a man becoming ever-more resolute about who he is and how he should express himself. We reviewed the photographic literature on Musk and found a discernible history of big hustle. Also? If you look at thousands of pictures of Elon Musk, you become convinced that he’s really happy.

Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock

October 20, 2000

In this moment, everyone here has recently survived the Y2K bug, a hasty corporate merger, but has not yet experienced 9/11, though they are well into the great downward slide of the dot-com bust. Elon Musk is a newlywed, having married Justine Wilson at the start of the year. He is also newly a twice-fired CEO and about to nearly die from malaria. By his own account, Peter Thiel would take over as CEO of PayPal a few days after this photo. So Thiel is smiling because he has just deposed Musk and also has a retirement account with $2,000 invested in it that is, today, worth something like $5 billion that he may enjoy tax-free in 2027. The tech-founder myth is that pale and weak brainiacs found their ambition in computer labs, garages, and arcades. They were visionary enough to build wealth or products with difficult new technology while hirsute Chads played football and inherited car dealerships. Only later, in the flower of wealth and success, would this founder generation discover personal chefs and trainers, nutritionists and gym doctors — only later would they return as megawealthy alphas to dominate the physical and financial universes, shaming the stagnant and impoverished little men all around.

Photo: MediaNews Group via Getty Images

November 28, 2006
Number of children: Suddenly six

Could you buy a car from this man? No, you could not. For this is an early prototype of a Tesla Roadster, which would not be delivered to customers until 2008, the same year he would leave his first wife. Musk was already savvily using the courts for attention, splashily suing Lockheed and Boeing for monopoly operations to the detriment of his rocket company, SpaceX. A judge noted that Musk had no standing to sue since SpaceX, being but a vision, was not actually a competitor in any sense.

Photo: UK Press via Getty Images

June 25, 2009

Here is the archetype of a divorced dad — fitter, happier, etc. His jacket is either very expensive or very cheap. He had filed for divorce from Justine Wilson in 2008; together they’d had six children, including the son who’d died at just 10 weeks old. After the divorce, he’d text her six weeks later to say he was dating English actress Talulah Riley, who would become his wife two times (so far). Seen here at the premiere of the Knightsbridge Tesla operation, Riley is helping him demonstrate the intense asymmetry of physical-appearance requirements in the heterosexual world. Interestingly, Riley would go on to play a violently revengeful robot, destroying the careless and cruel humans of Westworld in service of a better far-off future. Here, she also exhibits the blondeness that Musk began to increasingly demand of his first wife.

Elon Musk, as understood by

A baffled, dazzled, incredulous public.


The towns and cities sold on a hyperloop.

His romantic partners.

Students at the tiny private school he inspired.

His most ardent supporters.

Wall Streeters who bet against him.

His 18,000 tweets.


His style sense.

Photo: Jim Young/REUTERS

April 15, 2010

Barack Obama is seen doing one of his dad jokes, clearly, while Musk is caught in a supplicant posture. He is on parade in a brown suit and an actual tie to be a big boy meeting the president. (Obama and Musk are nearly but not quite the same height; Musk is six-one, according to his authorized biography, which also describes him as “thick.”) At this time, SpaceX was campaigning for Obama’s proposed new NASA contracts, what Senator Richard Shelby described then as “a welfare program for the commercial space industry.” As it happens, corporate welfare was one of Obama’s favorite things!

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

June 29, 2010

On this day in history, Tesla made its initial public offering. Shares went for $17, and this picture, staged outside the NASDAQ marketing site in midtown, represents a man who can feel all his peacocks fluffing their feathers. The “stock shot up 41 percent in its first day of public trading,” reported Bloomberg. For this moment, he resembles his own idealized customer — wealthy enough to be casual, casual enough to try an experiment of a car, and with enough hair to feel youthful. “These geniuses always get their comeuppance,” former Ford, Chrysler, and GM honcho Bob Lutz said at the time.

Photo: 2013 Getty Images

November 13, 2013
TSLA: High of $28.47

But suburban cool bro and business dad aren’t fun looks or lives, and they’re not actually the marketing that Musk is suited for. Rocket man with a stern hairline is a better look, and also it seems to cause Musk actual joy to project an image that speaks of motorcycles, rockets, adventures. Dress for the job you want and you’ll work every day for the rest of your life. New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin knows it too.

Photo: Getty Images

November 8, 2016
TSLA: High of $39.50

Musk should wear supervillain clothing like this more often. But we’re really only looking at this 2016 photo to compare it to a photo taken three years later.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

November 16, 2017
TSLA: High of $63.63

In the summer of 2017, Musk did a big splashy conference to announce the Tesla 3. In November, he again took the stage, updating the Steve Jobs–iness of it all with highly masculine modern-maker turnout gear in keeping with the announcement of the big macho semi-truck looming over him. But this is the height of modern Musk choreographed imagery — through these years of product drops and stock-market gains, he looks clad and puppeteered by pros. Fortunately, he will soon blow this up. Beauty must have power over man. Messaging gets you sales, but chaos gets you everything.

Photo: Getty Images for SXSW

March 11, 2018
TSLA: Closed at $65.43

Here in Texas, in a bomber jacket and otherwise extremely masculinized garb for a surprise SXSW talk, Musk preached his global-betterment-through-capitalism gospel. “Life cannot just be about solving one miserable thing after another,” he said. This has not yet worked out, but there’s still time. Fun fact about Musk: With most celebrities, it’s usually possible to identify who makes their clothing. With Musk, it’s harder, though he often wears Belstaff waxed jackets. And when you do search for “who made elon musk’s leather jacket,” you get many shopping results for things like “ELON MUSK WINTER SHEARLING LEATHER JACKET” made by Americasuits–dot-com (now marked down to $189.99). See also “Tesla Event Elon Musk Leather Jacket” for $159 from Jacketars-dot-com. His power.

Photo: FilmMagic

May 7, 2018
TSLA: High of $61.19

The surprise unveiling of the chemically unstable Grimes-Musk alliance took place at the Met Gala in May 2018. She wore a glass corset that she would come to regret; she would later collaborate to produce about a fifth of his known children. He wore a decently tailored white dinner jacket that creepily-slash-trollily read “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on the back and — is that a boutonniere? Very prom. This appearance, more than his arrival with his model mother at the Vanity Fair Oscars party in 2017, elevated him to the category of actual bona fide celebrity.

Photo: dpa/picture alliance via Getty I

November 12, 2019
TSLA: High of $118.90

Here he is making the driving hands. But, exciting: It’s entirely possible that Musk is here wearing the same coat to the same auto awards event in Berlin in 2019 that he wore there in 2016. This provokes neat questions about the nature of the cosmos and about being extremely rich and extremely organized. Does he have a closet and/or storage space in Berlin? Does he have someone who keeps spreadsheets of what he wore and when? Is there a Musk coat archivist? Or is he just wearing similar coats?

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

January 7, 2020
TSLA: High of $94.33

On this day, Elon Musk first began being called the richest man in the world, stepping ahead of Jeff Bezos. And on that day, he did a little dance onstage in Shanghai, announcing the new Tesla Model Y, which would be assembled there. With an onrushing global pandemic, this was a display of what looked, for once, like poor timing. And yet, the Model Y would become the best-selling electric vehicle of 2021.

Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

March 9, 2020
TSLA: High of $132.60
Number of children: Still six, now with one imminent.

While the U.S. was just plunging into a pandemic that would kill nurses, cooks, truckers, and agricultural workers, Musk was at a satellite conference in Washington, D.C. His hair has become more fashy and undercut; his jawline is more defined, adding up to a badass, if shorter, version of Conan O’Brien.

Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

May 30, 2020
TSLA: Closed at $167
Number of children: He added a seventh this month, his first with Grimes.

Over this last decade, Musk learned a lot about embodiment and showmanship — doing the Jobs job at announcements, doing the “Monorail” song and dance in small towns around the world. The pandemic was irritating to Musk in many ways, depriving him not just of anticipated supply chains but also of venues and audiences. Sad! Here, he displays enthusiasm, joy, or simply victory at Falcon 9’s launch.

Photo: GC Images

October 23, 2020
TSLA: High of $422.89
Number of children: Seven.

Elon Musk’s bandanna, which he wears as a punky gaiter and faux mask in places where masking is required, is the symbol of his frustrations with conformity and obstacles. He feels threatened by what he thinks of as crowd-think — a classic trait among male entrepreneurs — and is rarely seen in a mask. Instead, he either has one black traditional bandanna that he wears constantly or he has literally hundreds of identical black bandannas (shades of Karl Lagerfeld’s iPods) that he wears constantly. This is his display of aggression in the face of being told what to do by people who know better (in this case, as is often the case in his life, actual scientists). Still, we can’t discount the idea that he’s invented a super-aerosol-filtering magic bandanna, although he has said he has had COVID at least twice.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

September 15, 2021
TSLA: High of $756.86
Number of children: Seven, with at least three in production involving at least two people, as far as we know at this time.

They did make Musk wear a mask with a SpaceX logo on the day he first launched a tourist crew into space. This crew included Jared Isaacman, who is or was a billionaire who privatized pilot training for the American military. Isaacman plans to return to space in December as leader of the Polaris Dawn crew; that mission will test communications with SpaceX’s StarLink satellites. There are at least 3,000 satellites in orbit already, as Musk builds an entire global private-internet structure to serve our descendants after we’re all killed by climate change and also has time to work on his forearms and become the most influential force on the current internet.

Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Im

February 10, 2022
TSLA: High of $943.81
Number of children: Publicly, eight; privately, at least ten.

The jawline. The belt buckle. The Berlin-going archvillain coat. The extremely, perhaps deranged, high share value. Would you not have a secret baby or three with this billionaire?

Photo: ThePhotOne/BACKGRID

July 16, 2022
TSLA: Closed at $730.87
Number of children: Ten?

And then. This summer, the photo that ignited a million ethical, somatotypical, and even phrenological questions: 61-year-old Ari Emanuel blasting 51-year-old Musk with a hose aboard a yacht. Is it wrong to tease or mock a billionaire? Is body-shaming always cruel, no matter how politically powerful the particular body? Does it matter if the body belongs to fingers that typed the tweet “in case u need to lose a boner fast” with a picture of Bill Gates alongside the pregnant-man emoji? Can a human body this wealthy sustain ethical injury? And: Should all whites be wearing a lot more sunscreen? Yes. For they are all more or less physically equal before the cruel laws of space and radiation, except for the foolish few who will someday regret to escape this burning cinder.

The media isn’t always sure how to properly handle the death of a child when counting children. Recently, the New York Post and People use 10 for the complete known total of Musk’s children, which seems right and respectful; Vanity Fair and the New York Times and others use 9, which has at best a hint of mercilessness. People hate grief.
An Elon Musk Journey in Photos