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How Elon Musk became a new kind of celebrity

Jai Pollard-Watkins became an Elon Musk fan in 2014, at the ripe old age of 10.

Growing up in Atlanta, he was playing the video game “EpicDuel” and came upon a villain character named Elon Musk wearing “this futuristic, like, armor suit,” Pollard-Watkins says. He was “like Iron Man, but on steroids.” It didn’t take long for him to discover that this “Elon Musk” was the game designers’ tribute to a real Elon Musk, then a sort of niche tech-world hero.

Soon afterward, Pollard-Watkins developed an extracurricular interest in astronomy, gobbling up news about Musk’s private space-exploration company, SpaceX. It was a solitary hobby. “No one’s into astronomy,” he says with a laugh. But in the late 2010s, something surprising happened: Rappers started name-checking Musk in their lyrics, and soon Pollard-Watkins’s friends were talking about Musk, too.

Now, “Elon Musk is that guy,” gushes Pollard-Watkins, 18, who now lives in Barbados and recently graduated high school. He’s everywhere. Everybody knows him. “He’s, like, the Drake of business.”

Musk has always stood apart from other software geeks, beyond just his focus on hardware and hard problems. His image as an eccentric inventor informed Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Iron Man, and in 2010, he made a cameo in “Iron Man 2.” Then there were Musk’s much-publicized relationships with actresses Amber Heard and Talulah Riley and the musician Grimes — and, of course, his rise to becoming the world’s official richest person.

He’s attended the Met Gala. He’s hosted “Saturday Night Live.” He’s posed with Kanye in orange-themed outfits.

But over the past five years, Musk transformed from tech-famous to famous-famous to what one could call “red pill” famous. “Take the red pill,” he tweeted in 2020, a reference to the tablet in the “The Matrix” that has become associated with a conversion to right-wing views. On Twitter, where his following has nearly doubled in the past year to just over 100 million, Musk trolls the woke and hypes up fellow free-speech fans in a way that leaves one guessing. But is the world’s richest man officially right wing or doing it for the lulz? Did he really plan on paying $44 billion for Twitter or was it always a lark? Though Musk filed to kill the deal and Twitter’s board is suing to enforce the merger, the saga has helped expand Musk’s reach as a pop-culture figure — one whose journey through those three phases of fame has made him a unique combination of influential executive, oddball celebrity and polarizing internet provocateur.

Most tech billionaires can’t engage in online provocation, because it would risk hurting their businesses. And Musk’s internet antics have cost him, too. He has been fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for his tweets and some SpaceX employees signed a letter calling his public behavior distracting and embarrassing. But Musk had already cultivated a cult of personality through his companies, and his instinctive, unfiltered tweets also helped him diversify his following into “crypto bros,” Trump supporters, and critics who can’t look away, all of whom follow him just as fiercely as aspiring start-up founders once copied his sleeping habits.

Jack Dorsey may hang out on Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s yacht, Mark Zuckerberg may own a chunk of Hawaii, Bill Gates may have world leaders on speed dial. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, may — like Musk — mingle with stars on Oscar night and have his own space-exploration company. But only Musk has fans that would mob any critic who questions their techno-king.

In other words, Musk is not a traditional celebrity so much as an online influencer, a fitting crossover for an era when a wealthy TV star like Donald Trump can tweet his way to the White House and tech billionaires seem to spend more time on social media than sequestered on their yachts.

“I’m old enough to remember a certain time in history when billionaires were reclusive,” says Lainey Lui, founder of the celebrity-gossip website LaineyGossip. “Culture in general has always been interested in very wealthy people and their lives. … ‘What would it be like to have all that money? How do they spend it?’ ” As a result, many use their extraordinary wealth to buy extraordinary privacy. But instead of going the Howard Hughes route, Lui says, “here’s a billionaire who’s actually running towards the heat.”

In this 2000 photo, PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, left, and founder Elon Musk pose at PayPal corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Musk, 51, first made a name for himself in Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, when he co-founded the internet city-guide site Zip2 (which was purchased by Compaq for about $350 million in 1999) and the online bank (which later became PayPal, and was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion). In the 2000s, his visibility increased when he founded SpaceX and became the CEO of the electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla. In the mid-2010s, after years of struggle and uncertainty, Musk’s success with SpaceX and Tesla turned him into an entrepreneurial icon, who seemed to single-handedly reinvigorate interest in futuristic electric cars and rockets to space, the stuff of American dreams.

It didn’t hurt that Teslas also became a luxury good: Lui says Musk’s star began to rise “coinciding with the consumer public looking into Teslas, wanting Teslas, … Teslas becoming this thing that you would own for status.”

Search Amazon for “Elon Musk biography” these days, and you’ll find yourself swamped with several dozen offerings, even more than what the site turns up about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, on Instagram and Reddit, fan accounts and forums devoted to Musk now have followers numbering in the millions.

Machine Gun Kelly and Tyler, the Creator have name-dropped Musk in song; the hook of Lil Uzi Vert’s 2017 track “Neon Guts” goes, “Higher than Elon Musk, so high stars eat our dust.”

Ashlee Vance, the author of the acclaimed biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” points to 2018 as the inflection point in Musk’s celebrity. That’s the year Musk smoked weed on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast in an Occupy Mars T-shirt, which is still the most popular video on Rogan’s YouTube channel. Like Musk, Rogan has found a rabid online audience with hard-to-categorize right-leaning politics and spread covid misinformation.

“He just decided to let much more of his personality loose on Twitter,” said Vance of Musk, “and to embrace this role as part philosopher, part troll.”

“I think that’s complicated his life and complicated the stories around the businesses pretty dramatically,” Vance adds. “He’s become such a polarizing figure, almost this religious-type figure, where you either love him or hate him, and there doesn’t seem to be much room in between.”

Musk and Grimes attend the Met Gala in May 2018 in New York City. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Every time his companies stabilize, Musk goes all in and risks everything, Vance pointed out. Now he seems to be deploying the same strategy with his persona, and relishing it. “He’s always trying to one-up himself and go bigger and bigger and bigger.” (Musk did not respond to a request for comment for this report.)

The year 2018 was also when Musk showed up to the Met Gala with Grimes, with whom he has two children with the unorthodox names X Æ A-Xii and Exa Dark Sideræl. He also gained a reputation for attaching himself to media sensations, pledging that his companies would assist a 2018 mission to free 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand (earning criticism for calling one rescuer a “pedo”) and in 2019 sharing a new rap track with his name attached to it titled “RIP Harambe,” in reference to the late Cincinnati gorilla. (It was later revealed to be performed by the L.A.-based rapper Yung Jake.) In early 2020, he released an EDM track on SoundCloud titled “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe.” That summer, after Kanye West shared the viral photo of him and Musk (caption: “When you go to your boys house and you’re both wearing orange”), Musk voiced his support for West’s much-publicized bid for the presidency.

Musk’s SNL hosting gig in 2021 gave him another turn at pop culture’s center stage, though multiple members of the cast and crew expressed disapproval at his invitation; in an Instagram story, cast member Andrew Dismukes wrote, “ONLY CEO I WANT TO DO A SKETCH WITH IS Cher-E Oteri.” Musk’s embrace of memes on social media — “Who controls the memes, controls the Universe,” he tweeted in 2020 — has also annoyed creatives for his habit of cropping out their name when he shares their work.

Musk’s turn in the limelight has also further elevated the profile of his mother, Maye, a longtime model. She appeared with him at Met Galas and on SNL, and was also featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Meanwhile, a big boost to Musk’s online popularity happened when he rode the wave of interest in crypto in early 2021, said Jason Urgo, chief executive of Social Blade, a social media analytics firm. The same month that Tesla announced it would accept bitcoin, Musk started tweeting about another cryptocurrency, dogecoin, and its price hit a high. This seeming influence allowed Musk to “tap into a completely different market of people,” namely the crypto crowd, Urgo said.

Musk also got a viral boost by inserting himself in another 2021 financial frenzy, when individual investors banded together to drive up the share price of GameStop stock. After the trading app Robinhood halted its trading of GameStop, leading to mass outrage, Musk took up the cause of retail traders and grilled the Robinhood CEO live on the audio app Clubhouse — casting himself as a populist hero of these small-time traders, all in the wee hours of the morning, another Musk specialty.

Twitter, however, is where Musk made his “Take the red pill” declaration. “Taken!” Ivanka Trump replied. Despite seeming to have a fine relationship with Democrats during the Obama administration and hold some liberal views, Musk has recently taken aim at the left and embraced Republican causes useful to his companies, such as fewer coronavirus restrictions, less regulation and lower taxes. He tweeted in March 2020 that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and two months later proceeded to reopen the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., in defiance of local mandates. The president, Trump, tweeted his approval.

Musk also began interacting with right-wing accounts, including Benny Johnson and the Babylon Bee, and parroting conservative views by questioning trans rights and tweeting that “the woke mind virus will destroy civilization.” He said in May that if he were to buy Twitter, he’d reverse the ban on Trump, who was kicked off the platform because of the “risk of further incitement of violence” after a mob of the president’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A whole new subset of Americans were now rooting for Musk.

Ever since the deal soured, however — and since Musk indicated that he was leaning toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in the 2024 presidential election — Musk has been openly feuding with the former president. Trump called Musk a “bulls— artist” at a July 9 rally, to which Musk responded on Twitter, “I don’t hate the man, but it’s time for Trump to hang up his hat & sail into the sunset.” Trump posted Tuesday on Truth Social that during his presidency, Musk had come to him asking for help with his subsidized “driverless cars that crash, or rocketships to nowhere.” “I could have said, ‘drop to your knees and beg,’ ” Trump wrote, “and he would have done it.” Musk’s response when Vance tweeted a screenshot of Trump’s post: “Lmaooo.”

Certainly, the pair’s relationship was quietly fraught for a while: After a SpaceX launch at the Kennedy Space Center in May 2020, Trump spoke to a large crowd that included several high-profile Florida Republicans. Trump called on Musk, in the audience, to stand up, but when Musk received a rowdier cheer from the rest of the crowd than Trump had, Trump attempted to curtail it: “Sit down, Elon.”

In recent months, Musk has brushed off a succession of scandals. In May, he greeted an allegation reported by Insider that he propositioned and exposed himself to a flight attendant (which he has denied) with a crude joke about genitalia. When the news broke earlier this month that he fathered twins with an executive at his brain-implant start-up, Neuralink, he tweeted, “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis.”

The headline-grabbing Twitter saga threatens to further Musk’s reputation as a purveyor of provocations. Musk initially cast himself as the swashbuckling iconoclast shaking up a stagnant company with his take-it-or-leave-it purchase offer. Fanboys were sure he was playing 4D chess. But after he tried to back out of the deal, complaining of a lack of information on bot accounts, Twitter’s lawsuit argues that he gave no regard to hurting the reputation of a company that he had a fiduciary duty to protect. Musk tweeted in response: “Oh the irony lol.”

Musk and his mother, Maye, arrive for the Met Gala in May in New York City. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Although his follower count has risen, some see Musk’s rightward shift as dimming his star with mass audiences. Book agent Howard Yoon said readers initially gravitated toward Musk because people love the idea that geniuses exist, and his fixation on saving the planet set him apart from other Silicon Valley CEOs, Yoon said. “Now he’s just some culture warrior.”

Hammad Ahmed, 32, became a Musk fan when he was in college, around 2009. He quickly began comparing Musk to Steve Jobs, another tech hero he admired. Tesla had impressed him, SpaceX even more so. “I think for me what really stood out was just how broadly ambitious his goals were,” recalls Ahmed, an equity trader in Houston.

Ahmed began to reassess his support for Musk in 2020, when Musk began questioning the U.S. government’s coronavirus protections. Given the following that Musk had amassed by then on the platform, “I just felt like it was a bit irresponsible for him to be engaging in that way, especially because of how serious things were at the time,” Ahmed says. “I felt like it was maybe just adding to a lot of the misinformation noise that was there.”

For some fans, though, the newfound and controversial outspokenness that has accompanied Musk’s rise has only solidified his status as legend, phenomenon, the Man. Pollard-Watkins, for instance, sees it as a quality that sets him apart from other mega-successful entrepreneurs.

“He’s one of the very few billionaires that, like, the cat doesn’t have their tongue, you know what I’m saying?” Pollard-Watkins says. “It’s my favorite thing about him.”


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