China is mixed on Elon Musk—but they sure love his mom

Maye Musk. (Photo: Getty Images via AFP)
Maye Musk. (Photo: Getty Images via AFP)


At 76, Maye Musk is a surprising celebrity in the country, and the tycoon’s secret weapon.

HONG KONG—Elon Musk has many problems in China. His 76-year-old mom isn’t one of them.

Maye Musk, the enigmatic tycoon’s mother, enjoys a surprising celebrity status across the country. Her autobiography, “A Woman Makes A Plan," skyrocketed to the top of China’s bestseller lists in recent years. Crowds pack in to hear her speak. Even the Chinese government sings her praises.

With her striking silver hair, the former model is admired for her bold looks, interesting life story, and of course, for raising one of the world’s richest individuals. Companies now clamor for Maye Musk to pitch their Chinese products, from smartphones to pen-shaped translation devices.

Last month, she drew widespread interest from a single photo she uploaded to China’s version of Instagram, showing her holding a massage waistband. More than 140,000 units of the $200 device sold online, and influencers posted videos with it. One bragged: “Same as Elon Musk’s Mom."

These gushy feelings aren’t, however, quite extended to her famous son.

Beijing’s military has lambasted Elon Musk’s work supporting the U.S. with SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, urging American companies to “not help a villain do evil." Tesla’s electric-vehicle sales have slid in the country. He even needed to travel to Beijing recently to personally win local approval for the firm’s autonomous-driving projects.

Maye and Elon Musk appear to be close. He posts about her achievements and has been known to call her his hero. Meanwhile, she is something of his secret weapon, with her China charm offensive often coming to the rescue.

On Mother’s Day, she posted stunning photos from a Shanghai high-rise overlooking the city’s jagged skyline. One featured a bouquet of Juliet roses from Elon—signed “Love. E"—exploding with pinks, apricots and creams, matching the paint colors of Tesla EV’s shown in another photo. “People love their Teslas everywhere I go," Maye noted in her post.

Her visit followed Elon’s trip to meet top Chinese officials, to press for a deal that would allow Tesla to roll out its “Full Self-Driving," or FSD software, in China. Tesla has since obtained a license to have some of its vehicles test out the software in Shanghai, according to Chinese state press.

Last year, mom Musk played her son’s warm-up act, touring Tesla’s Shanghai gigafactory ahead of his arrival—and generating internet buzz. “In a way she’s acting as Tesla’s ambassador and marketing its products," said David Zhang, Secretary-General for the International Intelligent Vehicle Engineering Association in China.

China’s ‘Perfect Idol’

Maye Musk was born 1948 in Canada, and by her teens had launched a modeling career that propelled her to the Miss South Africa finals. After Elon, she had two other children, Kimbal, who now sits on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX, and Tosca, a filmmaker. In her autobiography, Maye describes her struggles as a young mother facing domestic violence and divorce. But later in life, she earned two master’s degrees and became a registered dietitian.

That story of perseverance has made her the “perfect idol" for urban, middle-class Chinese women, who are expected to juggle success at home and the office while remaining physically attractive, according to Altman Peng, a gender-studies scholar at the U.K.’s University of Warwick.

Maye Musk’s star power reaches the highest levels. When she suggested in February that more people visit China, the country’s ambassador to the U.S. retweeted it on X. The Brussels bureau chief of the state-run China Daily, who describes the U.S. online as the leader of the “world’s Axis of Evil," gushed with pride at her Shanghai trip. “Elon’s mom very coool," he raved, adding an extra “o" for emphasis.

Through her manager, she declined to comment. In an interview last month with Sports Illustrated, where she has graced the annual swimsuit edition including on the cover in recent years, she described herself as hardworking, honest and fun. “I love being a woman," she said. “I am appreciated most of the time.

In China, her social-media game rivals the singer Rihanna’s. When Chinese makeup artist Nadira Aisikaer got tapped to glam Maye Musk up for an event in Milan last summer, she got star-struck, and “so nervous about meeting the mother of one of the world’s richest men."

“Chinese people like women whose image is elegant and sophisticated," she added. “Western celebrities who are too sexy or bold can’t get far in China."

Proximity to Maye briefly made Aisikaer a celebrity in her own right. A video of her being interviewed about her experience exploded on China’s version of TikTok, racking up 1.4 million likes.

Better Than ‘Getting Married’

Chinese handbag brand Oleada collaborated with Maye Musk on a limited collection taglined “From Boardroom to Ballroom." The pieces include a silver purse “reminiscent of Maye’s signature hair color," according to the company’s website.

Oleada co-founder Tiffany Zhou, posted a launch-party photo of the pair, gushing in Chinese, “Happier to stand with top billionaire’s mom Maye Musk than getting married."

Beijing resident Flora Supe counts herself among the biggest fans of Elon’s mom. She’s pored over Maye’s autobiography repeatedly, drawing strength from it as she endured Covid-19 lockdowns and a move to the capital.

Whenever she feels anxious, lost or sad, she thinks of Maye Musk. “She’s my only idol," Flora said. “She’s my lighthouse."

Zhao Yueling contributed to this article.

Write to Selina Cheng at

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