He’s the billionaire owner of Tesla who has just launched a rocket into space – but all he really wants is to find a girlfriend

At a photoshoot last year, Elon Musk’s stylist asked him to wear a black turtleneck. He refused, forcefully. “If I was dying and I had a turtleneck on,” he said, “with my last dying breath I would take the turtleneck off and try to throw it as far away from my body as possible.”

The black turtleneck, of course, was the trademark garb of the eccentric Apple founder Steve Jobs – and there are three men who Elon Musk hates being compared to: Jobs, the fictional billionaire turned Iron Man superhero Tony Stark and Errol Musk, Elon’s estranged father. He clearly has a complicated relationship with men.

He also has a complicated relationship with women. He fathered six children – a son, who died at ten weeks in 2002, twins and triplets – with his first wife, Canadian author Justine Wilson. He met his second wife, the actress Talulah Riley, in 2008, married her in 2010, divorced her two years later, remarried her the next year, then filed for divorce again, then withdrew the filing, then refiled for divorce and finally followed through with it in 2016.

And friendship? That’s complicated. Musk was viciously bullied in school – once he was beaten so badly he was taken to the hospital. The hardest part, he recalls, was that “they got my best friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that hurt.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, his problems with people, he has dedicated his life to saving the human race. In February, Musk’s ambition came a whole lot closer. His rocket-building company SpaceX successfully launched into orbit the Falcon Heavy; the most powerful operational rocket in the world with the power to lift a mass greater than a 737-jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel. Only the Saturn V moon rocket – last flown in 1973 – delivered more payload to orbit. The Falcon Heavy is a remarkable achievement, yet for Musk it’s just the beginning of his journey into space. He fired his rocket at Mars (although he overshot slightly) to prove that manned missions to the Red Planet were possible. The 46-year-old South African-born entrepreneur claims that he will be living on Mars when he is in his fifties.

The Falcon Heavy’s payload was another insane Musk dream: a Tesla Roadster, the first all-electric sports car, with a spacesuit-clad human dummy at the wheel, a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment and David Bowie’s Space Oddity on loop. A typical Silicon Valley flourish. Musk is a figure of worship on the west coast, as probably the only person who has started four billion-dollar companies: Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX and the solar panel manufacturer Solar City. Yet he’s uneasy in tech-bro company. “I don’t actually like to disrupt, that sounds . . . disruptive,” he told me once, having been introduced at a conference as a master of disruption – Valleyspeak for new, aggressive companies that destroy older incumbents. His focus was so intense that it made conversation disconcerting. His nervous energy was palpable and he turned quickly away after saying, with a shrug: “I’m much more inclined to say, ‘How can we make things better?’”

So, while almost every Silicon Valley billionaire says they want to make the world a better place, few have backed their dream as quickly, recklessly and ultimately as successfully as Musk. The conventional accounts of his career focus on the goals he’s rushing towards. The truth is that what he’s running away from is more significant. You can flip all of Musk’s achievements into a desire to escape just as fast as he can.

Musk was born in Pretoria to the model and dietician Maye Musk – who is still a regular on the catwalk at aged 69 – and the South African engineer Errol Musk. For his first eight years, he rarely saw either of them. He withdrew so often into his own world that he was thought to be deaf. In fact, he was lonely. “I didn’t really have a primary nanny or anything,” he has said. “I just had a housekeeper who was there to make sure I didn’t break anything. She wasn’t, like, watching me. I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed. I’m shocked that I have all my fingers. I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents.”

When his parents split up, his younger brother and sister, Kimbal and Tosca, stayed with their mother, but Musk felt sorry for his father, who seemed very sad and lonely, so he moved in with him. “But I didn’t really understand at the time what kind of person he was,” he said recently. “It was not a good idea. He was such a terrible human being.”

School was no better than home. His childhood nickname was “Genius Boy” after he sold his first video game at the age of 12. He was the youngest and smallest in his year and was relentlessly bullied as a result. Leaving South Africa at the age of 17, he used his mother’s Canadian citizenship to secure a place studying physics in Ontario, transferring to Pennsylvania to finish his studies. His college friend Adeo Ressi recalled that “Elon was the biggest dork I’ve ever met. He’s de-dorkified by a hundredfold. I was able to hang out with him, but back then it was kind of painful. He literally was the straightedge; didn’t drink… I’d always be, like, ‘Elon, I think the police are here. Can you go deal with it?’ And he’s, like, ‘Sure. I’m fine.’”

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After college, he headed to California with Kimbal to launch his first million-dollar company, Zip2, in 1995. It wasn’t easy. “I remember trying to get funding, and most of the venture capitalists we met with in Silicon Valley had never used the internet,” he said recently. “Never, for anything. They’d heard of it, but they didn’t know. Literally, if you said, ‘Tell me something about the internet,’ they were like…nothing. I was pretty amazed. But there was quite a big change that occurred right at the end of ’95 when Netscape went public. So, the second time my brother and I tried to find funding, everyone we met with was interested.”

Compaq eventually paid him $22 million for his seven per cent stake in Zip2 in 1999. He used it to co-found what would eventually become Paypal. Paypal gave him the money to found SpaceX, then Tesla, then Solar City, then Hyperloop – which proposes to make reduced pressure tubes to carry passenger capsules underground from New York to Washington DC – as well as OpenAI and the telepathy chip start-up Neuralink.

At every step people have doubted him – with the exception of his mother, Maye, who claims that she encouraged all her children to be entrepreneurs. When Musk left South Africa, his father told him he would fail in Canada. He was ousted as chief executive from Zip2 in 1996. Paypal was voted one of the ten worst business ideas in 1999. He was ousted from Paypal a year later. His early rockets exploded and early Tesla cars had problems with spontaneous battery combustion. And he takes it all personally. When he hears that Wall Street is shorting Tesla – betting it will fail, in other words – he says it’s “hurtful”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s his relationships that fail. When the journalist Neil Strauss interviewed Musk last year, the first question he asked was how it felt to launch the Tesla Model 3 – how did he feel standing on stage telling the world he had just bootstrapped a mass-market electric car? Musk struggled to answer, before confessing. “I just broke up with my girlfriend. I was really in love and it hurt bad,” he said, talking about the actress Amber Heard. “Well, she broke up with me more than I broke up with her, I think. I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the past few weeks. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then tell myself, ‘I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!’

He asked Strauss to suggest or even introduce him to possible girlfriends because, he said, “It’s so hard for me to even meet people. I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate, that kind of thing. It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there – and no one on the pillow next to you. When I was a child there’s one thing I said . . . ‘I never want to be alone.’

There’s an echo of this in his business philosophy. “A lot of my motivation comes from looking at things that don’t work well and feeling a bit sad about how it would manifest in the future,” he has said. “If that would result in an unhappy future, then it makes me unhappy, so I want to fix it.” Certainly he is as much a hard-headed businessman as a dreamer. He admits that he expected SpaceX and Tesla to fail, but was canny enough to walk out of negotiations with the Russian rocket builder Kosmotras when he realised that he could build a rocket for less than five per cent of the market price. SpaceX rose, well, like a rocket. His Falcon 1, launched in 2008, was the first privately funded rocket to reach orbit and was followed by the launch and recovery of Dragon, the future replacement for the Space Shuttle.

“Working with him isn’t a comfortable experience,” says Dolly Singh, the former head of talent acquisition at SpaceX. “He is never satisfied with himself, so he is never really satisfied with anyone around him. He pushes himself harder and harder and he pushes others around him the exact same way. So, if you work for Elon you have to accept the discomfort. But in that discomfort, is the kind of growth you can’t get anywhere else, and worth every ounce of blood and sweat.” And Musk dreams of growth in a way that few CEOs have. All of his achievements, he insists, are steps on the road to his goal of a full colonisation of Mars, requiring AI-guided space travel, electric vehicles and solar power. Why? Because he fears we’re on the brink of destruction, citing global war, a technology collapse and climate change as existential threats. “There’s a window where we have an opportunity to establish a self-sustaining base on Mars,” he reasons, “before something happens to drive the technology level on Earth below where it’s possible.”

Climate change is big with Musk. His libertarian Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel is close friends with Donald Trump and persuaded Musk to join the president’s industry advisory panel. Musk resigned last summer in protest at the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement. There are many who complain that his dream of “a backup planet” would make us less likely to keep Earth clean. And other controversies are looming, including sex discrimination suits against Tesla in the Valley. There was outrage when he downloaded a software patch that extended the battery lifespan in Tesla cars during Hurricane Irma, proving that you may pay a lot of money for a Tesla, but Musk can do whatever he wants to the thing; he’s always the guy who owns it. A lot of his critics, however, misunderstand his motives.

As he sat by himself in Pretoria waiting for someone to come and be with him, Musk consoled himself with physics books, superhero comics, bottle rockets and toy sports cars. He waited and moved and waited and moved and no matter where he went or what he’s done no one has come to stay with him. “He’s kind of homeless, which I think is sort of funny,” the Google co-founder and Musk’s friend Larry Page said recently. “He’ll email and say, ‘I don’t know where to stay tonight. Can I come over?’ I haven’t given him a key or anything yet.”