Who is Elon Musk? The story behind the controversial billionaire who is never far from the headlines

Elon Musk (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
Elon Musk (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

THIS year, Elon Musk has never been far from the headlines. But who exactly is he?

The billionaire is best known for being a co-founder of PayPal and electric car company Tesla, as well as his endeavours with SpaceX.

But, as with the man he once advised in the White House Donald Trump, he’s proven that it’s dangerous to let billionaires loose on Twitter.

Born in South Africa, the son of a Canadian mother and a South African father, he spent his early childhood there until moving to Canada aged 17 to attend university.

He ended up with an undergraduate degree in economics and a second bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania.

He dropped out of Stanford after just two days of his PhD in energy physics during the Internet boom to concentrate on his first company, Zip2 Corporation, which made online city guides.

He founded online payment site X.com in 1999, which later became PayPal, which was sold to eBay in 2002 for close to $180 million.

The same year, he founded SpaceX, and in 2003 Tesla, where, Musk is the co-founder, CEO and product architect.

He has a net worth of around $20.2 billion dollars and is in the top 50 of Forbes’ rich list.

The 41-year-old has five sons with his first wife Justine Wilson. He married actress Talulah Riley twice, and is now divorced again.

He has also dated actress Alison Heard and singer Grimes.

Musk was a multi-millionaire by his late 20s, having sold start-up company Zip2 to Compaq Computers.

He first really rose to prominence in international news back in 2012 when SpaceX launched a rocket that would send the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station.

It’s one of a number of outer space endeavours of varying degrees of usefulness Musk has been behind, with ambitions of one day landing humans on Mars.

His company successfully managed to launch and land a reusable rocket, but also just sent a Tesla car into space because, well, they could.

He appears to be equal parts innovator, revered in some engineering circles, while also fitting the classic eccentric rich man trope – perfectly encapsulated by his decision to sell flamethrowers to the public for $500.

A controversial figure, social media has highlighted some high-profile, and at times bizarre incidents involving the Tesla founder, who has 22.4 million Twitter followers.

This includes an announcement that he was taking the company private, which he has since gone back on, and calling the boss of an online Tesla critic to complain about them.

In May he suggested that he could set up a site called Pravda, which would rank journalists and newspapers on their credibility, an idea widely criticised.

It was also revealed in July that he donates to the Republican party, despite them not aligning with his political beliefs.

Musk claimed that his financial input would meant they’d listen to him when talking about issues including climate change.

“A nominal annual amount goes out automatically to both parties to maintain dialogue,” he said, saying that he was registered as an Independent.

Perhaps the most high profile social media incident came when Musk assembled a team of engineers to build a submarine to assist in the Thai cave rescue.

The craft was never used, however, and was condemned by a British diver involved in the rescue mission as a PR stunt.

In now deleted tweets, Musk reacted by labelling the marine expert, Vern Unsworth, ‘pedo guy’.

The Tesla CEO was forced to apologise by investors in his company and in the face of mounting public pressure as well as possible legal action from Unsworth.

But he recently reignited the row, tweeting: “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me? He was offered free legal services.”

A bizarre saga also unfolded on social media when rapper Azealia Banks tweeted intimate details of Musk and Grimes’ personal life while she was staying at the billionaire’s home.

She had apparently grown increasingly frustrated when Grimes allegedly failed to show up there to collaborate on some new music. She later issued a letter of apology.

And just today, Musk appeared to smoke marijuana briefly on camera during a podcast appearance with US comedian Joe Rogan.

His appearance on the show fuelled critics who believe that his behaviour is becoming increasingly concerning and erratic.

This, coupled with resignations of high-profile executives within the company, caused Tesla shares to fall by nine per cent.