Brow Beat

Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes Sold Certainty and Sex Appeal

It’s the kind of catastrophe that happens when millennial influencer culture meets old-school male hubris.

Elizabeth Holmes.
Elizabeth Holmes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize.

This year has gifted us with a trio of documentaries about con-artist millennials. First, Netflix and Hulu delivered competing dives into Billy McFarland’s disastrous Fyre Festival, and on Monday night, HBO premiered The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Alex Gibney’s eerie examination of the downfall of Theranos, the blood-testing startup founded by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes at age 19. The lionizing of Holmes and the extremely long leash Theranos was given to test its janky (at best) technology on actual living people are the catastrophes that happen when millennial influencer culture meets old-school male hubris. Take the clueless arrogance of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial and imagine it as a “revolutionary” medical business espoused by President Bill Clinton and financially backed by, of all people, war criminal Henry Kissinger, and you have something like Theranos.

The Theranos promise sure was sweet. The pitch: At your local Walgreens (the first big business to partner with the startup), more than 200 medical conditions could be tested using just a few drops of blood, all processed by a little printer-looking machine called the Edison. Sounds great, right? Access to your own health status (that you’re not qualified to interpret)! Cut out the middle person (in this case, a highly trained M.D.)! The problem was the Edison was a blood-splattered malfunctioning nightmare; one Theranos whistleblower in The Inventor recalls worrying that it might puncture her skin with a tainted pipette if she reached inside to fix it. None of that stopped Theranos from collecting blood at Walgreens and testing it with an unreliable combination of the Edison and traditional machines utilized by Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, the very competitors it was trying to make obsolete. Results were then released to the unsuspecting public so they could be “empowered” to make totally ill-informed health decisions. Go, disruption!

I interviewed Holmes for Elle in May 2015, when her credibility was still as high as Theranos’ stock. Holmes had graced the cover of Fortune and Forbes, billed as the youngest female self-made billionaire (her 50 percent share of Theranos was once estimated at $4.5 billion). The unnerving physical attributes that have been mentioned in the recent deluge of Theranos-related press were all on display. She rarely blinked her bloodshot blue eyes. Her Steve Jobs turtleneck nearly swallowed her chin. Her voice, low and throaty, seemed concocted, like she was imitating a man imitating Kathleen Turner. She also had a bizarre demeanor, like a hostage trying to communicate in code one moment—then again, maybe I just thought that because each blink seemed so rare and therefore important—and in the next like a person who was about to throw me a surprise party and could barely keep from laughing. There were no surprises, though, when it came to her canned answers. At one point, I asked if she’d taken any of Theranos’ tests herself. She said no, and then reeled off a string of Silicon Valley speak that swirled capitalism and punk purity all in one gaslighting fog. I barely managed to register how puzzling it was that an entrepreneur in the middle of changing the world hadn’t even tried the world-changing thing herself.

Holmes was whisked away by private jet after our interview. Long after our unsettling encounter, I followed her in the news, looking for Theranos’ progress, and instead was stunned by the destruction. Lucky for me and other Holmes obsessives, there’s now plenty of content that attempts to answer the biggest question: Did Holmes know she was duping everyone? Or was she gripped by a near-religious paranoiac fervor that shunned all evidence to the contrary? There are other matters to explore first. Namely, sex.

Jennifer Lawrence has been attached to play Holmes in a movie based on Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s Theranos expose Bad Blood since 2016, and Oscar-winning director Adam McKay (Vice) is making it his next project. But Hollywood wouldn’t touch something this dry unless it could promise at least a little frottage. Holmes was romantically involved with her former company president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, a man 19 years her senior and her partner in corporate nerdism (the two dancing at a company party to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” is exquisitely mortifying). He was also really into his Lamborghini and random samurai sword office décor. A subtler matter, however, was her sexuality and its effect on her investors. Longtime Holmes detractor Dr. Phyllis Gardner, a woman who can dish with the best of them, isn’t shy about positing Holmes’ physicality as a major factor. Theranos’ board of directors included former Secretary of State George Shultz (in one of the documentary’s finest subplots, his grandson Tyler became one of the key Theranos whistleblowers), Oracle founder Larry Ellison, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and a number of others who had zero medical expertise. Perhaps they succumbed to the transparent one-two punch of her blatant mantrepreneur worship and her sexual energy. Holmes mirrored them with her business blazers and gravelly voice, but she kept it femme with her nightclub makeup and thin frame. They saw their hard-nosed business ethos imprinted, not on another hopeful young man but an attractive bottle-blond white woman. Gardner, by the way, first called bullshit on Holmes when she met her at Stanford. I want this woman’s number next time I have to buy a used car.

Now hiding out in a luxury apartment, Holmes still doesn’t understand the gravity of her duplicity. Her state of compulsive denial echoes, coincidentally enough, her fellow scammer, Fyre-dreamer Billy McFarland. Recently engaged to a young hospitality heir, and preparing to defend herself against criminal charges, Holmes has blamed everyone around her for Theranos’ demise, including her once fearsome pit bulls, lawyers David Boies and Heather King. McFarland and Holmes grew up in the grips of ’90s and ’00s positive thinking, which is fine and cute when it’s just Oprah with namaste hands. But in its hardest capitalist form, as wielded by Theranos, positive thinking can be downright dangerous. In the Silicon Valley that loves to “move fast and break things,” doubt is a weakness to be purged on sight.

In her book Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich condemned positive thinking as a “mass delusion.” McFarland and Holmes are perhaps their generation’s most notorious peddlers of this 21st-century snake oil yet. McFarland may have epically bummed out the party people, but Holmes has blood on her hands, and not just from the Edison. One of the saddest stories in The Inventor concerns Ian Gibbons, an esteemed biochemist who was eventually ostracized at Theranos for having the gall to question its scientific methodology. Seemingly on the verge of being fired (and subpoenaed in a lawsuit concerning the validity of patents he shared with Holmes), Gibbons sunk into depression and then died by suicide. His wife, Rochelle, also a scientist and a patent attorney, has no doubt he was demoted at Theranos for daring to voice his skepticism. If only Holmes could’ve heeded the word no. If only she could’ve followed one of her favorite MLK quotes and taken that first step in faith, but down a different staircase than she’d planned. How many lives could she have saved then?