Meet Liz Holmes. She is a devoted mother of two little kids who loves nothing more than family outings to the zoo, walking her dog, and talking to her husband in a very normal voice that is absolutely nothing like the weird baritone her evil alter ego, Elizabeth, affected.
You remember Elizabeth Holmes, don’t you? Unlike nice, sweet Liz, Elizabeth was a bit of a schemer. Last year Holmes was convicted on four counts of defrauding investors, by pretending that her blood-testing startup, Theranos, was functional when it wasn’t, and given more than 11 years in prison. She was due to start her sentence on 27 April, but filed a last-minute appeal, buying her a little more time at home. How did she decide to spend those last precious moments of freedom? Taking her kids to the zoo and doing a photoshoot for the New York Times. After almost seven years of media silence, Holmes recently spent several days opening up to a Times writer over berries and Mexican food. The result is a 5,000-word profile introducing her new persona to the world.
Holmes may never have perfected Theranos’s blood-testing technology but she was always brilliant at branding. Her original persona was almost a paint-by-numbers of what the world thought a tech visionary should look like: she wore black turtlenecks like Steve Jobs; she dropped out of Stanford; she was a vegan on a strict green juice diet, and she was secretive and self-restrained. Before everything fell apart, the press ate her image up. She was hailed as “the next Steve Jobs” and celebrated as “the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire”.
Now that her previous incarnation has failed, it’s fascinating to watch Holmes pivot. Her CEO persona, she is keen to explain, was an act: “a character [she] created” in order to be taken seriously as a woman in tech. Her famously deep voice was part of that act: she and her husband now giggle about it. Now Holmes wants us to forget who she was before and get to know “Liz”: a delicate flower who, according to the Times profile, “can’t stomach R rated movies”. She is a mother of two who has been selflessly “volunteering for a rape crisis hotline”. She is a model of docility and domesticity: so much so that when the journalist profiling her, Amy Chozick, gets some dog slobber on her shoe, Liz chases after her to wipe it off.
One imagines that Holmes hopes her transformation into Liz will improve her image and perhaps shorten her prison sentence. So will it? Will the right people buy her metamorphosis? I don’t know. What I do know is that Chozick was immediately put in Twitter jail for the profile, which caused an outpouring of outrage online. People accused her of not being critical enough of Holmes and seemingly being taken in by the “I’m just a doting mother” rebrand. Which is somewhat unfair considering Chozick makes it clear that Holmes is a master manipulator who knows exactly how to charm people. “How could I ask someone who was nursing her 11-day-old baby on a white sofa two feet away if she was actually conning me?” Chozick asks at one point. Holmes is alarmingly adept at weaponising white womanhood.
While I don’t think Chozick’s profile was in any way a puff piece, I understand the anger it has generated. After all, not many mothers facing prison are given a splashy redemption photoshoot in a major paper, are they? And there are, by the way, a lot of mothers in American jails: Holmes’s mother-and-felon status is not unusual. Since 1980 the number of women incarcerated in the US has grown by more than 525% – a rate of growth that’s twice as high as that of men. About 58% of women in both state and federal prison are mothers of children under the age of 18, according to a 2016 survey. Very few of these women have the press knocking at their door, trying to understand their crimes and humanise them. Very few of these women have a first chance in life, let alone a second one.