At the peak of Elizabeth Holmes' success, her face was everywhere: in front of crowds at TED Talks, plastered on magazine covers, and in interviews on TV. The worship press that initially surrounded her disgraced biotech company, Theranos, put her on the map, and got people acquainted to the Stanford dropout's turtleneck uniform, baritone voice, and unwavering blue eyes.
"The way she trained her big blue eyes on you without blinking made you feel like the center of the world," John Carreyrou wrote in Bad Blood, the book about Theranos. "It was almost hypnotic." Her steady eye contact was intentional and calculated, and one of the subtler ways she was able to dupe everyone around her into believing her lies.
Lillian Glass, PhD, a body language expert and author, believes that unceasing eye contact is "sociopathic." Staring at someone can signal a number of things, including deception, she explains. "You don't want to lose eye contact because you want to seem believable," she says. "But in essence, if somebody's not breaking eye contact, they're lying to you." That might sound counterintuitive; many people supposedly look away from someone if they're lying. But because of this, some savvy people will intensely stare at someone while lying to make it seem like they're telling the truth.
If Holmes was able to stare directly into investors' faces while she lied about her Theranos technology working, Dr. Glass says that's very scary and a little robotic. "In a business meeting someone keeps staring at you, they are not being forthright," she says. "If it's not sincere, you could be misguided, or for lack of a better term, hoodwinked." Indeed, lots of people were scammed into believing Holmes' lies along the way. But her eyes may have served as a convincing, if not manipulative tool that allowed her to get away with it.
Staring can be a form of seduction, Dr. Glass says. "When the eyes get wide and you stare at someone, it means you're seducing someone," she says. Many of us have been socialized to believe that good eye contact means someone is interested in you. While that's true to an extent, some people may try to exploit that, like Holmes. Echoing Carreyrou's description of Holmes' eyes, Dr. Glass says her blue eyes are "mesmerizing, and she took advantage of that."
Just as Holmes' eyes could be a secret weapon to allure investors or hide her lies, they may have also been part of her menacing demeanor and managerial style. "A person can stare at you with intimidation, but the stare is different," Dr. Glass says. "The eyes get narrowed, and there's more tension around the frontal area." Several former Theranos employees featured in Bad Blood described her "cold stare" and "piercing eyes" right up until the moment she laid them off.
While it may seem unfair to criticize someone's appearance, it's important to remember that the persona — including what she ate and how she dressed — that Holmes meticulously created was all part of her scam and the delusional narrative she crafted her herself. "She knew exactly what she was doing," Dr. Glass says. "The woman's very sociopathic in my estimation."