The fascination surrounding Elizabeth Holmes as a person is what, ultimately, got her started. She’s been called charismatic, brilliant, and unlike anyone else, styling herself after her hero, Apple founder Steve Jobs, right down to the turtleneck. Even Holmes' peculiar, baritone voice is shrouded in mystery and wonder.
So what was the Theranos founder and apparent scammer fascination du jour actually like in real life? We spoke with two of the whistleblowers featured in HBO’s upcoming documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley — Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz — as well as its director, Alex Gibney, to get a sense of what people who knew her actually thought.
“I don't think this has been an easy couple of years for Elizabeth,” Gibney tells Refinery29. And that’s putting it mildly.
Perhaps the most encompassing anecdote about Holmes came from Richard Plepler, now-former chairman and CEO of HBO. At the time we spoke to Gibney, Cheung, and Shultz — at the 2019 Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour — Plepler was still running the show. Plepler had been, “at a conference with Elizabeth and so impressed by her,” Gibney relayed, “that he thought, 'Well, maybe we'll do a follow along documentary about this new Joan of Arc. She was so great.’”
And that’s what many have said about her. Shultz called her “fascinating”; Cheung said at the time of her hiring that she was “infatuated” with Holmes. Her pull was strong and wide-reaching. She managed to charm investors from Walgreens by giving them a smoke-and-mirrors showcase of her product, and recruited board members like James Mattis (who went on to become a now-former Secretary of Defense), Henry Kissinger. A bevy of other impressive individuals with high-level backgrounds in diplomatic and military arenas also sat in positions of power within the company.
The email that HBO subsequently sent to Holmes about the potential documentary, “went unanswered for some time.”
Holmes has been alleged to be a controlling, duplicitous leader with — as Holmes exposè Bad Blood author John Carreyrou himself has called it — ”sociopathic tendencies” as well as a penchant for “pathological lying,” claims bolstered by the myriad interviews in his book. The award-winning Wall Street Journal reporter spent countless hours interviewing former associates and employees, as well as Holmes herself. So it’s hard to imagine her lack of a response was a mere oversight.
But then came Carreyrou’s reporting — which came out after Plepler and Holmes first met — giving HBO a very clear choice for who should tackle the documentary: Gibney, helmer of the Emmy-winning (for HBO) Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. And for anyone who didn’t see that particular film, here’s a light spoiler for you: it wasn’t exactly flattering towards the organization.
So when “John Carreyrou's articles started coming out and things started to go the wrong way,” Gibney explained, “Richard turned to me and said, 'How would you like to do a film about this?' And I said, 'hmm, seems interesting,' because I was interested in the psychology of fraud."
“And Lo and behold” as soon as it was all announced, Gibney told us, “finally, Elizabeth returned Richard's email.”
It’s very easy to see how someone like Holmes, sensing a lack of control on her usually hyper-secretive-by-design narrative, might take a sudden shine to the idea of a documentary being done about her and reach out. For her it’s apparent that everything has been about control, especially control of the narrative.
"And that's the sad thing,” Cheung added, “she had so much money, but there was so much arrogance around her. She needed to be the next Steve Jobs, this had to be her invention, her patents. She very easily had enough cash to buy up other companies that already had components and technology that work in this space. But that was unacceptable. It needed to be Elizabeth Holmes, first name on the patent for what she was producing.”
It’s here that Gibney really hits the nail on the head about Holmes. "She wasn't willing to take 'no' for an answer, and she was burning lots of cash. I mean, you can see that in the building [they rented], in all the money spent. Even in the filmmaking process [for her Theranos promotional videos], I mean hiring Errol Morris — who was paid top dollar — and this and that? Everything she was [doing] was big, but she wasn't listening to criticism.”
“I mean that would have been the one Jobsian lesson she could have learned,” Gibney waxed, “is that things really got good at Apple when — after he failed at Next — [Steve Jobs] surrounded himself with really talented people who were willing to say no to him from time to time. And that made the company really powerful. That's not something that Elizabeth wanted to hear. And when she heard no, by all accounts, she marginalized people. That's why the Ian Gibbons story is in there. Or Tony Nugent. You know, they were marginalized if they raised a ruckus like this isn't working because they were like 'Oh, you just don't get it, you're not forward leaning enough.'”
“It’s like that line in the Fyre Festival documentary," Shultz added.
“And it's such a shame, really,” Cheung noted, hinting at Holmes’ ultimately poisonous egomania, “because yes, this could have been successful. Maybe not to the same scale and degree that she promised, but a big percentage of it could have gone through."