The DVF Awards hosted by Diane von Furstenberg three weeks ago was filled with Botox blondes, crowding the bar in black cocktail dresses. Towering above them in stiletto heels and snugly fitting snow-white lace that matched her bobbed hair was Maye Musk, escorted by Marina Arsenijevic, a Serbian concert pianist.
“Isn’t it nice to see a real woman?” said Ms. Arsenijevic, pointing to her friend. Ms. Musk laughed, her blue-gray eyes twinkling.
Ms. von Furstenberg’s team had dressed her that afternoon. Tina Brown walked by, absorbed in her smartphone. “They both invited me,” Ms. Musk whispered of Ms. Brown and Ms. von Furstenberg. “I hope I get to meet them tonight.”
After dinner, Ms. von Furstenberg was indeed walked over by an organizer to Ms. Musk. “You look so beautiful,” said the designer, clasping her guest’s hands. Ms. Brown came over too, as did the Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor, and all four women posed together for photographers.
Ms. Musk, 68, is the mother of Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur whose Tesla line of electric cars, interest in space exploration and two rocky marriages have intrigued even the most jaded of New York society. Now she is seizing her own moment in the moonlight.
“I was famous until Elon became famous,” Ms. Musk said, half-joking, over oatmeal at Café Luxembourg the day before.
She has appeared in a Beyoncé video, in Revlon ads and in 1996 was featured on boxes of Special K cereal. And at a moment when marketers are looking for authentic representations of women at all ages, her modeling career is getting renewed life.
Last September, Ms. Musk wore a shimmering white gown by the designer Malan Breton in her first New York Fashion Week runway show. In December, she attended a party for the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli at Art Basel Miami Beach. More recently, she was a guest at Ms. Brown’s Women in the World conference. And on Monday, Ms. Musk will accompany Elon to the Met Gala.
“We are at a point where people are demanding diversity and inclusion,” said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models, which has begun representing Ms. Musk. He added, “People want to see age and size because that is who their friends are.”
But his client’s motivation is simpler. “I just want to work,” she said.
She was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1948, a twin and one of five children, and moved with her family to Pretoria, South Africa, in 1950. Her parents, Joshua and Wyn Haldeman, had a thriving chiropractic practice and a thirst for adventure. In 1952, the couple flew 22,000 miles around the world in a plane Mr. Haldeman brought in pieces from Canada.
Every June or July for nearly a decade, the family Haldeman roamed the Kalahari desert in search of its fabled Lost City, retracing the steps of William Leonard Hunt, also known as Guillermo Farini, a Canadian explorer. Ms. Musk said she and her siblings slept outside, either in the back of the truck or on the ground with the tops of their sleeping bags over their heads “so the hyenas wouldn’t eat our faces.”
Her mother prepared maps and slide shows of the trips, which she shared with ladies’ groups and other travelers. “My parents were very famous, but they were never snobs,” Ms. Musk said.
Interested in science, Maye also grew into a striking young woman. A finalist in the 1969 Miss South Africa beauty competition, she modeled on weekends, including runway shows and catalog shoots.
In 1970, she married Errol Musk, an engineer she had met in high school, and a year later, Elon was born, followed by another son, Kimbal, and a daughter, Tosca. Ms. Musk earned a master’s degree in dietetics from the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa. (And later another in nutritional sciences from the University of Toronto.)
She worked at home, counseling nutrition clients, while modeling for extra money. The marriage, though, lasted barely nine years, and Ms. Musk left Pretoria for Durban, a coastal town. “I think it’s tougher being in an unhappy marriage,” she said, than being a single mother.
In his teens, Elon moved to Pretoria to live with his father, followed by Kimbal. “I think, at the end of the day, she was very hurt,” said Tosca, 41, who stayed with her mother. Ms. Musk would say only that it was “sad,” and that their relationship is now good. Kimbal and Elon were not made available for interviews, but in statements Kimbal called his mother “amazing” and “dynamic”; Elon chose “awesome.”
With South Africa in upheaval over its apartheid policy, Elon wanted to pursue his interest in technology in Canada, where Ms. Musk’s relatives lived and where she was still a citizen. To pay for his trip to Toronto, Ms. Musk said she sold stock she gave Elon when he was born. “I got a collect call,” she recalled. “He said: ‘I’m at the airport. What do I do now?’” Their Canadian relatives weren’t home. “I told him to go to the Y.M.C.A.”
She moved with Tosca to a rent-controlled apartment in Toronto a year later. “We were not wildly rich people; people forget that,” said Tosca, now a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Kimbal, a restaurateur and investor, joined his siblings soon after.