January 6, 2022

If things had played out just a little bit differently, Elizabeth Holmes would have been just another scammy telegenic inventor selling a product too good to be true. In this might-have-been world, there is no scandal, no downfall, no indictment on federal charges and no guilty verdict with likely prison time. Holmes would have never amassed a fortune by promising to revolutionise the multi-billion dollar blood testing industry, never made the cover of Forbes and Fortune, and never lost it all when a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that her entire empire was built on fraudulent claims about a technology that didn’t work.

Instead, she’d be queen of an infomercial empire, wearing her trademark black turtleneck and bright lipstick, bantering with a jocular male co-host about how a lifelong fear of needles inspired her to invent a device for blood testing that required no more than a finger prick. She’d be hawking her Theranos Edison device on daytime TV — buy one, get two free! — and touting it as the busy working person’s workaround to time-consuming and painful medical testing. The limitations of the device would be disclosed up-front (or at least, clearly outlined in the fine print), but nobody would be all that bothered; the Edison would be just another as-seen-on-TV novelty gadget that retirees order on impulse and use a couple times before getting bored and moving onto something else.

Because frauds, scammers, and snake oil salesmen are everywhere, and have always been with us, a warped but essential thread woven tightly into our social fabric. The most gifted of them promise what Holmes did, more or less: a quick fix to a problem that runs too deep, too dark, and too tangled to be pulled out at the root. They prey on our worst insecurities and most potent fears — of getting fat, of going bald, of being poisoned by hidden toxins, of being painfully jabbed with a needle and spending the next week praying that some nascent sickness doesn’t reveal itself in the chemical balance of your blood.

They prey, most of all, on our mistrust of a system that is opaque, indifferent, and populated by experts who too often treat us with disdain or contempt. That’s what makes people pick up the phone and call now to take advantage of this special offer, two vials of snake oil for the price of one. It doesn’t matter if the solution actually works — and it doesn’t, usually. What’s important is, it makes you feel like you’re in control. Like you’re included.

Society allows thousands of con artists to have long and fruitful careers selling their cellulite creams, their silicone bracelets that “rebalance your body’s energy field” — just as long as they never fly too close to the sun. They must not take it too seriously or too far. Some of the best-executed frauds can continue for years, even decades, if they just stay on the right side of the line between frivolity and consequence.

Look at Gwyneth Paltrow, forever making a fortune selling yoni eggs, supplements and sex toys that promise nothing except the satisfaction of feeling like you’re taking care of yourself and the thrill of doing it outside the staid, stodgy, finger-wagging confines of the medical establishment. But Paltrow plays it safe. She keeps it light. She reminds you that what she’s selling is not medicine, but wellness. (Unsaid but implied is that it’s better than medicine, but shh, that’s our little secret.)

And in exchange for slightly limiting their claims about the proven effectiveness of their products, the snake oil salesmen are allowed to dodge the usual rules and regulations that dictate what you can and can’t sell to consumers. This is America, after all; who is the FDA to tell you that you can’t spend your money on any stupid thing you want? Sometimes, it’s easy to see the grift for what it is — the Slap Chop? the Shake Weight? really? — but Silicon Valley and influencer circles have incubated their own version of this culture, glossier and more sophisticated, in which it’s genuinely hard to tell a genius vision from an ordinary scam.

The thing is, sometimes it is genius: every life-altering tech innovation started as an idea too crazy to work, and every celebrated founder did a certain amount of faking it before making it. Even Steve Jobs fudged his way through the very first iPhone presentation with a device that did not actually work, surreptitiously switching out the phone for a new one before the prototype could crash, a story that Elizabeth Holmes was reportedly obsessed with. Like Jobs, she insisted, she wasn’t lying to her investors. She was simply showing them the future. Sure, her product didn’t work — but imagine how amazing it would be if it did?

The twist is, Holmes probably could have been wildly successful, even legit, if she’d just set her sights a little bit lower. With those brains, that face, that voice, and her pitching skills, she could have launched a startup — or become an influencer — in any number of fields. But she wanted more: to occupy the prestigious ranks of the corporate girlbosses, the visionary founders, the moguls who broke the mould. And so the Theranos Edison was inflated, from a don’t-check-the-small-print daytime TV product, to a groundbreaking biotech advancement; and Holmes the huckster became, briefly, the darling wunderkind of Silicon Valley.

Of course, she never really belonged in that club: Holmes, unlike the girlbosses she was always getting lumped-in with, never actually built anything. The fact that she managed to fly so high and linger so long is a testament less to her own abilities than to the brightness of the star to which she hitched her wagon, the fierce desire of so many to see a young, ambitious woman breaking ground in a male-dominated field. It’s a different sort of sexism: the way she dazzled them, and the way the media wanted to believe. Elizabeth Holmes wasn’t just too good to be true, but too good to verify.

Glamour magazine’s fawning 2015 profile described critiques of the Theranos founder as just so much chest-thumping from threatened competitors: “Like any disruptor, Holmes has stirred up controversy.” The blitheness of that line now contrasts amusingly with a chagrined editor’s note appended above the text in 2018 (“The SEC found that Holmes ‘made numerous false and misleading statements in investor presentations, product demonstrations, and media articles’ — and that includes interviews with Glamour.”) Inc magazine gushed: “She is no impostor. She was an entrepreneur before movies and television made it cool. She is substance where often there’s only flash.”

And so, for a few thrilling years, as investors and fortunes amassed around Theranos, Holmes actually appeared to be leading a herd of high-achieving, self-made female entrepreneurs that included people like Away’s Steph Korey, Glossier’s Emily Weiss, and Outdoor Voices’ Tyler Haney. It wouldn’t be until later, as the cult of the girlboss began to fracture and the herd began to thin, that we’d realise she wasn’t leading the charge at all, but being pushed forward by the sheer force of everyone else’s success, riding the wave of a narrative so powerful that her feet never touched the ground. But when they did, she stumbled immediately — and stumbled hard. And now she’s probably going to prison.

What’s most striking is how Holmes tried and failed to wriggle out from beneath her own hype as the walls closed in. At her trial, the black turtleneck was gone, replaced by a blouse-and-blazer combination and an accessory diaper bag (the better to remind jurors and press that she’s a mother with a newborn at home.) Gone was the image of an ass-kicking visionary, hell-bent on success: Holmes’ defence rested in large part on the notion that she’d been helpless, cowed and manipulated by her former boyfriend and business partner, Sunny Balwani.

Yet the jury didn’t buy it — because Holmes is too brilliant a con artist to also be a damsel in distress. And like any gifted grifter, she created a narrative so compelling that even when it all fell apart, we understood that some small part of it must still be the truth. Not the world-changing technology, but the persona of the woman who promised to deliver it. That’s real; we’re sure of it. The one thing that has always been clearly and demonstrably true of Elizabeth Holmes is that she is too smart not to know exactly what she’s doing.

The myth of Theranos might have shattered, but the legend of its founder lingers on. And as long as society remains in thrall to the narrative of the disruptor, the glass ceiling-breaker, the patriarchy-smasher, she won’t be the only one. If Elizabeth Holmes hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent her — and in some ways, we did. Without all that glowing coverage to prop it up, how much sooner would this paper tiger have toppled? Holmes and others like her will keep coming, because they have the greatest weapon in the con artist’s arsenal: not the slick presentation, not the pretty face, not the lies they tell while looking you dead in the eye, but your own desperate hunger to believe.

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