Elizabeth Holmes, the former entrepreneur who was convicted of one of the biggest frauds in business history, swapped out her trademark black turtleneck for an inconspicuous beige crewneck in a controversial New York Times profile published on Sunday. But even if a tiger makes an outfit change, it doesn’t change its stripes. “There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. The chronicler of America’s last gilded age died before Elizabeth Holmes and her black turtleneck ever came to prominence, but the former Theranos CEO and convict is testing that credo out with her new identity: Liz. But, as Fitzgerald predicted, her new persona isn’t being readily accepted by the public as authentic.
But what a first act Holmes had. Starting off strong, with assertions that Theranos could conduct over 100 tests on “just a few drops of blood” to detect everything from glucose levels to the presence of different antibodies, Holmes’s promises were soon revealed to be undeliverable. She was lauded as a game changer to the medical and tech world, with Fortune itself calling her “out for blood” while noting her youth, secrecy, relentlessness, and what seemed at the time like a mild-mannered nature. But the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou’s investigation of Holmes in 2015 revealed that the Edison device Theranos used to diagnose diseases was not all that it seemed; the company wasn’t using its own technology to provide results. “Theranos has struggled behind the scenes to turn the excitement over its technology into reality,” he wrote. From there, Holmes’s legacy unraveled.
Fast-forward to 2022, when Holmes was found guilty on four counts of fraud and conspiracy, including accepting money from investors while aware that the companies’ tests had faults. Stories told in court about Theranos abuses included false HIV results and an incorrect test that said a woman was having a miscarriage rather than a healthy pregnancy. Her defense argued for leniency given her new motherhood, mistakes she supposedly made (as opposed to outright lies), and the influence from her former boyfriend and the former president of Theranos, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. Balwani has since been sentenced to 13 years in prison which he has begun serving; as for Holmes’s 11 years, she’s delayed serving time with a recent appeal.
With some time freed up due to her bail, Holmes sat down for an interview with the Times, her first since 2016. In the piece, Amy Chozick describes Holmes as dropping her famously deep voice for a softer one, walking on the beach with her husband and dog after eating croissants and berries, and taking her young kids to the San Diego Zoo—your typical mother living a normal life. Acknowledging that the two public and private sides of Holmes (Elizabeth and Liz, respectively) might be manufactured, Chozick paints a sympathetic but confused picture of her time with Holmes and how real it was.
But redemption for the shunned Silicon Valley icon isn’t all that simple. Some people were upset the article showing Holmes in such a personable light was even put on the platform itself, and others, having followed the famous case of manipulation, just weren’t buying it.
Prominent journalists and writers took to Twitter to criticize the Times for platforming a convicted fraudster’s PR campaign without noting the potential massive consequences to her wrongdoings. Even Joyce Carol Oates joined in the condemnation of the piece’s portrayal of Holmes. And some pushed further to say the piece represented an issue with the publication at large, noting that the Times showed more respect for a convicted fraudster than trans people or people of color.
Many viral tweets pointed out Holmes’s most egregious crimes, saying that Chozick’s piece didn’t hold Liz accountable for her deeds that included peddling a trial she knew to be inaccurate for measuring cancer patients and pushing an employee to die by suicide, according to his widow.
Smelling the hint of public relations and legal teams, readers in the comments section like Danielle D. wondered why she was roaming free: “How she has been allowed to continue to abuse her inherent privilege is infuriating.”
The Times’ own readership was critical of the choice to run this article. In a comment with the most upvotes, Roberto from Florida said, “Honestly, so much ink and space wasted on someone who thought she was getting away with it,” adding, “She sort of is still getting away with it.”
After all that, it’s likely hard to get a public makeover as a docile mother and misunderstood yet ambitious young leader. At the end of the day, even if Elizabeth wants you to call her Liz or even Lizzy, many people aren’t forgetting her first act at Theranos. And as for her second act, public relations team or not, it will almost surely end in prison—unless a judge is swayed by something like the curated image of the innocent young mother Liz turning her life around.