When the controversy hit, the furniture had barely come and boxes were still packed in the Silicon Valley, Calif., house Nicole Shanahan was attempting to make into a home for herself and her daughter following her 2021 divorce from husband Sergey Brin, Google’s wealthy cofounder.
Suddenly the world believed that Shanahan — a 37-year-old attorney, philanthropist and investor — had a tryst with Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, 52, leading to Brin, 49, filing for divorce. It was all in a July 2022 Wall Street Journal story picked up around the globe within a day. While many pointed out that the backlash against her had a decidedly sexist slant, online trolls called her a “gold digger” and made vulgar comments about her. (Shanahan and Musk both denied the affair; WSJ told PEOPLE, “We stand by our reporting.”)
“My career has been based on academic and intellectual credibility, and I was being shamed internationally for being a cheater,” says Shanahan. “To be known because of a sexual act is one of the most humiliating things . . . it was utterly debilitating.”
But now, a year after the whirlwind, Shanahan sits at a dining table near her new garden, where vegetables will soon sprout. Smiling wide, she points to an email that her attorney sent minutes ago: “You’re officially divorced!” the message reads.
Those three words mark the end to a 17-month legal process with Brin, during which she survived a “wave of chaos” from the scandal — and found a new love (more on the “silly, smart” man later) in private. “It’s been a long journey,” she tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “Today is a turning point of letting go. I’m happy I’ve arrived at a point where I can reflect on my story.”
A “Conversation” with Elon Musk Becomes a Scandal
By December 2021, Shanahan was separated from Brin — now the world’s 11th richest person, worth around $97 billion, depending on market fluctuations. When the WSJ report — in which unnamed sources claimed a “brief affair,” including a December 2021 “liaison” with Musk — was published last July, “I remember feeling like everything I had ever worked for was under siege by a press cycle that had no idea what was going on in my life,” Shanahan says, “and who I was.”
She insists that she was never even more than friends with Musk, whose pal Brin had helped fund Tesla, the automaker that helped make Musk the world’s richest person, worth $238 billion.
“Did Elon and I have sex, like it was a moment of passion, and then it was over? No,” she says. “Did we have a romantic relationship? No. We didn’t have an affair.”
Instead, she and Musk had simply talked about “how I might think about helping my daughter with her autism treatment, given his background with Neuralink,” his neurotechnology company, she says. “It was a conversation that was very meaningful about life and how people show up for one another. To be painted with such a massive scarlet letter for it just seems so unfair.”
Such conversations were common in her and Brin’s Silicon Valley circle. “There’s a community of friendship involving not just Sergey and Elon but many other people in the tech world — investors, founders, really big thinkers, dreamers and doers,” she says. “Elon was another person in this group of people. There’s almost this generational ecosystem and it’s a community. You run ideas past each other and you ask questions.”
But she wouldn’t describe Musk nor the others as her closest friends. “Is it as close as my girlfriends? No,” she says. “My girlfriends that I’ve known for 10, 15 years that we’re like sisters to each other? No, it’s not that relationship — but I would call it a collegial environment.”
Shanahan questions why many have defined her by the Internet Zeitgeist. “Is this a commentary on my morals? Is it just general interest in sex, money, power?” she says. “I mean, that’s the piece that still has me confounded is how that part of the story effectively overshadowed everything else going on in the news at the time.” Comparing the importance of the climate crisis to what she sees as a frivolous and sexist situation, she asks, “Why does it matter so much?”
Today, when Google users search her name, much about Musk appears in the results. “There’s a lot of layers of irony. It feels frustrating,” she says. “I stayed out of conferences and public conversations for almost a year. I had to come to terms with that reality.”
It remains unclear how her conversation with Musk became a scandal, but Shanahan has a message for the story’s unnamed sources. “I have a strong sense of who they are and what they were motivated by,” she says. “It would be very easy to be angry and to feel defamed and seek clarity. In practical terms I understand why they did it, but in a deeper, spiritual context, I can’t understand — I would never do anything like that.”
Still, she says, “I forgive you, and I’m moving on.”