Throughout history, there have been many heterosexuals who have sullied the good name of penis-in-vagina intercourse. There’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, Tom Cruise and basically anyone he’s dated at any given time. Yet no heterosexual couple has arguably done so much harm in concert — or more importantly, made us cringe as hard — as Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani.
As documented by the Hulu series The Dropout, the adaptation of the ABC podcast that chronicles the rise and fall of Holmes’s blood-testing startup Theranos, Holmes and Balwani, who served as president of Theranos, were romantically involved for 12 years, unbeknownst to the vast majority of their employees. Their relationship was toxic from the very start. They first met while on a language immersion trip to Beijing when she was 18 and he was 37. Holmes was about to enter her first year at Stanford University, while Balwani, 19 years older, was married to another woman. Balwani had just sold his software company, and the two bonded over Holmes’ interest in becoming an entrepreneur. They moved in together shortly afterward.
Balwani is currently on trial for his role in allegedly defrauding investors, and is facing 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Although Balwani and Holmes were involved from the start of Theranos in 2003, they did not disclose their relationship with investors, nor did Holmes reveal it to her employees when Balwani joined the company as president in 2009. The two were known for being fiercely protective of the secrets of the company and ruled over its employees with an iron fist, with Balwani in particular becoming known as a bully and an enforcer, screaming in meetings and threatening legal action against those who raised questions about the inner workings of the company. (Balwani has since tried to argue that he had more of a hands-off role and was merely an investor, despite text messages between him and Holmes, including one in which he asserts, “I am responsible for everything at Theranos,” indicating otherwise.)
Texts read aloud during Holmes’s 2021 trial (she was found guilty on 4 of 11 counts of fraud) revealed that there was a soft side to their relationship, with Balwani often messaging Holmes things like, “My love and devotion to you will lift your heart,” “Missing u in every breath and in every cell,” “World is so beautiful because of you,” and “There is no love for me like yours. Which is why it’s hard to breath [sic] without your breath near me.” To which Elizabeth would often respond: “Ditto.”
Following the publication of several articles in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 raising questions about the efficacy of Theranos’ blood-testing technology and whether Theranos was even using its proprietary technology to conduct blood tests to begin with, Balwani in 2016 resigned from the company. Theranos’s collapsed shortly thereafter. In the aftermath of their breakup, and amidst Holmes’ criminal trial proceedings, Holmes has alleged that Balwani was abusive and controlling and sexually abused her, which Balwani has strongly denied.
The Hulu series The Dropout, which features Amanda Seyfriend and Naveen Andrews as Holmes and Balwani, paints a portrait of two amoral people in a deeply toxic relationship immersed in a mutual state of paranoia, driven only by a desire to control people and to protect their shared secret. It also manages to imbue this dark dynamic with a surprising amount of levity: in one scene in which Theranos is on the verge of being exposed for fraud, Holmes lowers all the curtains in her office and dances sexily to “How to Love” by Lil Wayne in a puffer vest and while holding a cup of green juice, in an attempt to seduce Balwani, which has gone semi-viral on TikTok.
Prior to Holmes’s trial, there was very briefly a period during which a small throng of young women semi-ironically venerated Elizabeth Holmes for her “girl boss” qualities, which they believed encapsulated all of the qualities of corporate millennial feminism. Thankfully, this has not happened with Holmes and Balwani. The two arguably represent the worst qualities of heterosexuals: bad dancing, an obsession with self-optimization, and a shared love for corporate intrigue and puffer vests. It’s a testament to The Dropout, which aired its finale episode last week, as well as the performances of Seyfried and Andrews, that the two figures are as humanized on the show as they are.
On this week’s Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet culture, cohosts Brittany Spanos and Ej Dickson devote an entire episode to couples like Holmes and Balwani in an expanded version of their segment “Straight People,” about the shenanigans of heterosexual celebs. They also discuss Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s thirsty almost-Vegas wedding, Avril Lavigne and Mod Sun’s romantic engagement by the Seine, and Andrew Garfield’s ambiguous Instagram breakup with model Alyssa Miller.