Tech billionaire Bryan Johnson’s quest for eternal youth points at the folly of the longevity industry, packaging fear of aging as scientific progress
The third act of the 2016 film The Neon Demon depicts a gory occult ritual intended to preserve youth and delay decay: A makeup artist and two languishing models bathe in the blood of an adolescent, ascendant competitor before devouring her body—bloodsuckers, fame fuckers. At a shoot the next day, one of the models falls ill and, desperate to expel the girl, upchucks an undigested eyeball before stabbing herself to death. (The remaining model, played by Abbey Lee, eats it. Why waste!) Body horror here works as a metaphor for a fashion industry that eats its young, and the dehumanizing effects of a system that fetishizes youth and a singular beauty.
While not a blood-lusting demon, the tech billionaire Bryan Johnson also goes to extreme lengths to freeze time. The 46-year-old longevity enthusiast reportedly spends $2 million a year on a strict regimen designed to reverse aging, from daily body fat scans to regular MRIs, and, until recently, regular blood plasma transfers from his teenage son. The 30 doctors in his employ say it’s working, that he now has the heart of a 37 year old, the skin of a 28 year old, and the lung capacity of an 18 year old. Doctors not on Johnson’s payroll, however, have questioned the safety of taking 111 supplements a day. “Johnson’s quest is not just about staying rested or maintaining muscle tone. It’s about turning his whole body over to an anti-aging algorithm,” writes Charlotte Alter of Johnson’s company Blueprint in a recent Time profile. “He believes death is optional. He plans never to do it.”
But the feverish coverage of Johnson’s health has sidestepped a more visible shift: his personal style revolution from straight-laced tech bro who favored an anonymous Silicon Valley uniform, to a chiseled machine with a penchant for Dion Lee-esque crop tops, overdesigned denim, and painted nails. It’s less akin to the yacht-friendly uniform of the divorced dads set that his peers Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk sport, and more like if a TikTok-addicted Peter Pan was auditioning for Euphoria. So how does Johnson’s extreme biohacking prompt his style metamorphosis? And how does a real-life Benjamin Button acquire a taste for hyper-contemporary, gender-fluid fashion?
The feminist philosopher Donna Haraway wrote that the concept of the cyborg—which represents a merger of technology and biology—challenges binaries of human and machine and man and woman to challenge power structures for a more equitable future. Perhaps Johnson’s cyborgian style is proof of the freedom that comes with delayed death, that immortality could unshackle our identities from rigid norms to transcend them entirely, ushering in a new social order. (A cursory look at who Johnson follows on Instagram suggests an appreciation for subversion, including designers and artists like Rick Owens who celebrate the body’s grotesqueness and challenge beauty ideals, and provocateurs like the art collective MSCHF that lampoons consumer culture and ideas of luxury and status.)
“Johnson spends every waking (and sleeping) minute devoted to the rigorous upkeep of his precious vessel, so his porcelain skin and kooky clothes come at the cost of everything that makes life worth living.”
The quest for eternal youth, however, is a trap. Johnson spends every waking (and sleeping) minute devoted to the rigorous upkeep of his precious vessel, so his porcelain skin and kooky clothes come at the cost of everything that makes life worth living. It’s not enough to say that Johnson has a poor fashion sense; that’s ultimately a matter of opinion—an increasingly worthless one in an era that rewards extreme individuality. But Johnson’s style lacks a sensibility. His clothes are not eccentric or elegant or avant-garde; they celebrate a slavish devotion to youth, the erasure of age, and the reversal of time. (It’s not a midlife crisis if you live forever.)
They do, however, reflect a relatable vulnerability: a visceral fear of aging and death. We all fear mortality, but especially fading beauty. Freud taught us that we put on a front to conceal our true feelings; Johnson masks his vulnerability by posturing as an all-powerful cyborg who can beat biology and dominate nature. Johnson is so laser-focused on staying young that he archly told Alter that “any act that accelerates aging—like eating a cookie, or getting less than eight hours of sleep—[is] an ‘act of violence.’”
That same childish impulse—to puppeteer our global institutions, economies, and even our bodies—leads to billionaire pissing contests from Silicon Valley to space. But in Johnson’s case, even 300 doctors monitoring him day and night can’t prevent disease. (He allegedly broke up with his fiancé and called her a “bad deal” after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.) Packaging extreme vanity and a fear of aging as scientific progress is worse than a disguise—it’s deception.
Johnson seemingly launched Blueprint with a noble mission: to democratize the science of longevity. So far, the company has released an olive oil. Johnson has also anointed himself the smooth, haunting face of the movement led by billionaire investors like him and Peter Thiel. This not only raises ethical alarm bells that solely the wealthy can afford to live longer and die painlessly, while the rest of us submit to our biological fates, but also signals that this is nothing more than a vanity project. To me, Johnson’s radical makeover is an aesthetic reflection of this ploy to convince us that such technological advancement affords us a new freedom to express our mutable identities, rather than a vendetta against aging waged by billionaire biohackers—for profit. Blueprint is a lifestyle brand; not a longevity company. It’s no wonder the longevity industry exploded and produced a figure like Johnson during a pandemic, which exposed whose lives we deem worth saving and whose we ignore.
Johnson’s project recalls another film that illustrates the perils of vanity and ills of immortality: Death Becomes Her. In the film, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn take a magic elixir that grants them eternal life, only to suffer empty, hopeless existences—forever. Johnson may face the same fate. “Outsourcing the management of his body means defeating what Johnson calls his ‘rascal mind,’” writes Alter, “the part of us that wants to eat ice cream after dinner, or have sex at 1 a.m., or drink beer with friends.”
To die is to be human. Delaying the inevitable is no way to live.