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Inventing Anna: Not your average fraudster

By February 12, 2022No Comments



With the release of Inventing Anna on Netflix this week, Jenn Gannon looks at the captivating story of Anna Delvey, the fake German heiress and fraudster who conned people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars…


Every episode of Inventing Anna begins with the canny caveat “This story is completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up” because even a tale this outrageous, this fantastical, could apparently do with some extra added fictional elements. Shonda Rhimes’ latest project adapted from Jessica Pressler’s explosive 2018 New York magazine article about the fake German heiress Anna Delvey, is a continuation of our modern obsession with blurring fact and fiction. These days fact and fiction bleed into each other and become a monstrous hybrid of fake news and misremembered details.

From ‘true’ crime stories to Ryan Murphy’s ouvre, our recent history is constantly being repackaged. Snatched from glossy magazines before finding their way on to hastily written Wiki entries to be wonkily regurgitated on T.V. and then finally parroted as fact on social media. This is a world where QAnon believers wait for John F. Kennedy Jr to remerge on Dealey Plaza and where O.J Simpson can write a book called If I Did It, his hypothetical account of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. We are so far through the looking glass now that the truth is a foreign country.

Although when tackling the story of a fantasist and fraudster do you need to get your facts straight? Unlike the disastrous Fyre Fest or the Romeo tricks of the Tinder Swindler – documentaries which were told as straightforward tales of avarice and thievery, the story of Anna Sorokin told through the eyes of Shonda Rhimes has a certain psychological depth. Here her sociopathic tendencies have more in common with the egotistical delusions of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes than just some empty get rich quick scam.

Inventing Anna is all about the mutability of identity and the creation of the self with Anna Delvey/Sorokin as the ultimate untrustworthy narrator. This idea gives Rhimes the opportunity to layer on the artistic licence in a meta-fashion, gleefully exploring notions around fame, wealth, excess, status and selfhood. When Sorokin transformed herself into the German heiress Anna Delvey, she was given a taste of freedom through her new found fame. She turned herself into the living embodiment of a lesser known Andy Warhol quote “It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what they think you are.” and perhaps took the ubiquitous ‘fake it til you make it’ maxim too literally.

Inventing Anna is almost a new twist on Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring (also adapted from a magazine article) which saw a group of bored, privileged teens go on a rampage stealing from their famous idols in a bid to briefly experience the high of their seemingly endless luxurious lives. What has happened between the halcyon days of the Bling Ring in 2009 and today is that no-one wants to be a lowly fan anymore. Everyone wants to be famous. Fame is more attainable than ever. Why wouldn’t you want to reach out and grab a slice?

From Heat magazine spreads on Big Brother contestants to a singing bin man winning X Factor and millions of TikTokers in between, modern pop culture has narrowed the terms of celebrity to the finest of lines, the blue ticks of Twitter and the influencers of Instagram. Now we fully expect the direct pipeline from Love Island hun to shiny-faced influencer shilling diarrhoea teas and teeth tourism in Turkey. These civilian Cinderella moments can oftentimes feel triumphant and egalitarian. It’s exhilarating to watch an office drone or a temp girl escape from the slow death underneath the fluorescent lights and fast track themselves to a fortune. Usually this behaviour and these opportunities are reserved for those with well connected parents, the ones whose surnames open the right doors to a life of leisure which always slam shut on the less fortunate.

Which is why so many of us enjoyed elements of Anna Sorokin’s double dealings. She didn’t just want to steal from the rich, she wanted to slip right into their world and be treated as a contemporary. The fact that all it took was a dodgy pan-European accent and some Olsen twins-sized sunglasses to fool these supposed gatekeepers, from the old money art world to blue chip business men is hilarious and infuriating in equal measures. How readily they swallowed her truth.

Sorokin’s story is a cautionary fable about the pseudo-identities that are created with ease through social media. The series looks at how the rarefied world of the superrich is made tantalisingly familiar through the everyday opulence on display on Instagram. Everything is a pose, everyone is a prop, lives can be Facetuned to perfection. ‘VIP is always better!’ Anna sniffs as she demands that journalist Vivian (Anna Chlumsky) gets a media pass to interview her in a private room. Even prison can be upgraded.

The overwhelming sense of entitlement and millennial brattishness masks Anna’s insatiable desire. The show constantly reminds viewers that everyone is on the make, everyone wants something that Anna makes them believe she can give them. From Vivian the ambitious journalist trying to get a scoop to revive her career to photographer Rachel and personal trainer Kacey (Laverne Cox) who became part of Anna’s clique in the hope of turning the high life into a permanent job. Even older characters like Alan (Anthony Edwards) Anna’s financial lawyer, wants some of her hipster cool to rub off on him.

Sorokin was upfront about her need for fame/notoriety or even immortality, she stuffed people with $100 dollar bills in an attempt to legitimise herself, to be heard, to be taken seriously. There is a moment where she stands in a gallery musing about the work of Cindy Sherman, a chameleon of the art world who put herself at the centre of her work. Sherman and Sorokin show that you can be anything, you can constantly transform yourself to fit the frame if you are brave enough. It’s scamming as performance art.

Assembled into chunks of testimonies from Anna’s victims, associates and frenemies, the series cleverly eschews being a direct biography as the figure of Sorokin is ultimately unknowable. Ozark’s Julia Garner plays her as an enigmatic cipher with a twisted, mocking grin and an intelligible accent. She is inscrutable, her motivations remain frustratingly unclear. According to Inventing Anna, Sorokin wasn’t just a run of the mill fraudster: Yes she was running up bills in the most extravagant hotels, buying designer clothes and carousing in the best restaurants, but the series presupposes that all this was done to fit in, to play the role properly and give her the ability to connect with the right people, gaining attention for her ideas.

There are astonishing real-life moments where Anna ends up in the nucleus of modern scam artists – living with fellow grifter, Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland, entertaining the infamous former hedge fund manager and convicted felon Martin Shkreli while later her amiable defence lawyer Todd (Arian Moyaed) toils tirelessly in a WeWork cubicle. Scams are in the air but the show sets her apart from those bros with a hard on for greed due to her ‘vision’ and determination to fund her business concept.

Sorokin developed a plan (whether a delusion or not) for a space for artists. This exclusive private members club/salon (The Anna Delvey Foundation) was supposed to be where artists could not only exhibit their wares but also rub shoulders with financiers and New York’s most dynamic individuals. This was how she roped in bankers at City Finance and Fortress Investment Group to bankroll her for a year or so with Anna even going so far as trying to put in a bid on an exclusive Park Avenue building for the elusive project.

Through the narration of Sorokin’s friend, hotel concierge Neff (Alexis Floyd) this creative grift is viewed as the antics of a Feminist Robin Hood forcing the abundantly affluent into being benefactors. Rhimes doubles down on this angle with Vivian watching Donald Trump on T.V. wondering aloud about the male ability to fail upwards. Ultimately Anna was held accountable for her crimes but her financial lawyer Alan escapes unscathed even though he almost bankrupted his firm through his dealings with the faux heiress. Attempting to make Sorokin’s schemes into a redemption narrative is a bit of a reach, her yacht idling, designer clothes stealing solipsism was hardly a political statement. Although without any substantial insight from the real life Sorokin you can hardly blame Rhimes for trying to attach some kind of heft and dramatic analogising to this story of supreme superficiality.

There is nothing wrong with a slim yarn about a girl who wanted to leapfrog into New York society, Rhimes understands the allure and glamour of this lifestyle and the show is at its best when it flashes through the thrilling timeline of the con, with Neff’s point of view being particularly insightful and exciting. The show loses its power and punchy, poppy impact when it is drawn out and examined to inconsequential lengths. Why the creative choice was made to couch the story in the realm of journalism and dampen it with laboured over-analysis perhaps speaks to Netflix’s nervousness around the drama.

Netflix effectively ‘bought’ Anna’s story while she was still awaiting trial. The news about the production of Inventing Anna came just 11 short days after the New York Magazine article was published. The dust had not even gathered on those maxed out credit cards. Inventing Anna is piecing itself together along with its antihero -there are perspectives to this story that have not yet been formulated. The breakneck speed of the construction of this series echoes Anna’s own impatience, her irritation at the societal obstructions that hamper her ascent.

Aside from this desperate scramble to tell this tale there is also the problematic issue of Sorokin earning money from a prestige drama detailing her crimes. It’s not a good look for the streaming service. Although are people concerned about these moral ramifications if the story is engrossing?

This is the conundrum of modern television. Inventing Anna asks what is real and what is fake and does it really matter anyway once you are getting the results you want? Like Anna’s wealthy marks, should we care that we’re being manipulated once we are being entertained? When fact and fiction merge the truth becomes a triviality.

Inventing Anna is available on Netflix from Friday February 11th


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