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Inventing Anna: does Netflix’s new true-crime drama glamorise scammers? | Television

‘We were close friends for a time, but she was never my best friend. I never felt that I knew her – you know, nobody felt like they knew her that well.” Rachel DeLoache Williams is recalling a friendship she made in her late 20s, back in 2016, beginning at an exclusive nightclub on New York’s Lower East Side. Her new companion was, she says, the opposite of her – a “bold, offbeat, audacious” trustafarian and good-time girl who thought nothing of tipping hundreds of dollars at hotels and restaurants. She seemed keen to be friends with Williams, treating her to lavish dinners and even inviting her to sessions with a personal trainer who had worked with Denzel Washington and Gwen Stefani. However, the party girl’s erratic, forgetful and often entitled behaviour masked something far darker, which is now clear to the former Vanity Fair photo editor.

“Any time you have to make excuses for somebody – repeatedly – it’s a good indicator that you should give the relationship space,” she says gravely. “I know much more now about sociopathy, and that enigmatic charm. That’s how the whole charade functions.”

The charade, of course, was that her friend was not the daughter of a German billionaire but rather that of a Russian truck driver, and she was funding her charmed life with ill-gotten gains and bad cheques. Anna Sorokin was a con artist, who scammed businesses, banks and friends out of $275,000 (£203,000), while masquerading as an heiress, “Anna Delvey”, and trying to secure investment for a Soho House-style members’ club. Williams was not only a confidante but also a victim who ended up footing a bill for $62,000 for a trip to Morocco, before spending months trying to claw back her money from Sorokin. Eventually she worked with investigators to apprehend her.

Anna Sorokin after being sentenced at Manhattan supreme court in May, 2019.
‘An increasingly fictionalised figure.’ Anna Sorokin after being sentenced at Manhattan supreme court in May, 2019. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Dubbed “the Soho grifter”, Sorokin went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with the media even charting her courtroom looks (she hired Courtney Love’s stylist, naturally) prior to her imprisonment for between four and 12 years for fraud in 2019. Part of the “unholy trinity” of scammers who have set transatlantic pop culture alight in recent years – along with Fyre festival’s Billy McFarland and blood testing entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes – Sorokin’s story has led to books (Williams wrote one, titled My Friend Anna, which chronicles the agonising effect of the debt on her life), plays (Anna X, starring The Crown’s Emma Corrin, premiered on London’s West End last year) and podcasts (see: the BBC’s Fake Heiress).

Now the tale has inspired a TV series, Inventing Anna, written by Shonda Rhimes, creator of moreish hits from Scandal to Bridgerton, based on a viral New York magazine article by journalist Jessica Pressler (whose work also formed the basis of the J-Lo movie Hustlers). The series is pacy and pulpy, with Veep’s Anna Chlumsky starring as Vivian Kent, a Pressler-like writer who works for a magazine named Manhattan – and Ozark’s Julia Garner playing the petulant but charming crook.

Inventing Anna is, quite literally, ripped from the headlines: it opens to the swaggering strains of Megan Thee Stallion, as copies of Manhattan fly off printing presses, and the dramatic cat-eye makeup and dishevelled hair of the real Sorokin/Delvey (so memorable, it seems, is the image, that they did not bother to recreate it with Garner). And yet it takes a rather creative tack when handling the story, with each episode warning that it is “completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up”.

It covers Kent’s own plight, as she aims to redeem her faltering career by getting the scoop of the decade on the fake heiress. She travels to interview her at Rikers Island prison, while heavily pregnant – lest anyone think this is a series without any emotional heft – and looking as though she may keel over at any second. Through flashbacks, a picture emerges of a conniving thief, a cringe-inducing poseuse, and something of an antiheroine, faking it till she makes it as she looks to secure a $2m bank loan for her business, which never came to pass. Garner is beguiling, her cod-European accent – veering between countries with each word – reportedly approved by Sorokin herself. The overall effect is stylised, soapy and – based on the six episodes released to the press – alternately celebrates and cocks a snook at Sorokin. It opens with a monologue from Garner’s character, describing herself as “an icon, a legend” and describing the viewer as “a big lump of nothing”.

Massaging the truth … Inventing Anna.
Massaging the truth … Inventing Anna. Photograph: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

With nine hour-long episodes, some viewers may find themselves wondering whether we have, perhaps, hit peak Anna Delvey/Sorokin. Possibly not. Annaliese Griffin wrote a piece for New York magazine’s The Cut last year about the rise of the villain in pop culture, and believes the continued interest in the subject of Inventing Anna stems less from the woman herself and more from people’s curiosity about the world she managed to inveigle herself into.

“I’m not sure I would call her a beloved figure, exactly, but the reason she is compelling is that sense of the rules being different for different people,” she says. “If you’re incredibly rich, or connected to rich people, you’re waltzing through the door at a restaurant and being comped or gifted your meals. You can float along in that embrace of money and wealth and power and obliviousness. It confirms to us that there are these different rules, that this world is calculated to keep outsiders out, and that, if you could just figure them out, and crack the code like Anna, you might be able to exist inside it, too.”

It is, she believes, particularly seductive for viewers to see someone “taking advantage of the very wealthy – sort of an ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ kind of thing”, especially at a time of increased economic precarity.

However, Inventing Anna isn’t just about the very wealthy, but also the more ordinary people with whom Sorokin came into contact. Williams had not yet seen the series when we spoke, but expressed her concerns about a semi-fictional treatment of the tale. “[Anna] is getting this entertainment treatment that elevates her and glamorises her in a way that makes this entire situation look like a net positive business venture,” she says. “I like a juicy Shonda Rhimes show, but I think it’s different when it’s based on a true story.” Indeed, Sorokin was paid $320,000 by Netflix for the series (she is believed to have in turn paid this to her creditors). “I have a closer view of things than I care to have,” adds Williams. “But what concerns me today has less to do with me and Anna – it’s more a big-picture concern for this type of entertainment.”

Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna
‘Something of an antiheroine, faking it till she makes it.’ Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna Photograph: Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Sara Rourke, a psychologist working in LA and London, sees another potentially problematic angle in turning Sorokin/Delvey into an increasingly fictionalised figure. “Anna was blurring the lines between what was real and what was made up, and now people are projecting a narrative of who they think she is. Everybody who watches the show will project all of their experiences, and thoughts and feelings and imagination and fantasies, on to it, about why she did what she did,” says Rourke.

“That says as much about the person who those fantasies belong to as they do about her. You can’t take the criminality out of it – people have got hurt in the process of what she’s done – but we maybe don’t see where she may have been the victim, where she’s been hurt and what she’s perpetuating. She’s this ambivalent, love/hate character who has also been commodified in a way.”

Problematic as it may be in many ways, Inventing Anna is perhaps the best – and the most apt – way to tell this story on TV. Its semi-fictional form mirrors the way in which Sorokin was divorced from the truth of her own life, while the framing device of a journalist looking for answers acts as a stand-in for everyone who has tried to understand the case for themselves. The reality is that pop culture has now overtaken the story, turning it into a Robin Hood-type legend for the Instagram age.

Indeed, Sorokin’s story carries on in the background, now something of a sideshow. She was released from prison in early 2021, on parole until the end of her four-year sentence, and has since been arrested again, for overstaying her visa. In an essay published last week on the US site Insider, written from US immigration custody and titled Erasing Anna, Sorokin rallied against Inventing Anna, asking whether she would “for ever be stuck in a past not entirely of my creation without getting a chance to move on?” Griffin says she didn’t even know that her stint in prison had come to an end, so separate are reality and pop culture. “I read an article about her looking for an apartment,” she says. “I was like, wow – I don’t know how that passed me by.”

  • Inventing Anna is available on Netflix from 11 February; My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams is published by Quercus in paperback on 17 February. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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