Television has long been host to fantastical depictions of living large in New York City. But in retrospect, this out-of-touch genre, a common problematic favorite, has been in dire need of an update. Last year saw reboots of both Sex and the City and Gossip Girl that tried in vain to have it all—there are rumors that Girls is next—endeavoring to speak to the social issues of our time while still offering the signature forms of glamour and escapism that are their bread and butter.
Netflix, too, is now attempting to merge an out-of-touch story with a politically correct update. Premiering February 11 on the streaming service is Inventing Anna, a nine-episode miniseries that partially fictionalizes the true story of a fake German heiress who scammed her way into the upper echelons of New York society, the art world included. Exposed in 2018 by Vanity Fair and New York magazine after periodic punches from the New York Post, Anna Sorokin—known to many by her alias, Anna Delvey—evaded payments for months-long stays at posh downtown hotels, conned collector Michael Xufu Huang into footing the bill for her visit to the 2015 Venice Biennale, and even screwed over her friends on a lavish trip to Morocco, ultimately leading to her downfall. Dubbed the “Soho Grifter,” she faced trial in 2019, where she was found guilty of both theft of services and grand larceny, then slapped with a sentence of 4–12 years. She got out early, last February, on good behavior.
And with that in mind, Netflix has tried to frame Delvey’s story of conning elite Manhattan bankers, art collectors, and scenesters as—wait for it—some sort of feminist narrative instead of what it really is: proof of how easily white privilege can blur into white-collar crime. The original story is too juicy to mess up—it was made for TV. In Shonda Rhimes’s hands, Inventing Anna is chock full of delicious lines and scandalous sub-plots. Instead of a Carrie Bradshaw or Serena van der Woodsen you’re meant to envy, there’s Anna Delvey, a character you love to hate, or maybe are dying to understand.
The series opens at a printing press as magazine covers stream by, and then cuts to a news segment, both introducing the fake German heiress to fame. We quickly realize that show’s protagonist isn’t Delvey (Julia Garner) herself, but rather Vivian Kent, a journalist for the fictitious Manhattan magazine played by the urbane Anna Chlumsky of Veep fame. Kent’s story is based on the life and work of Jessica Pressler, the New York magazine reporter whose investigative article helped make Delvey notorious. Netflix doesn’t seem to have been able to secure the life rights to tell Pressler’s story, though that wasn’t a problem for 2019’s Hustlers, also based on a New York investigative piece. (The series even includes a disclaimer: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.”)
After learning of Delvey’s arrest and commenting that “the indictment reads like a novel,” Kent sets out on a journey to understand the con artist’s mysterious mind. She soon pitches the story to her editors (all men), but they aren’t interested—they need their female reporter on a tried-and-true feminist beat that’s sure to get clicks. So they try and assign her Wall Street #MeToo, but she protests, fearful that such stories simply turn women’s trauma into clickbait without offering them adequate protection or change.
Nevertheless, she persists. Her editors only acquiesce because they doubt the pregnant journalist can file before her baby is due. Still, Kent is convinced that the real story, behind the glitz and salaciousness of rich kids getting screwed, is actually about the inequities in the U.S.’s immigration system. Delvey was born in Russia and raised in Germany, and she frequently got away with her scams by blaming international wire transfers or the fact that her money was stored overseas. Compare that with nonwhite undocumented workers in the U.S. who have received much harsher punishments and cruel treatment—family separation, inhumane detention centers—despite paying taxes. The story also shows just how many people cannot fathom perceiving a pretty young white woman as capable of committing felonies. It’s “peak millennial culture,” since she thinks she’s too special to work, and says something—a lot, probably—about the fallacy of the American dream. It helps that the story Kent’s after is full of glamour and celebrities and months of living in fancy hotels like Eloise in the Plaza. Even still, it’s downright tempting, too—who knew you could simply pretend to be rich and wind up with a life of luxury? Yes, she got caught, but then Netflix cut the real Sorokin a $320,000 check for the rights to her story.
Throughout the series, it becomes clear Kent and Delvey are both upper-middle-class white women trying to make names for themselves despite capitalist patriarchy. One takes a short cut, endeavoring to scam her way into a CEO role. Delvey’s life goal is to create a members-only club à la Soho House that centers around an art foundation in her name. And she swears she’ll have the money once she turns 25 and gains access to her trust fund (but as it turns out, no such fund exists). The other is honest and hardworking and has integrity, but as a journalist, let’s face it—like Delvey, Kent too has more social capital than actual money. Inventing Anna is a tale of two girlbosses trying to make names for themselves in post-2008 Manhattan.
When the story begins, Anna is already in jail on Rikers Island, where she’s awaiting trial, and Kent begins paying visits to the con artist and people in her orbit. Like Kent, we piece together a picture of Anna from the stories of others—people she charmed, people she conned.
Endeavoring to complicate simple dismissals of Delvey—that would be too easy—the show also includes several stories of men in her life who, like Anna, faked it until they made it. Most of them never went to jail, but Anna served four years. These men aren’t portrayed as con artists, just confident businessmen who know how the sausage gets made. Footage of Trump plays casually on a TV in the background as Kent points out that “men fall upwards all the time.” Delvey’s “futurist” boyfriend Chase Sikorski (Saamer Usmani) is a fictionalized TED Talk speaker who, Anna suspects, screwed over his investors. He was creating an app for recording dreams, and planned to collect and sell data about users’ subconscious hopes and fears to advertisers. If the 50+ population is having anxiety dreams about death, for instance, shouldn’t Big Pharma know, so they can market Xanax accordingly? But somewhere along the way, he never paid his software engineer. Now, he’s living happily ever after, evading prosecution in Dubai. Like Chase, Anna was simply trying to get others to believe in the hype.
Delvey’s story is, among other things, a searing caricature of the pay-to-play art world. It’s true that if you are a white person dressed a certain way, and if you show up to enough openings and galas in New York, people will probably just assume that you are rich. Throughout the show, art is actually an afterthought. Delvey tries to create buzz around her namesake foundation and private museum, which she says will open with a Christo-wrapped building, to be designed by Gabriel Calatrava, and will have an installation in the atrium that feels “fresh and innovative”—ideally by someone like Doris Salcedo. She even swears that the building she has secured is that iconic, six-story, 19th-century one on Park Avenue. (It’s since become home to Swedish photography nonprofit Fotografiska’s New York space.) Culture is really just a reason to throw fancy parties and host exclusive events.
Save a few sculptures in the background of a scene at Storm King in the Hudson Valley, the only real art on screen is at an auction in the second episode, where Anna insists the only thing “worth a damn” is an “Untitled Film Still” by Cindy Sherman. When a gallery goer tries to dismiss the mere black-and-white photograph in favor of a big painting, Delvey retorts, “This is not dress up. This is bravery.” With that, Delvey implicitly aligns her grifting with Sherman’s role-playing-as-feminist-commentary—from 1977–80, the artist created staged stills of herself as stereotypical feminine characters.
In another scene, schmoozing with funders, Anna pronounces her interest in the intersection of art and technology. It’s tempting to read this as a biting parody—that phrase, which sounds sexy to funders but is ultimately pretty hollow (and thus, is very Anna), has morphed into a meme, where it’s used literally, as if it were an actual point on a map. The meme only emphasizes the vagueness of the phrase—how could we kiss, or meet, or get picked up at the intersection of art and technology? In Anna’s mouth, it’s clear she’s saying what she knows others want to hear.
The more well-known version of Anna’s story was penned by Rachel DeLoache Williams, a character who shows up later in the series. She, too, is framed as her own variety of girlboss, and the show sets out to make sure Williams doesn’t have the last word. Williams published her account in Vanity Fair, then turned it into a book titled My Friend Anna (2019). In both, Williams, who at the time was a photo editor at VF, tells the story of a friendship gone wrong in Morocco, where she recounts how she was cornered into footing the bill for a $62,109.29 stay at a private villa in Marrakech that the two had seen on Khloe Kardashian’s Instagram. Williams was long loyal toDelvey, she said, because “who would think to make up such an elaborate tale, and carry on like this for so long?”
When Anna’s cards start getting declined, she complains, in her characteristically rude kind of way, that her bank wouldn’t do business with “a dirty country” (referring, with rude racism, to Morocco). She promises to pay Williams back once they arrive stateside. Months pass, and after numerous follow-ups and only a $5,000 PayPal, it eventually becomes clear that Williams will never see the lion’s share of that $60,000. So Williams goes to the police and eventually works with them on a sting operation that leads to Anna’s arrest. (As with the New York story, Williams’s was published while Delvey was in Rikers awaiting trial). Anna had been hiding out in a luxurious rehab facility in Malibu, making her virtually untraceable. (U.S. visa clocks stop in rehab, and HIPPA regulations can protect a patient’s whereabouts from law enforcement.) But showrunner Shonda Rhimes intentionally makes it a little ambiguous if Anna, who was not involved in the show’s production, had engineered her stay as part of a criminal mastermind plot or was simply seeking the help that she needed at the time.
In her 2019 book, Williams posits that Anna, who was already in talks with Netflix at the time of her trial, didn’t take the plea deal she was offered because she and the producers knew a courtroom drama would be good publicity for the show—and make for a better ending. And good publicity it was—the internet became obsessed with her courtroom-chic outfits, especially her now iconic black choker and harsh Céline eyewear. Inventing Anna claps back at Williams, portraying her as an eager, annoying wannabe who leeched off her rich friend. Yes, she had to pay $60,000 in Morocco, but Anna had “paid” for so much throughout their friendship—sauna trips, expensive sessions with an in-demand personal trainer (Laverne Cox), countless luxurious dinners at Le Coucou. (The latter were charged to her room before the hotel—called 12 George in the show, 11 Howard in real life—realized she had no functioning credit card on file). Arguably, it was Williams’s turn to chip in.
When Williams takes the stand, she complains, through tears, that the credit card debt that followed their lavish vacation was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Anna’s lawyer’s retort is ice cold: “may we all be so lucky.” He proceeds to tally up just how much Williams profited from the whole ordeal. AmEx eventually dropped the charges, and Vanity Fair paid her $1,200 for her story, but that’s not all. Her book deal was $300,000, and HBO offered $30,000 to option her story, promising another $300,000 should they pick it up.
It’s so petty, and so entertaining.
Some of the juiciest scenes can only be described as a peer into how the other half lives. These out-of-touch moments are what made the original Sex and the City and Gossip Girl so very good. A standout comes from one of Anna’s bankers, who complains at home to his wife about one of his wardrobe options, telling her “only Europeans or new money would wear silk in these colors.” Another unhinged example takes place after a lavish dinner, when a bunch of friends, having just downed a 1975 bottle of Dom Pérignon, play “credit card roulette,” throwing their cards into a pile then drawing one at random to figure out who gets to foot the causal $36,000 bill. Martin Shrkeli, the “pharma bro” doing time for artificially raising the prices of an HIV drug, “wins.” You can’t help but love to hate them.
All the while, Kent is struggling to redeem her very different reputation for fakery. Over the course of the series, we slowly learn of an earlier journalistic mishap, one of the fake news variety, for which Vivian took the fall. She’s hoping her story about Anna will be her ticket out of “scriberia,” a windowless corner of the office where older, less relevant writers are sent and assigned predictable stories about Melania or #MeToo.
If you’re looking for answers as to who is Anna really, you’ll probably be disappointed by Inventing Anna. There’s an episode devoted to her backstory, but it’s not all that revealing—and maybe that’s because the real Anna is pretty boring. “You’re not stupid,” exclaims her lawyer when Anna refuses to arrive on time to her hearing, insisting she will only show if she’s well-dressed and rejecting the clothes the court offers. “So are you delusional? Do you believe your lies?” We never find out exactly—but the chase does indeed thrill. By the way, the show’s premiering one year after Delvey was released from prison, and just in time to make sure no one forgot her. All she ever wanted was to be famous, anyway.