Inventing Anna on Netflix – why are we obsessed with female scammers?

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e learn exactly what sort of person Anna Delvey is just minutes after she’s introduced in Netflix’s new drama series Inventing Anna. After tearfully confessing she’s done “nothing wrong” to Vivian, a Manhattan magazine journalist desperate to profile the shameless scam artist as she awaits trial, Anna has just one final question for her before she agrees to the exclusive interview.

Peering at Vivian from behind a pair of thick black Celine frames, she asks: “Are you pregnant or are you just so very fat?”

It does make you wonder how someone so unpleasant could have spent years sweet-talking New York’s financial elite into parting with hundreds of thousands of dollars by means of nothing more than a fancy wardrobe and a hazy story about funds “tied up” in trust. Anna Delvey, real name Anna Sorokin, was a fake ‘heiress’ who smoothly navigated her way through the upper echelons of Manhattan society, conning everyone she met. Her story was brought to the wider public by journalist Jessica Pressler’s sensational feature in The Cut in 2018, and afforded her instant notoriety. Pressler is a producer on the series and an inspiration for the character of Vivian, while Netflix is reported to have paid Sorokin $320,000 for the rights to her story.

Recent years have seen a surge in producers and storytellers eager to leap on the narratives of female con artists. Amazon Prime audiences loved Rosamund Pike’s recent fictional grifter story I Care a Lot, released in 2020, while the 2019 film Hustlers, based on another of Pressler’s in-depth articles, was also a critical hit. Shondaland’s Inventing Anna will be the first TV series to land about Sorokin, while Lena Dunham is reportedly creating her own series for HBO about the fake heiress. A version of the story already appeared on the West End stage in 2021 in Joseph Charlton’s play Anna X, in which Emma Corrin played the titular fraudster and Nabhaan Rizwan her slightly hapless tech-bro boyfriend.

Nabhaan Rizwan and Emma Corrin in Anna X

/ Helen Murray

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Elsewhere, the story of the meteoric rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos – the health technology company that was valued at $9 billion after claiming to have revolutionised blood testing – is also receiving the Hollywood treatment: Amanda Seyfried is set to star as the convicted fraudster Holmes, who faces up to 20 years in prison after it was shown that the capabilities of her Edison blood testing device were vastly overstated, in upcoming Hulu series The Dropout. Apple also has its own feature film in the works, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. It’s a particularly fast-moving race to bring the story to screens, particularly as Holmes hasn’t even been sentenced yet.

There’s a reason why audiences are beguiled by female con artists – and, surprise, it has to do with sexism. “We’re always attracted to people who break the law, whether they’re male or female, because people who break the law are exciting,” says David Wilson, criminologist at Birmingham City University, but it’s their “double deviance” that makes female grifters quite so fascinating to us.

“Not only are female criminals deviant in terms of committing crimes, they’re also deviant in creating a mirror of a cultural stereotype of what we think of as being feminine,” he explains. “There’s the stereotype of what it means to be a woman: nurturing, caring, subservient, and pliable.”

But there’s another reason why being a con artist is, well, a bit sexy – not just among us law-abiding citizens. The grifter holds a special position at the top of the criminal hierarchy, explains Tim Holmes, criminal justice lecturer at Bangor University .

“They were seen as the elite of criminality,” he says. “If you’re a con artist, then you’re a professional, essentially. You don’t use brute force, but your mind and your guile to get something. Historically, they have always held a high status in criminal fraternity.”

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in the forthcoming The Dropout

/ HULU

This perceived intelligence and ability to world-build gives grifters a wider space to be romanticised. Inventing Anna’s producer Shonda Rhimes certainly encourages viewers to root for Anna’s ruthlessness as her master plan unfolds. Julia Garner’s depiction of the fraudster is captivating: despite being rude, unforgiving and unrepentant, Anna is not unlikeable: she’s so excessive, extravagant and exaggerated in her self-created role as conceited heiress, she’s more like Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn: a parody of the ultimate #girlboss rather than a femme fatale who relies on her feminine wiles to seduce her prey.

We also covertly rejoice in Anna’s fraudulence because her marks simply are unlikeable. Her biggest victims are supremely wealthy: vast, faceless corporations and luxury hoteliers. When Anna does have money, she spends lavishly and generously, tipping staff $100 bills and buying friends designer gowns. That’s key.

“The status of those who are victimised aids our perception of the scammers,” Wilson explains. “Anna defrauded people who aren’t typically considered ‘victims’ in society. Who cares if a bank is defrauded? Who cares if a millionaire investor has fallen for the scam? Secretly, we’re on the scammers’ side.” The point stands for Hustlers too, which followed a group of strippers who fleece their (mostly) repellent clientele. You want to cheer them on.

Inventing Anna seems keen to illustrate that Anna’s ultimate fate too is the result of sexist double standards. Her ‘futurist’ boyfriend character Chase (Saamer Usmani) is equally guilty, merrily taking investors’ money without his ‘Wake’ app ever materialising, while Alan Reed (Anthony Edwards), a wealthy lawyer who helps Anna to secure a US bank account, still has his multi-million dollar townhouse and housemaid to retreat to.

Julia Garner’s Sorokin faces off with journalist Vivian (Anna Chlumsky)

/ NICOLE RIVELLI/NETFLIX

Anna herself underlines the point: Chase flits off to the UAE without punishment, and Reed is handed a substantial promotion, despite letting his company be defrauded. “And what’s happened to them?’ she says to Vivian, sitting in prison at Rikers Island. “No consequences, no fallout, and definitely no jail time. Men fail upwards all the time.”

That’s not to say Rhimes wants to let her version of Anna completely off the hook. Inventing Anna shows her impact on more ordinary victims. Neff, the concierge at the 12 George, the hotel where Delvey stays (portrayed by Alexis Floyd, she’s a version of Neffatari Davis, who worked at the 11 Howard, where Sorokin was based) finds herself hundreds of dollars out of pocket and with her job on the line after Anna fails to pay for her suite, while a journalist, Rachel (played by Katie Lowes and based on Rachel DeLoache Williams of Vanity Fair), lands a $60,000 bill on her work card due to Anna’s skullduggery.

However, as Neff tells Vivian (Anna Chlumsky), some of Anna’s victims are happy to be drawn into Anna’s appealing fantasy world — a surprisingly common reaction, according to Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game.

“The real confidence game feeds on the desire for magic, exploiting our endless taste for an existence that is more extraordinary and somehow more meaningful,” she writes. “But when we’re falling for a con, we aren’t actively seeking deception — or at least we don’t think we are. As long as the desire for magic, for a reality that is greater than our everyday existence, remains, the confidence game will thrive.”

Anna certainly led a life others would covet. Even though she repeatedly claims to be a “woman in business”, her money goes straight on luxury purchases: designer handbags, couture, dinners in the best restaurants, expensive hotel suites that she knows she cannot afford.

Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day

/ AARON EPSTEIN/NETFLIX

“Con artists do with their money what we’d always want to do,” Wilson explains. “They don’t buy property with it. It’s all conspicuous consumption on material goods. They don’t delay gratification. They’re driven by the need to immediately consume. That points back to the tension we may feel: criminals behave like how we secretly desire.”

Modern society has more in common with Delvey than we may like to admit. Anna’s skill resides in her ability to weave an appealing narrative, presenting a false but beautiful reality in order to draw people into her scheme. Even when she was on trial for fraud, Anna committed to aspects of her fake identity, hiring a stylist to oversee her court appearances.

Building a fake yet enticing world is something even Rhimes indulges in, punctuating each episode of Inventing Anna with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “This whole story is completely true. Except for the parts that are totally made up.”

Holmes used similar tactics — dubbing her Edison machine the iPod of healthcare, she consciously emulated Steve Jobs, hoping people would conflate her abilities with that of the Apple visionary. She wore monochrome poloneck sweaters, a bold red lipstick and deepened her voice a la Margaret Thatcher in a bid to project strength and gravitas in an otherwise male-dominated field — and to craft her own alternative truth.

Elizabeth Holmes in the HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

/ HBO

“Elizabeth Holmes and her Silicon Valley investors were not unlike someone applying for Dragons’ Den,” says Tim Holmes (no relation). “No-one knew whether she was speaking the truth or talking total rubbish. But she presented herself in an appealing, investable way. She was a Stanford University student, she was aligned with hugely powerful and influential figures.

“She said she could make this fantastical idea a reality. People found it easy to believe her: she came from an affluent business background, she presented herself as a professional businesswoman.”

Constructing an alternative reality is now commonplace in a society in thrall to social media, with influencer culture allowing — and encouraging — people to craft a perception of life that simply isn’t real to make money from aspiration.

“We live in a world where we put a sheen on reality to make things appear more enticing,” Tim Holmes says. “Think of the social media influencers who said they’re just jetting off to New York, stood next to a private airplane, when actually it turns out they were on a commercial flight and they’re not as rich and as a fabulous as they’re pretending to be. But they sell us this idea and they make a profit off it. What we’re seeing here is the extreme of that, using [those] means to create a new reality.”

Sorokin/Delvey created an entirely fictional life for herself

/ NICOLE RIVELLI/NETFLIX

And perhaps this is the darker reason for our fascination with female con artists: secretly, we (women especially) want to be them. Sorokin lived her double life precariously and seemingly without concern, allowed a freedom that most women simply cannot access.

“Most people, especially women, live their lives rattling around inside a thousand and one social barriers,” writes Tori Telfer in her book Confident Women. “But, through some mysterious alchemy of talent and criminality, the con artist bursts through those barriers like Houdini escaping from one of his famous suspended straitjackets. The con artist… drives a fancy car right off the parking lot or steals a necklace made of 647 diamonds, and she doesn’t care who pays the price for her crimes.”

Sorokin was released from prison in February last year, after serving only three years of her sentence, and checked into a swanky hotel with her Netflix money, though it has since been reported that she was taken into custody for outstaying her US visa and it’s unclear whether she remains behind bars or not.

As for Holmes, even with a possible two decades of jail time looming after being convicted at trial of conspiracy to defraud investors, and three counts of wire fraud against investors (she was acquitted of conspiracy to defraud patients, and of two charges relating to patients who received inaccurate test results), social media pictures of the convicted felon see her looking perfectly happy and not displaying much in the way of remorse – married to a hospitality heir, still with access to significant wealth.

As Telfer writes, “though people love to turn [the female con artist] into a metaphor… she doesn’t give a damn about your figures of speech. The only person she answers to is herself. Isn’t it shocking, that sort of naked selfishness? And doesn’t it sound sort of delicious?”

Inventing Anna launches on Netflix on February 11

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