Netflix’s ‘Inventing Anna’ gives us the scammer antihero we deserve

A little Anna Delvey goes a long way. That’s the generous way to describe the central character of Netflix’s Inventing Anna. A more accurate assessment would be that she is among the most annoying people in the world—living, dead, fictionalized, or thinly veiled.

From her ridiculous accent to the constant brazen lies it’s in service of telling, from her odious self-obsession to her gauche classism—in any situation, she’s reliably the worst. Deftly embodied by rising star Julia Garner, Delvey is a sentient Balenciaga catalog that owes you lots of money and, paradoxically, mocks you for needing it back. As insufferable as she is, though, she’s also likely to induce in viewers a flicker of icky recognition.

While only the most misguided souls might openly emulate the fake heiress, there’s a little Anna Delvey in all of us now. She is, unfortunately, an avatar of our times. As depicted in Shonda Rhimes’s slick new series, she’s the scammer antihero we deserve.

Back in May 2018, New York Magazine published journalist Jessica Pressler’s juicy, compulsively readable profile of a conniving former art magazine intern. During the three proceeding years, that intern, Delvey—whose actual surname is Sorokin—managed to convince some of the most influential, connected people in fashion, finance, and real estate that she was a German heiress on the make. Her goal? To open a Soho House for the art world, an international hub of chill vibes, creativity, and drinks, for idle rich RISD grads and glamazons. She came unreasonably close to making it happen, too. Until it all fell spectacularly apart.

The Delvey saga entered the American mythos during a period New York dubbed the Summer of Scam. It was a year after Fyre Festival, and a year before the Varsity Blues scandal. In between those two touchstones were no shortage of scammy pebbles to sift through. There was also Bad Blood, the book-length investigation into Elizabeth Holmes’ all-time classic fraudulent moonshot.

But as scamtastic as that period seemed, it now feels like mere table-setting for what has followed since. Not only has America’s rapacious fascination with scammers kept pace—Inventing Anna comes just three weeks before Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of Holmes, The Dropout, hits Hulu—so have the scams themselves.

As several writers have noted in addressing the Summer of Scam, author Maria Konnikova’s 2016 book The Confidence Game explains that moments of broad transition tend to be boom times for con artists. Well, no time in the modern era has been more defined by broad transition than the last two years, and we have the scams to prove it.

According to the Los Angeles Times, consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020, an eye-popping 83% rise from the previous year’s $1.8 billion. And those are just the predatory moves of pandemic hustlers! Look beyond them and it’s impossible to miss that almost everything the light touches these days is a scam.

The stock market is a scam, and members of Congress being allowed to trade stocks on it is a scam. Getting into academia is a scam, and academia itself is a scam. (Also, lest we forget, the last U.S. President had to pay a $25 million settlement for his namesake scam university.)

Office culture is a real estate scam, and CEO op-eds about the virtues of office culture are a media scam. Substack is another media scam, rewarding populist pundits for pivoting to the anti-vaxxer beat, while elsewhere in media, book publishing remains bustling with scams.

That commercial for Crypto.com, in which Matt Damon waxes Web3 while gazing at Elon Musk’s Mars™—trademark pending!—is a scam, as is almost everything pertaining to celebrities, crypto, and Elon Musk.

Don’t even get me started on NFTs.

Our culture, as it stands, is an infinity turducken of scams. Of course the definitive scammer of our times should be portrayed as a plucky antihero on a prestige Netflix series, for which she was paid a reported $320,000. (Don’t worry: Delvey also claims to have not one but two books on the way.)

Inventing Anna has that breezy Shonda Rhimes sheen. Things move fast, everyone looks amazing, and the dialogue sparkles with au courant vernacular. The engine of the show is journalist Vivian Kent—a Pressler surrogate, played by Veep‘s Anna Chlumsky—who is intensely focused on breaking the first full account of the Delvey story.

In the world of the show, just as in real life, the New York Post has already written some short items about Delvey by the time Pressler/Kent becomes aware of her. Unlike in real life, the journalist here is saddled with a fraught, invented backstory that too often barges its way to the forefront. Much more effective are the scenes of Kent deconstructing Delvey’s web of deceit, through flashback-heavy interviews with Delvey’s friends and acquaintances, along with the fake heiress herself, who begins the show already in prison. The real selling point of the series, after all, is the chance to see exactly how Delvey was able to convince so many dubious elites that she was one of their ilk. (Nothing in the show, however, accounts for how she convinced so many of them that the right name for her upper-crusty social club was THE ANNA DELVEY FOUNDATION. That one remains a mystery.)

So, how was Delvey able to fool everyone? First of all, the lady had taste. From her intern days at ultra-hip European art magazine Purple, she honed an instinct for what was in and what was out, and it was apparently strong enough to pass the smell test with fashion photographers and gallerists. Secondly, she was mean in a way that suggests the kind of social stature that allows one to get away with such behavior. She makes convincing threats as she bullies various workers into compliance, exploiting their desire not to get in trouble with the higher-ups that Delvey claims to know personally.

She also counts on the jet-set marks in her scam being wealthy enough to act carelessly with their own money, or at least understand why an apparent financial peer might forget about money she owes them.

Finally, whenever she’s cornered by someone demanding the truth, be it the journalist Kent or an irate acquaintance, Delvey either tells a sob story about paternal neglect, or leans into a sort of girl-bossy entitlement to do what men have always done. The show too often appears to side with her on the latter score.

What is ultimately most revealing about Delvey’s sweaty juggling act is how much of it involves socially acceptable scamming. Not the Fyre Festival brand of fraud that ends in prison time. Just typical, everyday, mom-and-pop scamming.

Delvey and her TED-talking boyfriend Chase (Saamer Usmani) bluff their way to an invite on a VIP’s yacht by pretending to be in Ibiza from the confines of a New York apartment. In our rise-and-grind culture, this kind of thing is just considered “taking initiative,” despite fitting in snugly with Delvey’s repertoire of scams. She also obsesses over her Instagram in a way that recalls the manipulative calculations that go into all of our social media self-presentation and personal branding. And much of the way she behaves around the super-rich can be boiled down to the phrase, “Act like you’ve been there before,” which itself is a benign kind of scam.

In the opening episode, the show is explicit in its theme that America runs on scams. Anna Delvey’s friend Neff (Alexis Floyd), a stylish concierge whose friendship is partly contingent on getting financial help for a film project, rebuffs Kent’s efforts to land an interview with the fake heiress. Kent forges on anyway.

“This could be an important story about financial institutions,” she says, “the way women are treated, and how society only admits those elite few into—”

Neff, the show’s moral center and an inveterate New Yorker, sees right through this phony appeal to sisterhood and cuts Kent off.

“Everyone here is running a game,” she says. “Everyone here needs to score.”

Pressed for the truth, Kent reluctantly admits her real reasons for wanting to land an interview with Delvey, and they, of course, have nothing to do with financial institutions or the way women are treated. In the end, it’s all about herself.

Just like it is for pretty much everyone else.

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