Anna Sorokin, baby-faced con artist, is pouting and hair-flicking as the photographer snaps away. Fresh from prison, the so-called “fake heiress” is in her element: assistants are fussing over her, she’s head to toe in designer clothes and — best of all — the photo shoot hasn’t cost her a penny. At one point Sorokin disappears — she has slipped back to the makeup chair to sneak in a free haircut. “Scammers gonna scam,” quips the stylist later. She’d taken a careful inventory of her wardrobe before the fashion-conscious crook showed up.

Sorokin, 30, would have been unimpressed had she known that we were worried about light fingers. “I just went for the big stuff. I’m not really a penny pincher,” she’d told me the previous day. “I wouldn’t be going for peanuts.”

Paging Jay Gatsby …

The story of how Sorokin, the SoHo grifter, swindled New York’s high society has become one of the parables of the Instagram age. Arriving in Manhattan from Europe in 2013 using the name Anna Delvey, she became a Gatsbyesque figure: a mysterious German heiress to a $69 million fortune who dished out $100 tips, posted photos of herself living the high life, and had grand plans to open a private members’ arts club to rival Soho House.

In reality she was the Russian-born daughter of a former truck driver who was using bad checks, skipping out on hotel bills and blowing other people’s thousands on Net-a-Porter, champagne dinners, celebrity personal trainers, lavish holidays, $400 eyelash extensions, cryotherapy…

Instagram became a dumping ground for evidence of Anna Sorokin’s out-of-control lifestyle.

Some of the glitzy set smelled a rat: her lank hair was too drab for a trust fund baby, plus it was suspicious how sometimes she crashed in people’s apartments and paid for everything in cash. For a while in 2013 she had even stayed at the headquarters of that other notorious Instagram-era con artist, Billy McFarland — the founder of the ill-fated Fyre Festival of 2017, which ended in chaos with the guests stuck in disaster-relief tents and McFarland sent to prison for multimillion-dollar fraud.

It was the “summer of scam” in 2017. Sorokin’s own audacious act came crashing down that year when she was arrested for leaving thousands of dollars of unpaid bills at two swanky New York hotels (plus a lunch bill elsewhere) and she was locked up at Rikers Island, the city’s most notorious jail, which has also played host to Harvey Weinstein, the rapper Tupac Shakur and John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman.

During a highly publicized trial in 2019, the true scale of Sorokin’s crimes became apparent. She had convinced City National Bank to loan her $100,000 — small change the “heiress” promised to repay within days — which she blew on clothes, beauty treatments and boutique hotels. She had forged bank documents and created a fake financial adviser in a bid to obtain a $22 million loan to fund the Anna Delvey Foundation, the pie-in-the-sky arts club she aimed to create in a six-story building on Park Avenue South. She scammed friends, five-star hotels and banks to the tune of $275,000. Prosecutors maintained the true sum was probably far higher.

Her lank hair was too drab for a trust fund baby.

Sorokin was found guilty of eight charges, including second-degree grand larceny (theft), theft of services and attempted grand larceny. She was cleared of two charges, one relating to the attempted $22 million loan and one to the theft of $62,000 for a Morocco trip, paid for on a friend’s credit cards.

After more than three years behind bars Sorokin was freed last month. Days later she agrees to meet me at the Manhattan office of her lawyer, Todd Spodek. As ordered, I’ve sent a car to collect her from the luxury NoMad hotel where she is temporarily living. This time the hotel bills are being paid upfront by one of her lawyers, funded with money she received for a forthcoming Netflix drama series about her crimes — $320,000, most of which has gone on paying back the banks she bilked, plus fines and legal fees.

Breaking Curfew

While we wait for her to arrive I confess my worries to Spodek that she’ll run circles around me. Has she tried to manipulate him? “Of course. People like Anna just can’t help themselves,” Spodek says, sitting under a framed court sketch of the trial.

Sorokin waltzes in wearing Celine sunglasses, shoulder-robing a black fur coat and clutching a Rick Owens handbag. Sinking onto the sofa, she is stressed about the logistics of her new life on the outside. “There are so many things that no one can do for me.” She is fighting deportation to Germany after US authorities said she had overstayed her visa, an appeal against her conviction is underway, and there are parole conditions to obey. She has a 9pm-7am curfew, cannot be in a gang (“I was thinking of starting my own,” she jokes), take drugs or own guns. “I can’t have any bank accounts unless I ask for permission [from parole officers], and they’re taking their time giving me one.”

Following her 2017 crime spree, Spodek argued in court that “there’s a little bit of Anna in all of us” — as if the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality is endemic in American life. He likened his client to Frank Sinatra, citing the “New York, New York” lyric: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” “She was blinded by the glitter and glamour of New York City,” said the judge.

Does Sorokin believe anyone could have done what she did? “I haven’t met that many people who resemble me,” she says in her unplaceable, trans-European accent. “My ability to handle stress is pretty high and I don’t know where it comes from. I was just always like this. People who freak out and be dramatic for no reason just annoy me, and I try to stay away from them.”

After her May 2019 conviction for swindling more than $200,000, Sorokin spent 21 months at Rikers Island.

Sorokin is maddeningly elusive. She is cherub-cheeked, giggles often and blushes, which creates an endearing air of naivety and innocence. (“I think that’s part of the trap,” Spodek warns later.) Coupled with foreign charm, steely bravado and wily intelligence, it’s easy to see how Manhattan’s elite were taken in.

In 2019, a day after being sentenced, she told The New York Times: “I’d be lying to you and to everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything. I regret the way I went about certain things.” Last October she gushed to the parole board: “I just want to say that I’m really ashamed and I’m really sorry for what I did,” according to a transcript seen by the New York Post. She was released from prison early for good behavior. Yet today she refuses to answer on the record when I ask her if she feels any shame about her behavior.

A master-manipulator streak is evident. On power she says: “I enjoy the feeling of control.” On getting contraband into prison: “I saw it as an intellectual challenge: how to get the things that I wanted without giving anything in return.”

Sorokin spent 21 months in Rikers, a place so brutal that it’s dubbed Torture Island, and about 20 months at Albion Correctional Facility, a prison for women in upstate New York. “I found it interesting how the staff would be willing to do things for me for nothing in return,” she says, sipping green tea. Fans sent her caviar, chocolates and “dumb stuff like panties”.

People Skills

Certainly she has extraordinary skills in luring people into her web. In 2015 she befriended Gabriel Calatrava, son of the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, and persuaded him to design her proposed $40 million arts’ club. She also discussed the project with the hotelier André Balazs, the owner of Chiltern Firehouse in London and Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.

She recalls watching her project grow “bigger and bigger”. “That made me so happy. I never could just sit at home and be someone’s girlfriend or wife.” Did she feel her plan had snowballed out of control? “Yeah, definitely. I would not have stopped. They put me in prison, but that was the only way to stop me.”

Fans sent her caviar, chocolates and “dumb stuff like panties.”

She is now snooty about the venture. “I just feel like no one needs another social club at this point,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I need a bigger purpose, bigger things to work on than focusing on a bunch of people getting drunk together.”

Her dreams have always been bigger than her horizons. When she was 15 her family moved from Domodedovo, a city near Moscow, to Eschweiler, a town in western Germany that she describes as parochial and dull. “I looked at these people and I thought there is no way that this can be my life.”

As a teenager she adored fashion, collecting Vogue magazines and dressing up her brother, who is 13 years younger. She tells me proudly that she was “in the mean girl clique” at school. After leaving she won a place at the illustrious Central Saint Martins art college in London, but — wanting “a taste of real life” — she deferred for a year and ended up not going.

Instead she fetched up in Paris, working as an intern at the mega-trendy magazine Purple. It was there that she adopted her alias. Where did the name Delvey come from? “I don’t know. I just kind of came up with it and it stuck. There was no big plan or scheme behind it.” The shoulder-rubbing with the rich and beautiful began, and her Instagram following soared.

But Paris was too sleepy for her. “In Paris everything is just closed at six. You cannot tell a person, ‘I’m going to give you £500,000. Do this for me now.’ They were like, ‘No, [it’s] family time. Sorry.’”

In happier times, Sorokin socialized with downtown denizens such as editor Olivier Zahm and model Olga Sorokina.

She craved the 24-hour hustle of New York. In 2013, with seemingly nowhere else to live, Sorokin stayed at the SoHo headquarters of McFarland’s dodgy credit-card company, Magnises, which charged millennials $250 a year for exclusive entry to events. She and McFarland had crossed paths at parties, she tells me, suggesting that he had been impressed by her connections to Purple magazine. She is reported to have crashed in a spare room there rent-free for four months, but she claims it was more like “a couple of weeks and I never really interacted with them — I’m kind of avoiding that narrative”. She adds: “He’s like a Wall Street guy and younger than me so was never really in my scene.” She balks at my suggestion that she and McFarland could team up when he leaves prison in 2023.

Background Check

Among the glitzy, arty Manhattan circle she infiltrated, Sorokin kept her family background vague. Her father was rumored to be an oil titan, or a diplomat, or a solar panel mogul. Her parents, who still live in Germany, run a cooling and heating business.

Unsurprisingly she finds the fake heiress tag “awful”. “I never felt like I came through pretending to be this heiress. There are so many rich people in New York, so who gives a f***? No one cares,” Sorokin says. “I never thought I’d be able to impress anyone with money. Not here. Maybe back in Eschweiler.”

In 2019 Sorokin told The New York Times that her motive was never money. “I was power hungry,” she admitted. Did she crave fame too? “I just didn’t want to get famous for some sex scandal. That would be the wrong type of fame. I guess I wanted attention but for the right thing,” she tells me. Was celebrity as a scammer the right type? “It could have been worse, definitely.”

To her 87,000 or so Instagram followers, Sorokin plays up her villainous reputation. She compared herself to the “famous criminals” Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby in one blog. But in person she shies away from her criminality. “I never thought everyone would be so outraged by it,” she says. “I understood I was cutting corners and taking shortcuts, but in my mind I was never doing anything criminal. It was very unorthodox, but I was not like, ‘Oh, I’m probably going to go to jail.’ ”

“I just didn’t want to get famous for some sex scandal. That would be the wrong type of fame.”

The multimillion-dollar loan she was seeking for the arts club would have gone to the company that owns the building on Park Avenue South, she argues. “This is the reason I thought that no one would actually charge me with anything, because it is crazy to assume … everyone knows it’s all just going to be frozen sitting in all these people’s accounts. To just assume … to accuse me of any such thing is … ugh,” she says, exasperated.

Sorokin believed that she would pull off the Anna Delvey Foundation, according to Spodek. “Whether she was going to pay everyone back or not, I’ve no idea. Unlikely but possible,” he adds.

Either way, the “heiress” indisputably lived high on the hog, racking up eye-watering bills at the 11 Howard and the Beekman hotels. (They eventually cottoned on to her useless credit cards and turfed her out.) One wealthy acquaintance funded her trip to the Venice Biennale art festival but was never paid back. In 2017 a private jet company was fooled into flying her and her friends on a $35,000 trip to Warren Buffett’s annual shareholders’ conference in Nebraska, where they gate-crashed the billionaire’s VIP dinner. (“We had a lot of fun. It was great,” Sorokin recalls, grinning.)

There was a birthday dinner at the fashionable restaurant Sadelle’s that she hired a PR firm to organize; Sorokin scarpered without paying. Her 30th birthday celebrations behind bars in January were lower-key. “My friends made me a bean burger and we watched Straight Outta Compton [the film about the gangsta-rap group NWA].”

A Sociopath, or Merely Social?

Her downfall began in May 2017, when Sorokin invited a friend called Rachel DeLoache Williams, who was then a picture researcher at Vanity Fair magazine, on an “all-expenses-paid” holiday to a $7,000-a-night riad in Morocco. Spewing excuses and promises of repayment, Sorokin left her companion with a $62,000 bill. She has no guilt about it — and is not legally obligated to pay her back. “If Rachel Williams feels like I need to pay her back, she knows how to find me.”

DeLoache Williams, who has written a book about the fake heiress, My Friend Anna, has described Sorokin as a sociopath. The trickster shrugs off the diagnosis. “I see where they’re coming from,” she says. “I actually see it as a compliment because they see Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs as sociopaths, so if they mean it in that way, I’ll take it.”

Sorokin left her friend Rachel DeLoache Williams with a $62,000 bill for a trip to Morocco.

Later that same holiday Sorokin stayed at Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s hotel outside Marrakech, and remembers seeing the billionaire. “He was playing chess and was there with his mum, but we didn’t have any interaction.” She reportedly stiffed the hotel out of the $20,000 bill. I ask if she can recall settling up. She professes to having a fuzzy memory. “I don’t think I did [pay] because it wouldn’t make sense from the timeline because I owed Rachel that money.”

That was to be one of her last blowouts. That July she was arrested for the first time, after leaving thousands of dollars of unpaid bills at the Beekman and W New York hotels and a lunch bill of less than $200 at a restaurant at the Le Parker Meridien hotel.

She was released pending a court hearing, but fled to California, where she hid at Passages, a $60,000-a-month rehab clinic (“a good preview for my life in prison”).

In a satisfying role reversal, DeLoache Williams took part in a sting operation to lure Sorokin out into the open for the police to pounce. By chance she was heading to Los Angeles for a photo shoot, and arranged to meet Sorokin for lunch. She sent the police in her stead. “It was extra,” says Sorokin, using millennial vernacular for over-the-top.

She was taken to Rikers Island, where she recalls a predator versus prey environment: “People will try to test you to see how stupid you are and how far you will go. You kind of need to do some crazy things just to show them and then you’ll just go by your notoriety.” Of the guards she says: “The more you argue with them, the nastier they get. I guess it’s a power trip.” She ended up in solitary confinement, and Sorokin is vague about why.

Dubbed “Princess” in prison, Sorokin says she saw more drugs than she had ever witnessed on the party circuit. “Some women’s actual job is to go from jail to jail boofing,” she says, explaining the lingo for smuggling drugs inside your vagina.

She describes the prison pecking order to me: “Baby killers” are at the bottom. Plenty of women are locked up because of their boyfriends’ crimes, according to Sorokin. I bring up Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite currently in a New York jail on charges of trafficking girls for her ex-boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse. Epstein was found dead in his prison cell in 2019. “It feels a bit like they are using her because they cannot have [Epstein] and the prosecutors need someone to shame in public,” Sorokin says. “I feel like it’d have been different if he was still alive.”

Trials and Errors

Maxwell’s trial this summer will attract an even bigger media circus than Sorokin’s received in April 2019. Living in the city, I followed Sorokin’s case closely and observed how her parents were absent. “I guess I’d have liked them for emotional support, but they were never the people I relied upon,” Sorokin says, claiming to have a “great relationship” with them now. “They help me with a lot of stuff. I’m actually writing a piece [for her website] about how I made my dad buy me 50 bras,” she says, before explaining prison’s strict lingerie requirements. The family last saw each other in February 2017. “I don’t think they even know anyone who’s ever been arrested. My mum, especially, still perceives it as very negative,” she says.

She has apologized to her parents for causing them stress, but sees no need to apologize to anyone else. She bristles when I ask if she has any regrets. “I’m not coming from a place where I’m saying I did everything right, come be like me. Absolutely not. But it feels like I did what I did, at that point I thought it was a good decision and now clearly it was not. I’m now just dealing with the consequences of my actions. What else am I supposed to do?”

Her brother received flak at school after the story hit the stratosphere. “It was never my intention to put him into that position, but I guess that’s the risk you take when someone from your family is a criminal,” she says, nonsensically.

The lessons she has taken from jail don’t focus on contrition or honesty but learning how to rub along with everyone and how to survive without a phone. “I learnt how to read people better, for sure,” she says. “You just learn to figure out people’s motives.”

There were reports that she had found love behind bars. “I had experiences with, like, relationships with females,” she says tentatively. Sexual relationships? “No comment,” she laughs. Her prison stint convinced her that she would like to have a family one day. In her early twenties, Sorokin jetted around the world for two years with her boyfriend Hunter Lee Soik, a Korea-born Californian “futurist” who was profiled in The New Yorker in 2013 about his dream archiving app, Shadow. The project never saw the light of day.

These days men approach her on social media and she is writing a questionnaire for prospective boyfriends: “Are you a journalist? Are you a convicted felon? How much of my time do you require?” An ideal partner would have his own business and a forceful personality. “I’d like someone who would call me out on my bullshit. He can’t be too impressed.”

After a two-year reign as a New York City socialite, Sorokin found herself with a prison nickname: “Princess.”

First, though, Sorokin must find an apartment in New York: her parole officers are unimpressed with her living in the NoMad. “If you need to get something done, there’s always someone around,” she says of hotel living. Nevertheless she’ll likely be deported back to Europe at some point. If so she wants to move to London, where she loves the shopping and the “awesome” art scene. “I have friends, I’ll make it happen,” she says.

The lessons she has taken from jail don’t focus on contrition or honesty but learning how to rub along with everyone and how to survive without a phone.

No doubt she’ll stay in the limelight. Using the prison phone just before she got out, Sorokin enjoyed a Net-a-Porter shopping spree, buying, among other things, Celine sunglasses, a $720 Balenciaga hoodie and Alexander McQueen and Nike trainers. Where is the cash coming from? “I still have some money from Netflix, and I have other projects I was working on that have not been that widely publicized,” she says vaguely.

Inventing Anna, the Netflix drama about Sorokin, comes out later this year and stars Julia Garner, best known for the crime series Ozark, in the lead role. There is also an HBO drama in the pipeline. She is writing a book about prison — “hopefully someone will buy it and make it a series”.

She doesn’t want to work for other people. “I have no problem changing my mind and my opinions, but I wouldn’t want to respond to anyone.” She is interested in criminal justice reform (“I want to change the system completely”) and would love to collaborate with Kim Kardashian, the reality TV queen turned prison activist. “Her way of getting to know [the justice system] is studying to become a lawyer, my way of getting to know it was going to prison.”

The day we meet she is trailed by a cameraman for a vlog — “Anna Delvey TV” (she still calls herself Delvey). She would do a reality television series only if she could control the narrative. Her Instagram account suggests otherwise, but Sorokin insists she wants more than fripperies and fancy dinners. “It’s so easy to come out and slip into the whole thing, staying in a hotel, getting room service, shopping all day,” she says. “This is not what my life should be.”

I paint a picture of the funds drying up and her returning to her parents’ home in Germany. Sorokin looks disgusted. “With everything that I have going on, I think it would be stupid of me to run out of money.”

As we wrap up, Sorokin tells me about some of the people she met in jail: a woman who stabbed her boyfriend to death after he posted naked photos of her online; another who hired men to murder her boyfriend and set him alight; a girl who killed an old lady over $20 in a robbery gone wrong. “The scariest part is they’re completely normal,” she says, putting her sunglasses back on. “I guess people expect a freak show.”

Laura Pullman is the New York correspondent for The Sunday Times of London