There’s something rotten in the state of new media. But then, mass-market decadence usually is. Premiering on Netflix next week, Shonda Rhimes’s Inventing Anna is a lavishly produced nine-episode limited series starring Julia Garner as Anna Sorokin, the convicted fraudster who lived large on borrowed credit cards before doing prison time for a host of felonies, most notably grand larceny.
Sorokin is also a former friend of mine. We first met in 2016, about six years into my job as a photo producer at Vanity Fair, while out in New York one evening with friends who introduced us.
It wasn’t until she left me $60,000 in debt after a now infamous trip to Morocco that I began to see her true colors. Later, I worked with the police to organize the sting operation that put her behind bars, and the world got to see her true colors, too—at least for a time.
I was not involved in the making of Inventing Anna, in which Scandal veteran Katie Lowes plays me. Netflix describes my character as “a natural-born follower” whose “blind worship of Anna almost destroys her job, her credit, and her life.”
Hyperbole aside, Anna does have a remarkable ability to influence anyone she may deem useful to her. Garner’s own public reflections after visiting her in prison: “When you meet Anna, you realize she’s actually kind of a genius, and she’s incredibly charming and really hilarious,” the actress told one outlet. And, to another: “She was really, really sweet … very gentle … and very smart.... She did all these [terrible things], but people liked her, obviously. And when I met her, I understand why.”
Garner said this after spending only a short period of time with Anna. Imagine how I felt after a months-long friendship with someone who—unbeknownst to me—literally made it her livelihood to deceive people.
It wasn’t until Anna left me $60,000 in debt after a now infamous trip to Morocco that I began to see her true colors.
Yet, despite my potential objections, I can understand the series’s appeal. After all, during the course of my friendship with Anna, I, too, was amused and absorbed by her charismatic ability to shock, confound, charm, and entertain.
And it’s these very same qualities, combined with misrepresentations of her either as a “downtown Robin Hood-like figure who was stealing from the rich and giving to the poor,” as Russian critic Anna Khachiyan put it to The New York Observer, or as a high-fashion huckster who had to “fake it until she could make it” in her bid to achieve the American Dream (a courtroom contrivance used by her lawyer, Todd Spodek), that ultimately catapulted her into the realm of cult celebrity. From there, fascination, and even admiration, for the so-called socialite scammer gave rise to veritable Internet fandom.
“She’s an interesting character,” Garner said in an interview. “And whether you love her or hate her, you listen to what she’s going to say, because she’s like a star.”
Indeed, people are listening, in part because they are charmed by Anna the same way I was (and Garner was, and Jessica Pressler, whose New York magazine story about Anna was adapted for the Netflix series, was).
“I don’t care what you think of me,” Anna told a reporter during an interview following her release from prison. (She served less than 4 years of her 4-to-12-year sentence after being found guilty in a New York courtroom in 2019.) She continued, her tone dismissive, “I don’t need your approval. I don’t need to impress you.”
She may not need the media’s approval, but she does need its attention. And she knows statements like these will generate clicks. That they also reveal an appalling, if unsurprising, absence of remorse and an aversion to self-reflection is something she knows most people won’t dwell on too closely.
But there’s a bigger reason people are listening to Anna Sorokin: Netflix. The streaming company got in early, initiating talks with Anna about a series following her arraignment, and officially securing her life rights nearly a year before her court case even began.
Now it is poised to do what it does best: disseminate her splashy alter ego across the screens of its hundreds of millions of subscribers.
For Anna and Netflix alike, attention is stock-in-trade. Consider that whatever scruples audiences may have with Inventing Anna, whether they celebrate or scrutinize its dubious depictions, any controversy that ensues is sure to attract an even wider audience.
If controversy is good for ratings, why not re-cast the villain as the victor, a stick-it-to-the-man feminist icon? Why not glow-up the felon, gloss over the gaslighting, and go for a story line, as teased in Inventing Anna’s trailer, that’s “completely true … except for the parts that are totally made up”?
We all want to be entertained. After the past two years, who doesn’t crave an escape, an all-expenses-paid adventure that takes us from frigid Manhattan to sun-drenched Marrakech? The invitation’s allure is hard to deny.
Take it from someone who knows: This is the art of the con, a shell game that proffers irresistible thrills for low stakes, while a sleight of hand carries out the high-roller business unseen. Netflix isn’t just putting out a fictional story. It’s effectively running a con woman’s P.R.—and putting money in her pocket.
People have never loved grift stories as much as they do today, and media companies are competing to give viewers what they want. In the case of Anna Sorokin, Netflix moved so quickly that their involvement influenced the nature of the very story they intended to dramatize.
Sorokin’s lawyer, Todd Spodek, who represented his client in both her criminal and entertainment proceedings, was financed by Netflix money—the company paid Anna $30,000 pre-trial, which went toward Spodek’s fees, plus an additional sum after her conviction that the state required her to use, in part, to cover the balance. (Spodek will also be featured as a character in the TV series.)
In addition to funding her criminal defense, Netflix provided Anna with so much cash that, even after some victims recouped their losses (thanks to a judge’s invocation of the “Son of Sam” law), she finished her prison sentence with capital leftover—seemingly enough to burn on Balenciaga and then some. (In 2019, a judge found Anna not guilty for failing to pay me back for the Morocco trip.)
Whether Anna’s own self-stylings would have been sufficient to re-invent her brand is something we’ll never know, because a juggernaut of Netflix marketing pros took the reins the minute she was released from prison in early 2021, repositioning the character of “Anna Delvey” from fraudster to front-row.
Take it from someone who knows: This is the art of the con.
Even now that Anna is back behind bars, this time for overstaying her visa (she is German by nationality), her voice is being given a pedestal. Just this week, Insider released an essay written by Anna from prison in New Jersey.
In case anyone had any doubts, Anna is characteristically unapologetic in her piece, titled “Erasing Anna.” Instead, she asks for our pity—“Did I mention I’m the only woman in ICE custody in this whole jail?”—while appealing to the social-media set who will inevitably help her story go viral: “Tell me I’m special without telling me I’m special.”
When true stories are cycled and recycled—in everything from documentaries and dramatizations to magazine stories and memes—the “continuous looping and reformatting … results in the blurring of fact and fiction,” writes Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice who studies the meeting of modern media and the criminal-justice system. “People come to believe that fictional events are real, that real events didn’t happen, and that hybrid—part real, part fiction—events are common.”
Because of Netflix, Anna emerged from behind bars financially net positive, with legions of followers and a level of notoriety from which she’ll presumably continue to profit. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book about my experiences with Anna in 2019. My goal in sharing the story was to give a firsthand account of the truth—and a good thing, too, considering the way the actual events have been warped into a sensationalized narrative that’s holding on to reality by a thread, at best. Also, I was $60,000 in debt.)
Relishing her post-prison fame, in conversation with 60 Minutes Australia, she took a moment to reflect on her past. “It turned out pretty well.... I feel like I just did all—like, I just had all these amazing experiences and I’m going to write a book about it, so I don’t regret it personally.”
The con-as-content model seems well on its way to becoming an aspirational career path.
To hear Rachel DeLoache Williams reveal more about her story, listen to her on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Inventing Anna premieres on Netflix on February 11
Rachel DeLoache Williams is a New York–based photographer and writer. Her book, My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress, will be published in paperback on February 15