From Elizabeth Holmes to the college admissions scandal, we’ve found ourselves awash in stories of grifters lately. But we perhaps reached Peak Scammer Obsession last summer with the tale of Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, an aspiring socialite who managed to convince the New York City elite that she was a German heiress, allegedly scamming banks and hotels out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
On March 27th, she appeared in court in Manhattan, where she is being charged with grand larceny and theft of services of up to $275,000. If convicted, she will serve her prison sentence in the United States; if she is not convicted, a representative for ICE has said she will be deported back to Germany, due to her overstaying her visa.
Even those who forgot about the story were riveted when photos of her first courtroom appearance were published, which featured Sorokin wearing a beige cardigan, oversized glasses, a black choker, and a mid-length, low-cut black Miu Miu dress; and generally looking fabulous.
SHE ADDED A SWEATER AFTER LUNCH SHE CAN DO IT ALL. No one manipulates an audience with clothing better than this woman!!!! pic.twitter.com/dCi3KGpHja
— rachel seville tashjian (@theprophetpizza) March 27, 2019
While Delvey doesn’t look quite as polished as she did when she was scamming boutique hotels and posting tasteful cleavage shots on Instagram, she still looks decidedly more cute than the average person facing grand larceny charges — and there’s good reason for that, according to GQ style writer Rachel Tashijan, who reports that Delvey’s legal team hired a stylist, Anastasia Walker, to coordinate her courtroom appearances. Walker, who has worked with T-Pain and Courtney Love, told BuzzFeed that she had no compunction about styling an accused swindler, and that she is optimistic she and Delvey will “have a long-standing relationship as far as it allows.”
But who is Anna Delvey, and why has her grift captured the hearts and minds of scam lovers everywhere? Here’s a quick primer for the next time everyone is buzzing about one of her courtroom lewks.
Who is Anna Delvey?
Born Anna Sorokin, Anna Delvey came to the world’s attention last year, when Vanity Fair and New York Magazine published two pieces about Delvey. The daughter of a Russian truck driver, Delvey and her family moved to Germany in 2007, and she moved to London after graduating from high school in 2011. She then moved to London for an internship at a PR firm (where she reportedly started going by the name Anna Delvey), then moved to Paris to start an internship at the high-end European art magazine Purple. When she moved to New York, she reportedly remade herself as a socialite, telling people she was a German heiress with a trust fund and that she was planning to build a “dynamic visual-arts center dedicated to contemporary art.”
In 2017, Delvey’s ruse started to become apparent when the Beekman and the W, two swanky hotels in New York City, pressed charges against her for checking out without paying her bills. She also allegedly attempted to skip out on the bill at Le Parker Meridien, an expensive restaurant in midtown Manhattan, which led to her being charged with three counts of misdemeanor theft of services. Further investigation found that she had allegedly deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars of bad checks and forged bank statements in a quest to get a $66 million loan.
Delvey was arrested in October 2017. “Her overall scheme has been to claim to be a wealthy German heiress with approximately $60 million in funds being held abroad,” prosecutor Catherine McCaw said at the time. “She’s born in Russia and has not a cent to her name as far as we can determine.”
In an interview with the Cut from Rikers, Delvey expressed some contrition: “I am very upset that things went that way and I didn’t mean for it to happen,” she said. “But I really can’t do anything about it, being in here.” She also insisted that she was not a fraud, and that she still harbored genuine ambitions of becoming a leading figure in the art world: “I was never trying to be a socialite. I had dinners, but they were work dinners. I wanted to be taken seriously.”
How did Delvey get away with her ruse for so long?
Delvey was extremely generous with her money, lavishing her friends with expensive presents and picking up the bill for meals and parties. She was also fond of buying expensive gifts for the employees at the various hotels where she lived, such as a case of 1975 Dom Perignon, which she sent as a gift to the staff of the boutique hotel 11 Howard.
Delvey was also savvy about the people she targeted: mostly, people like Vanity Fair photo department employee Rachel Deloache Williams, who penned an essay recounting her friendship with Delvey, which ended when the two took a trip to Morocco together and Delvey left her with a $62,000 bill. As a Vanity Fair employee, Deloache Williams was not uber-wealthy herself, but traveled in wealth-adjacent circles and was familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the uber-rich. Delvey’s carelessness with money and her desire to open a nightclub-cum-bar-cum-“dynamic visual-arts center dedicated to contemporary art” were not unusual. “In my line of work, I had often encountered ambitious, well-off individuals, so though her undertaking sounded grand in scale and promising in theory, my sincere enthusiasm hardly outweighed a measured skepticism,” writes Deloache Williams.
Delvey’s generosity and cavalier approach to spending, combined with her idiosyncrasies that were characteristic of the very wealthy, allowed people to believe that she was who she claimed to be. “It was a magic trick — I’m embarrassed to say that I was one of the props, and the audience, too,” Deloache Williams wrote. “Anna’s was a beautiful dream of New York, like one of those nights that never seems to end. And then the bill arrives.”
Why are we so fascinated with Anna Delvey?
Last year saw the meteoric rise of what has been dubbed the Summer of Scam, with Delvey and Fyre Festival CEO Billy MacFarland capturing the public imagination. Because Holmes and MacFarland preyed largely upon the uber-wealthy to perpetuate their fraud, with the former buttering up powerful male investors and the latter appealing to rich kids’ insatiable yen for Instagrammable experiences, it has been suggested that our fascination with scammers stems from our desire to see the one percent get their comeuppance. Writing for Marie Claire, Cady Drell speculated that our fascination with scammers can be viewed as “a winking protest of the status quo; a way for Americans to nod at glaring societal unfairness in a way that’s a little more nuanced than just ‘eat the rich.'”
Of course, in most cases, it’s not just the upper crust who gets screwed over by scam artists; in Delvey’s case specifically, she also relied on the generosity of less well-heeled people like Deloache Williams to foot the bill for her lavish lifestyle. But oftentimes, we’re willing to overlook these inconvenient truths to cheer on what we see as a hardscrabble hero or heroine who managed to game a system that was set up for them to fail — and who, at least for a short time, succeeded. “[Delvey] was a perversely relatable striver: she was us, just with more energy (and, possibly, a knack for forging or repurposing bank documents),” Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker.
If the first few days of Delvey’s trial are any indication, her legal defense is very much aware of the public’s identification with Delvey, and will largely be predicated on the narrative of her as an unlikely (if highly unethical) self-made success. In his opening statement, Delvey’s lawyer Todd Spodek quoted Frank Sinatra, arguing, “Anna had to kick down the door to get her chance at life. Just like Sinatra had to do it his way, Anna had to do it her way.” He also said that what Delvey did was no different than what most self-made Instagram celebs do: “In her world this is what her social circle did. Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phony. And money was made on hype alone.”
Of course, most Instagram celebrities’ scams don’t rely on people forking over hundreds of thousands of dollars, while Delvey’s specific brand of fraud had an enormous price tag. But clearly, Spodek’s argument resonates with us to some degree: in the age of the self-made social media celebrity, anyone with a little imagination can go from the daughter of a truck driver to a Miu Miu-wearing, Dom Perignon-swilling heiress.