Every few years, a story will capture the public imagination and become something akin to a parable for our times. In an age in which the Kardashians and their ilk can earn billions out of their ‘curated’ lives, these stories tend to be ones of ambition, self-invention, and audacity to the point of affrontery, in which fact is supplanted by fiction on an epic scale.
Think of Rachel Dolezal, the white president of her local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, exposed for passing herself off as black in 2015. Take Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the blood-testing company Theranos, who was valued at $4.5 billion in 2015, zero a year later – and who will soon stand trial, charged with fraud. There was Billy McFarland’s influencer-hyped Fyre Festival of 2017, promising an island paradise and world-class hospitality, while delivering cheese sandwiches in tents. And then, of course, we have Anna Delvey, the fake German heiress who became headline news and provoked a global sensation.
Delvey, now 29, was a petulant-looking tawny blonde with 40,000 Instagram followers and an exotic accent. Using a combination of lies, loans and guile, she convinced the New York elite that she was a European trust-fund princess with $60 million to her name. She claimed to be establishing an art foundation/members’ club with a stylish Soho House-type vibe. Delvey and her project attracted the attention of Manhattan’s beau monde: celebrities from the worlds of art, finance and publishing, film stars and musicians.
Meanwhile, she embarked on extraordinary spending sprees, gorging on designer clothes, luxury hotels, chi-chi dinners, glamorous parties, celebrity trainers, $800 highlights and $400 eyelash extensions, high on a never-ceasing flow of vodka, pouilly-fumé and champagne. And then there was the time she duped a private jet company into chartering her a plane to Warren Buffett’s annual conference in Nebraska.
Think: Jay Gatsby meets Clueless, ending in the notorious Rikers Island jail. For German heiress Anna Delvey was actually Russia-born Anna Sorokin, the daughter of a truck driver, who had not a dollar to her name. And the money she had thrown about so wildly had been swindled out of banks, businesses and friends. She presented forged bank statements, deposited bad cheques, withdrawing the money before they bounced, and at one point managed to procure a $100,000 bank overdraft, although a favourite method was to ‘dine and dash’, letting others pick up the tab. In total she stole more than $200,000 – and she had been attempting to procure a $22 million loan shortly before she was caught.
During Sorokin’s month-long trial last year, where she was charged with theft of services and grand larceny, her lawyer, Todd Spodek, drew comparisons with Frank Sinatra in a nod to his song New York, New York. ‘In a city that favours money and the appearance of money’, his client and Sinatra ‘both created their own opportunities’. Not only was this a Big Apple tradition, it was the contemporary modus vivendi. ‘In her world, this is what her social circle did. Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.’
A year on from the trial, it’s a take that he stands by: ‘In today’s culture, lying is so prevalent in order to get to the next step,’ he tells me. ‘Whether it be portraying yourself as someone you’re not on social media, or expanding your work experience on your résumé or LinkedIn profile, pretending you’re a certain type of person on online dating, or trying to obtain capital in business meetings – puffing is permitted and accepted.’
As he argued in court: ‘There’s a little bit of Anna in all of us.’
This is clearly what Netflix is hoping. It is preparing to launch a new 10-part series entitled Inventing Anna, spearheaded by Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and featuring Julia Garner and Laverne Cox. Meanwhile, Girls creator Lena Dunham is working on a separate HBO drama inspired by My Friend Anna, the book by Sorokin’s former friend and victim Rachel DeLoache Williams. In 2019, the BBC released Fake Heiress, a podcast-cum-docudrama, both reporting on and dramatising the tale. Sorokin herself, who was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison for defrauding hotels, restaurants, a private-jet company and banks, is said to be writing not one, but two memoirs. The timing of all of this could be considered somewhat fortuitous for Anna, given that she could be released from prison as early as October 2020.
So what next for the fake heiress after her release? And is it possible that her notoriety could earn her the kind of wealth and fame that she craved?
Certainly, there are signs that Sorokin has been taken up as some sort of folk heroine for the Instagram age. A Google search for ‘Anna Delvey’ delivers 138,000 results, ‘Anna Sorokin’ 93,000. In Brooklyn, one can still spot T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Free Anna Delvey’, ‘Fake German heiress’ and ‘My other shirt will mail you $30,000’. Her Instagram followers now stand at 72,000.
It would come as a crushing disappointment to this fan base if its heroine did merely sink back into obscurity once free. Beyond the Netflix and HBO series, there must surely be legions of television opportunities for a woman of Sorokin’s ‘moxie’ (the word is Spodek’s). As for the proposed Anna Delvey Foundation, many appear enthusiastic to sign up. Kosovan artist Art Haxhijakupi has created a light installation bearing this name in Tracey Emin-style neon tubes.
But who exactly is the baby-faced master criminal with a penchant for pouting selfies? Anna Vadimovna Sorokina was born in the former Soviet Union in 1991. From the start, novelistic elements abound: 1991 was the year the Soviet Union was dissolved and communism gave way to capitalism, as she was seduced by it some 20 years later. Her surname, brilliantly, means ‘magpie’, that thieving interloper with a fixation for shiny objects. She grew up in Domodedovo, a Moscow satellite town, hooked on fashion magazines and the movie Mean Girls.
In 2007, Sorokin’s father, a former truck driver turned transport executive now running a heating-and-cooling business, transplanted the family to Germany. At 16, Anna found herself in another small town, struggling to learn the language. Classmates nicknamed her ‘Barbie’. She chose a more grandiose role model in Marie Antoinette, acquiring a wrist tattoo in tribute to her icon.
In 2011, Sorokin graduated from high school, her ambitions immediately going global. Via a stint in fashion PR, she landed a coveted internship at Paris’s Purple magazine. It was here – as she insinuated herself into the jet set – that she started calling herself ‘Anna Delvey’. Towards the end of 2013, this creation took herself to New York. Suddenly, she was everywhere: at the right dinners, the right parties. Her father was variously rumoured to be a diplomat, an oil baron or a solar-panel magnate, a multimillion-dollar inheritance heading her way on her 26th birthday.
For a while, she appeared to be in a relationship with app entrepreneur Hunter Lee Soik. It’s possible that Soik, who had raised $82,000 crowdfunding his enterprise, Shadow, inspired her with the notion that money could be conjured out of nothing. Certainly, it was around this time that she began touting the idea of an Anna Delvey Foundation, later pursuing a six-floor space in Park Avenue’s Church Missions House. Not only did she plan to lease it, she would get the artist Christo to wrap it in fabric, as he and his partner Jeanne-Claude had the Reichstag. All that was required was a $22 million loan by way of an advance on her inheritance.
Rachel DeLoache Williams, then a 20-something photo editor at Vanity Fair, met Sorokin in early 2016 in a bar with fashion friends. Anna’s face was already familiar: ‘I’d seen her on Instagram, smiling at events, drinking at parties, oftentimes alongside my own friends,’ Williams recalls in her book. Now here she was in the flesh, all Gucci sandals and clingy black dress, proffering glasses and an ice bucket.
Sorokin’s approach to the friendship lay somewhere between grooming and gaslighting. As Williams, now 32, remembers: ‘Anna was parasitic. She would latch on to people and keep them close before taking from them all that she possibly could, and she picked her hosts carefully… I was useful. The fact that I worked at Vanity Fair lent her a degree of credibility, and where she could be rude or hard to read, I balanced her out by normalising her behaviour, apologising on her behalf, or laughing off what might otherwise have been offensive.’ The supposed heiress could be high-handed with staff, insensitive, and blunt to the point of rudeness.
Williams was swept into a whirlwind of massages and manicures, $4,500 personal-training packages and gourmet meals, designer cast-offs and $100 tips. In February 2017, Sorokin had moved into the luxury hotel 11 Howard. This is when her shopping, spending and supping really went off the scale.
Around April, Sorokin mooted a trip to Morocco. She needed to leave New York to reset her visa waiver, and the break would serve as half-holiday, half-opportunity to shoot footage for a film. Sorokin booked a $7,000-per-night private riad at a luxury resort in Marrakech, with a butler and private pool, for May.
Here things soured. Sorokin’s credit cards failed so she persuaded Williams to put the six-night trip on hers, merely as a temporary fix. And then she obfuscated, forever claiming that this cool $62,000 was about to be reimbursed. It was a trick that had worked with wealthier playmates. However, the bill was more than Williams’s annual income and – although increasingly traumatised by both the debt and Sorokin’s mind games – she fought tooth and nail to reclaim the money, first turning to a local police station and civil court, and finally seeking help from the New York County District Attorney’s Office. They confirmed that Anna Delvey was the subject of a criminal investigation.
In July 2017 the New York Post had run a piece entitled, ‘Wannabe socialite busted for skipping out on pricey hotel bills.’ Sorokin, due to face court at the beginning of September, instead escaped to a $60,000-a-month LA rehab facility, her Instagram bio proclaiming: ‘Let them eat cake.’ Williams became involved in a police operation to flush her out, ensuring Sorokin was arrested in October, accused of stealing $275,000 through a variety of scams, and attempting to steal millions more.
How Sorokin pulled off her deception in practical terms is a matter of record; how she achieved the feat in psychological terms is less obvious. Looking back at the events, Williams’s view now is that her former friend is a sociopath. She explains: ‘Learning about the nature of sociopathy was key to my understanding her behaviour. There is a checklist of 20 traits commonly used as a tool to measure a person’s psychopathic tendencies, and Anna exhibits many, if not all of them. Superficial charm, grandiose estimation of self, pathological lying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse – the list goes on. I don’t use this label flippantly, or to be mean; I use the term “sociopath” as a categorical descriptor.’
Todd Spodek, naturally, takes a different view: ‘I think Anna started out with the right intentions and convinced herself that her plan would work, and eventually she would have the means to make everyone whole. I find it similar to a lot of dot-com ventures that people invest in and ultimately go bust because the intentions were initially pure, but the plan had flaws and there were roadblocks.
‘Anna is a bright, ambitious young woman with a keen understanding of social intelligence. The skill set that she possessed will help her in future business pursuits. Anna is the type of woman you want on your side. This is the type of person who makes things happen, rather than waiting around for the world to open the door for her. She is kicking the f—king door down.’
Certainly, she refused to disappear quietly, rejecting a plea deal. Instead, she stood trial in Manhattan’s Supreme Court, employing a stylist to create a courtroom look featuring Saint Laurent and Victoria Beckham. Presumably, as is allegedly the case with her legal fees, this was paid for using the advance from her reported $100,000 Netflix fee, the company having secured her life rights. She was said to want Jennifer Lawrence or Margot Robbie to play her.
While in Rikers Island jail, brutal even by prison standards, she spent time in solitary confinement, racking up at least 13 infractions for incidents including fighting and disobeying orders. She has since been transferred to a women’s prison. She is, Spodek reports, in good spirits: ‘I am in touch with Anna daily and she is a tough woman who has navigated this process the best way she can.
‘I am hopeful she will be released her first time before the parole board, which will be this coming October . I am in touch with her family, and they are ready to assist her in transitioning back home, closing this chapter of her life, and moving on to the next.
‘Anna’s family is behind her, and her father will help her get situated once she is released. In all likelihood, she will be deported to Germany and start her life over there. As far as her future plans, only time will tell.
‘I’m confident that this is not the last time we have heard from her.’
He continues: ‘The world sees Anna in one light, but I see her in a completely different one. This is a young woman who has come incredibly far in her short-lived adult life. This is a woman who routinely calls me to check in on me and my family, and speaks with my kids. This is a woman who wants to make all victims whole and do the right thing.’ Whether she will deploy her business acumen in a more conventional way remains to be seen.
Williams has recovered from the financial crisis she was propelled into: ‘It took tremendous effort, but the financial fallout is over, thank goodness. Because of the book, I was able to repay money I’d borrowed from close friends to cover my rent and living expenses, as I pushed for repayment from Anna.’
However, the acute anxiety of those months, followed by her subsequent court appearance, come together in her book to result in what seems like a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘It was certainly true that I had trouble recounting what had happened… During my testimony at Anna’s trial, I was still very raw from the experience, and each time I told it from start to finish I’d feel all of the familiar anguish and anxiety come rushing back,’ she reflects. ‘Add that to the awful pressure of being on the witness stand, in front of Anna, jurors, the public and press. I cried so much that Anna’s lawyer accused me of being overly emotional and it was used against me.’ (Sorokin would be found not guilty of charges related to Williams and the $22 million loan.)
Will she be watching the Netflix series? ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.’ As for the idea of running into her former friend: ‘I don’t give it much thought, but I would avoid her… She’s taken enough of my time and energy.’
I ask her what we are to take from the Anna Delvey story, and why there is such a collective obsession with it. ‘I’d say American politics feel depressingly relevant. The parallels between Anna and our nation’s President are not a coincidence. People are enchanted by bold, charismatic individuals who exude confidence and aren’t afraid to break the rules.
‘These masters of illusion peddle a promise of greatness – be it in the form of a country or an art foundation – and it’s human to want to believe. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, their true agendas appear entirely self-serving, motivated by an insatiable hunger for power, with zero regard for humanity. Ruthless ambition untethered from truth and devoid of a moral compass is a terrifying force.’
My Friend Anna, by Rachel DeLoache Williams is out now (Quercus, £16.99)