PRINT February 2022



Inventing Anna, 2022, production still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 2, “The Devil Wore Anna.” Anna Delvey (Julia Garner). Photo: Aaron Epstein.

“THE ONLY THING worth a dime in here is her,” Anna Delvey says as she gestures, champagne flute in hand, toward a black-and-white photograph of a young babushka-clad woman—somewhere between gamine on the go and Hitchcock heroine—floating past a brick apartment tower, a look of cool determination fixed in her liquid-lined eyes. It’s the second episode of Shonda Rhimes’s Netflix caper Inventing Anna, and our protagonist, inhabited with steely grace by Julia Garner, is at a benefit auction with fictitious lifestyle mogul Talia Mallay (Jennifer Esposito), persuading her to buy Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #17, 1978, in lieu of a jaundiced specimen of zombie formalism hanging across the room. “Before this series, Sherman was just another photographer hiding behind the lens, observing, choosing subjects based on what others might like. Then, one day, she steps into her own frame, considers herself to be worthy.” Delvey’s apocryphal art-history lesson doesn’t just impress Talia; it effectively recodes an eidolon of postmodern masquerade as a totem of self-actualization, sprinkled with the fairy dust of Lean-in feminism. “Rather than being forced into a role in the male-dominated art world, she takes a leading role in her work. And it changes the world. This is not dress-up. This is bravery. This is a moment in art.”

It’s an apt, if less than subtle, set piece for the tale of Delvey, a hardscrabble arriviste who begged, borrowed, and stole from New York’s financial and cultural elite in a Gatsbyean crusade to erect her eponymous trophy museum–cum–Soho House–style members’ club in the landmarked Church Missions House building on Park Avenue South (now home to Swedish photography center Fotografiska). Posing as a German heiress with a $60 million trust fund, Delvey, born Anna Sorokin in Russia in 1991, operates behind a smoke screen of forged documents and flimsy status signifiers: She name-drops Doris Salcedo, shops at Rick Owens, and “knows that excellent salmon is at Lucien.” She charms M Woods Museum founder Michael Xufu Huang and Nobu restaurateur Richie Notar at a Storm King benefit (“a fundraiser for their inner-city arts program”), where people say things like “immaterially in dialogue with transitory spaces” and “it’s very postmodern,” and swans around the Whitney with her lawyer, advising him to switch out the dun landscape hanging in his office for a saucy Cecily Brown (acquired, puzzlingly, directly from the museum). She runs up obscene bills at luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants and applies for multimillion-dollar loans from white-shoe firms to fund her Potemkin culture palace, her vision for which is equal parts marketing baloney (“We’re going to differentiate ourselves through the curation of an exclusive art-world clientele”) and megalomaniacal delusion (“It will be the pinnacle of the global art world, and I will stand at the top of it, the gatekeeper and the glue”).

When Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine exposé (on which Inventing Anna is based) broke in May 2018, a broad section of the commentariat, from liberal darling Jia Tolentino to the Dimes Square contrarians of the Red Scare podcast, amplified Delvey’s status as a folk hero, the Ponzi princess of the “Summer of Scam.” The cultural moment was marked by a popular fascination with grifters, from quack biotech girlboss Elizabeth Holmes to disgraced coworking-space messiah Adam Neumann to Fyre Festival douche Billy McFarland to flower-crown four-flusher Caroline Calloway. But there was something irresistible about the hustle of Delvey—an Instagram Zelig who habitually tipped in Benjamins and once purloined a charter plane to crash Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting—and something contemptible about her victims: faceless financial institutions, five-star hotels, gormless suits, socialites, hangers-on. If the unicorn start-ups and private-equity vampires and Silicon Valley god-emperors could all prosper in a world of their own making, who could begrudge a bootstrapping pretender on the make?

Inventing Anna arrives as the value of things grows even more abstracted from the so-called fundamentals. Hyperspeculative assets masquerading as currencies, crowdsourced pump-and-dump bonanzas, meme-stock cargo cults, Metaverse rentiers, Ethereum yacht clubs for connoisseurs of cartoon apes: As wages stagnate and capital sublimes into bubbles of irrational exuberance, the opportunism of the grift reveals itself as the flip side of the “rise and grind” millennial work ethic. Perhaps no one embodies this dialectic better than Delvey, who, even as she laid bare the pathologies of our age—the smug myth of meritocracy, the mirage of aspiration, the digital creation and leveraging of the self—remains wholly overidentified with them. “I’m not some party girl. I’m trying to build a business,” she tells a fictionalized version of Pressler (played by a game Anna Chlumsky) from Rikers in the series’s first episode. (The real Anna Delvey, whose $320,000 Netflix payout was seized in part to restitute the banks she defrauded, was released from the Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York last February and subsequently detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for overstaying her visa. In a March 2021 interview, she claimed to be working on a tell-all memoir and a series of NFTs based on her time in prison, among other endeavors.)

It’s fitting, then, that Inventing Anna is less about the jouissance of criminality than about the launching of a brand. The result is a somewhat anhedonic post-internet picaresque, but also a credible one. As the disclaimer before each episode reads, “This whole story is completely true. Except for the parts that are totally made up.”

Inventing Anna begins streaming on Netflix on February 11.

Chloe Wyma is an associate editor of Artforum.