ANNA DELVEY: ICON OR VILE CON?
The girl described as "ordinary and awkward" will always appeal to the storyteller in me, especially when that girl goes on to live a life of luxury and opulence that most of us never will. Unlike the usual 'rags to riches' tale, however, this one ends not with a euphoric 'instagram-able' quote, but a prison cell and a quarter-million dollars worth of fraud.
"Everybody loves a scam. It's always fascinating to see what people can get away with." - Vicky Baker, BBC Journalist
Chartered jets, lavish hotels and designer wardrobes - Anna Delvey, real name Anna Sorokin, enjoyed them all, yet remarkably, she paid for none. How? It depends who you ask, some would say she deployed callous manipulation, others say she demonstrated unflinching drive. What isn't in dispute, however, is Anna's primary currency: lies.
Despite her modest upbringing (born in Russia January 1991 and raised in Germany), Anna fled the family nest in 2013 - launching her reinvention in New York, where she presented herself as heiress to a $60 million family fortune. Of course, there was no $60 million family fortune. So, what was her motivation? Seemingly, in order to cement her cultural standing, Anna wanted to open a high-end arts centre, to be named The Anna Delvey Foundation. To accomplish this, all she needed was a $22 million loan, and so began her six year campaign of fraud and deception.
I became aware of the Anna Delvey scandal via an exquisitely-crafted audio series called 'Fake Heiress'- produced by BBC Radio 4. Across its six parts, Fake Heiress tells the story of Anna's transformation and manipulation - using a combination of court reports, press coverage, first-hand interviews and dramatisation. I devoured all episodes in two days. 'Gripped' is an understatement. Such was my immersion, in fact, that I immediately gushed on Twitter then asked Vicky Baker - lead journalist and series narrator - for an interview. I had so many questions for her. We spoke via telephone the morning of Thursday 10 September, and it was a delight.
Here's our chat, scroll to the end to listen to bonus snippets from our call.
CK: Firstly, Vicky - thank you for making my first experience of an audio drama such a delightful one.
VB: Oh, brilliant. That's exactly what we want to hear. I saw your Twitter thread, and it seemed like you really got it, so that was nice to read.
CK: What do you think it is about the Anna Delvey story that people find so captivating?
VB: Everybody loves a scam [laughs]. It's always so fascinating to see what people can get away with. People are intrigued by the elites of the world and how you get into those circles. I think people really admire her for where she managed to get. I just think there's something relatable - you sort of put yourself in her shoes and imagine what you might have been able to get away with, whether you would've had the guts to do it and where you would have drawn the line - but all in a fantasy world, because no one would actually do it. And that's why her story is so unique, because she did things that not a lot of people can imagine trying.
CK: Illegalities aside, as you were researching this series, did you personally find any of Anna's character traits admirable? I know I did, mainly her focus, fearlessness and stunning networking skills.
VB: Oh, yeah, that's a good question. [Ponders] That self confidence, I suppose. There's an element of her that just went in and didn't care what people thought... just putting yourself out there and having a self-belief. I mean, it does fall into delusion at a certain point, but if you could just tap into that self-confidence, that would be beneficial in a lot of our lives.
CK: You reference 'delusion', and for me, the best example of that in your series is when Anna asked the publicist for access to all her contacts in exchange for part ownership of her fictitious foundation. Outrageous.
VB: [laughs] Extraordinary, yes, that's where she tripped-up. Sometimes, Anna was able to really get people onboard and use the right language, but in that meeting, with a very experienced professional who worked with a whole manner of high-powered people, to just expect access to all her contacts - after one initial meeting - that is deluded.
"She's become a huge mythological figure on social media. When you think about the whole 'anti-hero' thing, when you really drill down on it, it doesn't make sense."
CK: Based on my research into the production of Fake Heiress, it was 'green lit' in April 2019, and released December 2019. As someone who knows nothing about assembling an audio drama, that seems a remarkably quick turnaround.
VB: This was the first time I've done this sort of thing - I'm a complete newcomer to drama. I've seen other things that team have worked on in very short timescales, and it's very impressive. The good thing is, they have a department of actors they can call on, and they have the drama studio. It was fascinating for me, as a journalist, getting an insight into that world. But yes, it was a lot of work in a short space of time for all of us.
CK: As a journalist, used to dealing only in facts, did working on this project take some adjustment, given its use of dramatised scenes, written by playwright Chloe Moss?
VB: Yes, and no. Fortunately, they were separate. The way we were able to do this was we'd have the dramatised scene, then I would come in [via voiceover] and say where the information that lead to that scene came from. The journalism and drama never blurred too much, which was satisfying, because I was a complete stickler for getting things right.
CK: Was this your first time narrating an audio drama?
VB: [Emphatically] Yes! I've got to say, it was incredible going into the drama studio, watching how they work. It was a whole world that I've never had access to before. Sasha Yetvushenko [series producer] wanted it to be cinematic.
CK: I'm a self-confessed 'overthinker', and listening to this story of someone who is seemingly void of any overthinking was oddly liberating - it's almost as though I was living vicariously through Anna. As long as it's not to the detriment of other people, I've always admired impulsive people. Thoughts?
VB: Yes, in may ways, I'm the complete opposite to Anna, which I think is what makes her fascinating. She's become a huge mythological figure on social media. When you think about the whole 'anti-hero' thing, when you really drill down on it, it doesn't make sense. I think people latch onto her because she didn't come from an affluent background, so that's relatable to a lot of people, but from what we know about Anna, if she succeeded in getting the $22 million loan, she would've pulled that ladder up behind her, I'm sure. She would not mention her roots or anything, so in that sense, she's not a Robin Hood figure.
"It feels weirdly voyeuristic. I am interested to hear more from her."
CK: When sourcing contributors for the series, did social media prove to be a rich research tool? Twitter must be a goldmine to journalists with stories like this?
VB: Absolutely. Anna Delvey is a social media story, in the sense that she was creating her persona through her instagram account, and thank God she hadn't taken it down, because it was a timeline for us. It pinpointed her to certain locations, times and people. We knew she was on trips with certain people and visiting luxury hotels. We were able to use Twitter by searching for different combinations of words to find people who knew Anna. They were able to give us real insight into her character.
CK: Scrolling through Anna's Instagram is a remarkable, unnerving and compelling experience, all rolled into one.
VB: Yeah, totally, it feels weirdly voyeuristic. I am interested to hear more from her, actually. I understand she's working on two memoirs. It will be interesting to hear more.
Did you know?: In April 2019, Anna was found guilty of grand larceny and theft of services. Having defrauded hotels, restaurants, banks and a private jet operator out of over $200,000, Sorokin, 28 at the time, was sentenced to between four and twelve years in prison.
Of course, given the stunning scale of her story, Netflix and HBO were quick to snap-up the story rights. Add to that the alleged memoirs on the horizon, Anna Delvey's imprisonment is more of a comma than a full stop. Click 'PLAY' below to listen to bonus audio from my phone call to Vicky. In this exert, we chat about the HBO and Netflix deals, plus ask the question... just how desperate was Anna Delvey for fame?
It was a pleasure talking, Vicky. Congratulation on the series.
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