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The real story of ‘Inventing Anna,’ Netflix’s show about the fake heiress who scammed the rich and powerful

Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in “Inventing Anna.” (Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)
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Each episode of Shonda Rhimes’s new Netflix limited series “Inventing Anna” begins with a variation of the same disclaimer: “This is an entirely true story, except for the parts that are completely made up.”

That metaphorical fine print is a nod to artistic license, but it also alludes to the mystery surrounding Anna Sorokin, who for years pretended to be a wealthy German heiress named Anna Delvey while navigating Manhattan’s elite social and business circles. Her lavish lifestyle came undone in 2018, when she was charged with multiple counts of grand larceny and theft of services after failing to pay hefty bills at restaurants and a pair of luxury downtown hotels. Sorokin was awaiting trial in May 2018 when New York magazine detailed her extravagant exploits in a riveting feature by Jessica Pressler.

Amid the juicy details, Pressler’s deeply reported piece grappled with the cultural implications of Sorokin’s alleged cons and the motivations of those who fell for them. Within a month, the article — which the magazine later reported to be its third most-read story that year — was optioned by Rhimes’s production company, Shondaland.

Pressler’s reporting is infused into “Inventing Anna,” which stars Julia Garner as the titular grifter and incorporates aspects of the writer’s life through its protagonist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky). Critics are divided on whether the series is as fascinating as its source material, but the series is unequivocally loyal to it, even as it adds dramatic flourish.

Here’s a look at how the show handled Sorokin’s biggest scams — and what happened in real life.

Luxe hotel stays

Sorokin spent months at 11 Howard, a new luxury hotel in Soho, where she befriended Neff Davis, an employee who recalled Sorokin regularly passing out $100 tips to her and other staffers. Davis told Pressler that the purportedly wealthy guest, who stayed in a suite valued at around $400 per night, “ran that place.”

Sorokin and Davis began hanging out outside of the hotel with Sorokin’s wealthy and well-connected company; at one dinner Davis attended, Martin Shkreli — the hedge fund manager who would later be convicted of securities fraud — played “Tha Carter V,” Lil Wayne’s then-unreleased 12th album, which he had controversially acquired. At another dinner, Davis found herself sitting next to Macaulay Culkin.

Anna Sorokin conned her way into Manhattan’s wealthy elite. Then the truth emerged.

In “Inventing Anna,” 11 Howard becomes 12 George, but most of the plot details check out. The show, which features Alexis Floyd as Neff, skips one detail Davis shared with Pressler: Sorokin reportedly got mad at her for tweeting about Shkreli’s impromptu listening party. (Incidentally, Shkreli isn’t the only other convicted fraudster who pops up in the series: The show also offers a glimpse of her very brief association with Billy McFarland, organizer of the doomed Fyre Festival.)

Davis told Pressler that Sorokin routinely waved off any suggestion that she pay for their lavish dinners or celebrity trainer sessions, but there was one exception mirrored in a foreboding “Inventing Anna” scene. After a $268 dinner, Sorokin’s credit card was declined and Davis footed the bill. But Davis told Pressler that Sorokin “paid her back triple” and in cash.

In “Inventing Anna,” Neff is shown to be Sorokin’s most loyal friend — even after her arrest. That tracks, too. Last month, Davis wished Sorokin happy birthday in an Instagram post featuring photos of them together. “You’re the Thelma to my Louise,” Davis wrote. “And even though I don’t agree with all the things you’ve done in this lifetime, I could never be shady and forget about you.”

The Anna Delvey Foundation

Sorokin wanted to start an exclusive private arts club that she planned to call the Anna Delvey Foundation. As Pressler reported, Sorokin claimed assets of around $60 million, which she said was in a German trust, and sought a $22 million loan to acquire the pricey piece of Park Avenue real estate she hoped would house her organization. As shown in “Inventing Anna,” Sorokin used her connections to pull in powerful would-be collaborators, including André Balazs and Gabriel Calatrava, son of famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Sorokin duped a veteran real estate attorney (a version of whom is played in the series by Anthony Edwards), who signed off on Sorokin’s self-reported assets, despite never receiving official proof, and several investment bankers in the process of trying to finance her business.

In the Netflix series, Anna often instructs business associates to contact a family adviser named Peter Hennecke for payment or to verify her income, but promised wire transfers never materialize. Pressler described a similar pattern, but noted Sorokin’s tendency to overlook bills didn’t initially raise suspicion among Sorokin’s superwealthy friends.

Pressler reported that as Sorokin’s mounting debts went unpaid, emails to Hennecke began bouncing back. When the London-based designer Sorokin contracted to help visualize the ADF brand reached out after not receiving payment for a year, he was told Hennecke died. Pressler concluded that Hennecke “seems to have been a fictional character,” noting that his cellphone number belonged to a defunct burner phone. (“Inventing Anna” takes that setup a bit further, but we won’t spoil that here.)

With the bank unable to verify the assets of “Anna Delvey,” the $22 million loan never came through, but that didn’t stop Sorokin from telling people she had acquired 281 Park, a six-story, 45,000-square-foot building dating to the late 19th century. It also didn’t stop her from taking a $100,000 loan from another bank.

Review: ‘Inventing Anna’ is about a scammer. So why does the show itself feel like a bait and switch?

The trip to Morocco

While waiting to hear back about the mega-loan that never came to fruition, Sorokin invited her celebrity trainer, Kacy Duke, and friend Rachel DeLoache Williams to vacation with her at an opulent Moroccan hotel, where Sorokin had reserved a $7,000-per-night villa. As she did at 11 Howard and the other luxury hotels she temporarily called home, Sorokin charged any and everything — ritzy dinners, indulgent beauty treatments — to the hotel room.

Despite the rich setting, the trip seemed doomed from the start. Duke (referred to as “the trainer” in Pressler’s story) went home early with food poisoning. Then, as Williams recalled in a piece for Vanity Fair, hotel employees approached Sorokin about an issue with her credit card. Sorokin attributed the trouble to her banks being unaware of her international travel and promised to send the hotel a wire. She asked Williams to put up her American Express card in the interim, promising to pay her back. As Williams tearfully testified at Sorokin’s trial, the hotel charged the exorbitant bill — $62,000 — to Williams’s credit card.

Worse, as Pressler reported, Sorokin never made good on her promise to pay her back. A month after the trip, Sorokin had sent only $5,000. The drama is turned up in “Inventing Anna,” with Williams (played by “Scandal’s” Katie Lowes) offering up her company credit card to the hotel staff and facing increasing pressure to pay it back.

All falls down

Things went downhill pretty fast after the Morocco trip, which Sorokin concluded at another hotel, where her cards were again declined. Pressler reported that Duke, the trainer, helped Sorokin — who had called her in tears saying that the hotel threatened to call police — pay for her stay and booked her a flight back to New York. “Inventing Anna” replicates the moment, highlighted in Pressler’s article, when Anna, in between sniffles, asks Kacy (Laverne Cox) to buy her a first-class plane ticket.

Sorokin left 11 Howard upon her return; as Davis told Pressler, her manager had informed her that Sorokin had yet to pay for the massive charges (around $30,000) she’d racked up during her stay. Because the hotel was newly opened when Sorokin arrived, she had managed to check in without a credit card on file and, in a familiar pattern, a wire she had promised never arrived. Eventually, hotel staff threatened to lock her out of her room until she paid. Sorokin was indignant, even following through on a threat to register website domains in all of the managers’ names, but eventually wired the hotel $30,000.

But as Pressler reported, the wire turned out to be from bad checks Sorokin deposited to her accounts as desperation set in. After leaving 11 Howard, Sorokin checked into the Beekman Hotel, where she stayed for 20 days until staffers — unable to retrieve the $11,518.59 in charges she had racked up — confiscated her belongings and locked her out. “A subsequent two-day stay at the W Hotel downtown ended in a similar fashion, and by July 5, Anna was effectively homeless, wandering the streets in threadbare Alexander Wang sportswear,” Pressler wrote.

The show packs months of events into its seventh and eighth episodes, which find Anna briefly staying with Kacy before the trainer sets a boundary. Kacy also attempts to stage an intervention, alongside Rachel, after learning that 281 Park — the supposed setting for ADF — had been leased by a museum. In the series, Anna reacts to that information exactly as Pressler reported it: “That’s fake news,” she says.

At her lowest point, “Inventing Anna” shows Anna on an aimless subway ride, during which she eats a handful of Shake Shack fries someone left on the train. Though the hotels had already pressed charges against her, she quickly goes back to the high life, cashing bad checks to shop and purchase a flight to Los Angeles, missing her arraignment in the process. There, she checks into rehab after mixing large amounts of pills and alcohol.

In rehab, Anna hears from Rachel, who — unbeknown to Anna — has been working with the New York district attorney’s office. She deceptively arranges to meet Anna for lunch in L.A., where police instead arrest her. The scene matches Williams’s description of the incident in her book, “My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress,” as excerpted by Time.

The trial

The final episode of “Inventing Anna” depicts Sorokin’s trial, during which she often wore clothes provided to her by a stylist and, in at least one instance, refused to enter court because she didn’t like her outfit. As in real life, her lawyer Todd Spodek (Arian Moayed) leans into the fake-it-till-you-make-it spirit of New York in his opening arguments.

“Through her sheer ingenuity, she created the life that she wanted for herself,” Spodek said, according to the New York Times. “Anna was not content with being a spectator, but wanted to be a participant. Anna didn’t wait for opportunities, Anna created opportunities. Now we can all relate to that. There’s a little bit of Anna in all of us.”

In April 2019, Sorokin was convicted of grand larceny, attempted grand larceny and theft of service for bilking the hotels, several financial institutions and a private jet company out of thousands of dollars. She was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison and was released in February 2021 after serving just under four. Sorokin was subsequently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and remains in the agency’s custody.

Netflix paid Sorokin $320,000 for the rights to her story, according to Insider, which reported that nearly all of the money has been paid out as restitution for Sorokin’s victims. Insider also recently published an essay by Sorokin, who says she won’t be watching the series.

“Nearly four years in the making and hours of phone conversations and visits later, the show is based on my story and told from a journalist’s perspective,” Sorokin wrote. “And while I’m curious to see how they interpreted all the research and materials provided, I can’t help but feel like an afterthought, the somber irony of being confined to a cell at yet another horrid correctional facility lost between the lines, the history repeating itself.”