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Lessons learnt from the decline and fall of a New York fantasy It Girl

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2018-06-10 Eva Wiseman
Not smiling now: Anna Delvey, currently in Rikers Island accused of grand larceny. © BFA/REX/Shutterstock Not smiling now: Anna Delvey, currently in Rikers Island accused of grand larceny.

Anna Delvey was a New York It Girl, a German heiress who flitted between boutique hotels as she raised funding to launch a new private members club, the Anna Delvey Foundation. She swam through Manhattan society on a stream of liquid cash, documented in expensive coats on magazines’ party pages, and masked with the cute cat filter on Snapchat. Except, if you’ve been on the internet over the past week or two, you’ll have seen the claims that neither the club nor the girl were strictly real, instead both are the inventions of a Russian woman, Anna Sorokin, currently being held without bail at Rikers Island after pleading not guilty to crimes including grand larceny and theft.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05:  Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on January 5, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Under frigid temperatures, New York City dug out from the 'Bomb Cyclone.'  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05: Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on January 5, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Under frigid temperatures, New York City dug out from the 'Bomb Cyclone.' (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

She’s been accused of using false documents to apply for multi-million dollar loans, and writing bad cheques to withdraw thousands in cash. Cash she used to create a designer life, dropping $100 tips like confetti, buying extravagant presents and holidays for her new friends, and chartering a private plane. She found herself at dinners next to Macaulay Culkin and “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, and her personal trainer’s clients included Dakota Johnson. She moved through the city with a rich girl’s ease. “Anna’s was a beautiful dream of New York,” wrote a friend she’s accused of having conned. “Like one of those nights that never seems to end. And then the bill arrives.”

#VivaMayr #Austria #detox

A post shared by Anna Delvey (@theannadelvey) on

There are already conversations happening about the inevitable movie adaptation, a Catch Me If You Can for the internet age. An age when the insouciant, pouting glamour Anna was mimicking is so familiar, so ubiquitous for anyone with half an eye on social media, that part of the pull of the story is our creeping knowledge that we are only maybe two filters behind her. My colleague went for tea in a country house hotel last week. It was half term, and there was the gentle clinking of china as a variety of white-haired elders enjoyed a scone.

Then they came, just two or three at first, followed quickly by more, a perfumed chattering tsunami of girls in vertiginous heels and leather boob tubes, one of them spinning again and again for the raised camera’s Boomerang function. What’s the collective noun for influencers? A contour of influencers? An authenticity? An endorsement? A blag? Anyway, a large one of them had descended, on an influencers’ tour of the English countryside sponsored by a clothing brand. The non-influencers drank tea and watched politely as they worked, hard. 

Video: Anna Delvey scams people out of at least $270,000 (Wochit News)

It stuck with me, this image of a bussed-in selection of young women, on a pretend holiday in clothes they hadn’t bought, broadcasting to an audience very far away, while the old ladies of the home counties looked upon them with a strange kind of pity. Idly scrolling the tabloid websites today I saw the influencers there in floral mini skirts and strappy sandals, all with those strangely elated smiles, the happiest people in the world. And I thought of Anna Delvey again.

#NEWYORK

A post shared by Anna Delvey (@theannadelvey) on

I thought of Anna Delvey because, like them, she was working hard at giving the appearance of having a fabulous life. A circuit of restaurants and fancy labels, and a fixed grin suggesting everything was easy. Like them she was living a life that was beyond her means. Living – I was going to say enjoying, but she can’t have been enjoying it, not really – a Rolodex of lies spinning at all times, and the influencers, too, how much fun is it possible to have when you’re 1,000 miles from home, your job security reliant on how well teenage strangers think you are balancing relatability and beauty, and all this while wearing a full gram of highlighter and 5in plastic shoes? For a second – and I know this makes me sound 100 – I had the flashing thought that Delvey’s lifestyle was, if not exactly more honest, then perhaps just… healthier.

Her’s is a story that, despite being small, despite involving no bloodshed or slapstick, has resonated with a generation that is working constantly to present an alternate, better life online. One that’s vibrating, too, with the anxiety that comes as a nightly side effect of those fractured efforts. Who under the age of 40, 50, can truly say they’ve never entered that strangely twilit world where, posting carefully edited pictures online, you’re not quite lying but you’re not quite telling the truth either? Even the bite back, even the “no-makeup selfies” and confessionals about dodgy mental health, even these are curated, of course, created for a reaction, whether pity or applause – it’s all marketing of the self.

The tale of Anna Delvey and her paper-thin existence pricks at our own scrabbling attempts to maintain the illusion of a fabulous life, and stokes, too, our secret glee at seeing it all fall down. What Anna did was make Instagram flesh.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.ukor follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman 

Related gallery: Notorious con artists (provided by lovemoney)

Follow @MSNMoneyCanada on Twitter. 

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