The real-life story of 'Inventing Anna': from German heiress to New York prisoner

Anna Sorokin makes headlines again as a new Netflix show on her case is released

Anna Sorokin, who a New York jury convicted last month of swindling more than $200,000 from banks and people, reacts during her sentencing at Manhattan State Supreme Court New York, U.S., May 9, 2019.         Steven Hirsch/Pool via REUTERS
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Shonda Rhimes knows how to tell a good tale, but Anna Sorokin, the subject of the TV producer's first Netflix show, already did most of the legwork for her.

Inventing Anna, all nine episodes of which debuted on the streaming platform on Friday, tells the true story of Sorokin (played by Ozark's Julia Garner), who tricked Manhattan's elite into thinking she was a wealthy German heiress named Anna Delvey worth €60 million ($67.9m). She climbed through the upper echelons of New York City's art, finance and fashion scenes, before being caught in her act and ultimately landing in Rikers Island jail.

The twenty-something socialite conned "friends" and banks out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Evidence during her trial also showed she stole a private jet, and attempted to get a $25m loan from a hedge fund to create an exclusive arts club.

She would avoid paying huge restaurant or hotel bills and even put a friend in the position where she had to put $62,000 on her credit card to cover their holiday expenses (more than the said friend made in a year).

Sorokin certainly wasn't an heiress. She wasn't even German. She was a magazine intern who was born into a family of Russian immigrants living in Germany.

It's likely you've heard the story before, since journalist Jessica Pressler's New York magazine article on Sorokin went viral back in 2018.

The show is a dramatisation of what went on, told through the perspective of probing journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a character based on Pressler, who is also a producer on the series.

From jail to freedom to Ice custody

Sorokin's rise all happened between 2013 and 2017, but then her fall came in 2019 when she was sentenced to four-to-12 years in jail for charges relating to grand larceny and theft of services. She ended up serving three years and three months.

Hours after she was freed in February 2021, Sorokin took to Twitter, writing on a new account that was later suspended: "Someone from Fortress Investment Group — I need $720m by the end of next week, DM me". Her bio read "I'm back".

She hired a film crew to follow her around and told Insider she was "filming everything I'm doing right now" and would see what she'd do with it "later". “I just got out of prison, like two days ago. So it’s me like getting all this stuff from Sephora, me opening a bank account as soon as I get permission from my parole officer."

On Instagram, she wrote: “I’m nothing but consistent".

Not even two months later, she was deemed "a danger to society" by a judge and is now being held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or Ice, facing deportation, which she has appealed.

Do these decisions inevitably make me a permanent threat to public safety? The government says yes. But in comparison with whom? Everything's relative
Anna Sorokin

Earlier this month, ahead of the release of Inventing Anna, Sorokin wrote an open letter for Insider from custody about her experience in prison, getting Covid-19 and the Netflix show ("Did I mention I'm the only woman in Ice custody in this whole jail? Tell me I'm special without telling me I'm special.")

For the past few years, she's repeatedly showed no remorse, saying she wasn't sorry for her actions. "Admittedly, I, the ultimate unreliable narrator, have made some questionable choices that I wouldn't necessarily repeat today," she writes in the letter.

But then: "Do these decisions inevitably make me a permanent threat to public safety? The government says yes. But in comparison with whom? Everything's relative."

Does crime pay?

The people who Sorokin conned will no doubt side with the government when it comes to deeming her a threat to public safety. As will those concerned by the glamourisation of crime that can come with dramatisations and even documentaries on real-life cases such as these.

But Sorokin has profited in more ways than one from the Netflix show.

The streaming network paid Sorokin an initial fee of $30,000 pre-trial, according to the BBC, although this money went to her lawyer, reported the New York Post. Sorokin was then paid up to $320,000 by Netflix for the rights to adapt her life story and landed other deals.

She wasn't able to keep all the money owing to the Son of Sam law, which prevents criminals in New York profiting from their notoriety, and some of it was given to victims and about $170,000 used to pay back banks, but when asked by BBC Newsnight if crime pays, she replied: "In a way, it did."

“She’s a role model to some people,” her lawyer told 60 Minutes Australia, as reported in Time. “She’s obviously famous. People like engaging with her. Her social media is blowing up. So, I hope that she can harness all of this into something really positive, productive, and monetise on it. I hope she can make a real business out of it.”

What's fact and fiction in 'Inventing Anna'?

There's a disclaimer with every episode: "This whole story is completely true. Except for the parts that are completely made up."

This could be referring to everything Sorokin fabricated, but Rhimes certainly took a few liberties along the way.

As mentioned, the character of Kent is based on real-life journalist Pressler, who was indeed pregnant through much of the writing process. She wrote the expose partly as a way to redeem herself after, in 2014, Bloomberg News rescinded a job offer when a piece she had written proved to be a hoax, something that's referred to in the series.

Sorokin's boyfriend Chase Sikorski (Saamer Usmani) is also real, but far more focus is given to him in the series than in Pressler's original story. Pressler wrote about a "boyfriend Sorokin was running around with for a while", calling him a "futurist on the Ted-Talks circuit who had been profiled in The New Yorker" and saying they operated as "a team" for about two years, working their way up the ladder of New York's elite.

In Inventing Anna, Sikorski will only speak to Kent if she refers to him as "the futurist" in the article, and when the character's app project fails, he moves to the UAE to work for a sheikh, another detail that is reflected in the real story.

While it's not sure who the real person is, some believe him to be Hunter Lee Soik, who founded a free app called Shadow, lived in Dubai and was once profiled in The New Yorker.

Sorokin's Anna Delvey Foundation, an exclusive arts club in New York City, which Garner's character wants to open in Church Missions House, was also real. She speaks in the series about wanting to have pop-up shops, exhibitions and installations from artists such as Tracey Emin and even get artist Christo to wrap the building; all details that were included in the New York magazine The New Yorker piece.

Pressler told Vulture she "definitely didn't try to break into anyone's home", about the depiction of Kent's reporting trip to Germany, and said she did actually lend Sorokin clothes for the trial, "but it wasn't a fraught situation for me the way it was for Kent. It was more like this kind of screwball sequence of ridiculousness."

The situation in which Garner's Delvey "borrows" a private jet to attend Warren Buffett's annual investment conference also harks back to the truth, when she did "convince" (according to Pressler's article) a company called Blade to charter her a $35,000 jet, sending them a forged confirmation for a wire transfer that never arrived.

A few other characters are based on real-life people, too, such as finance lawyer Alan Reed, who appears to be a reflection of Andy Lance, a partner at the firm Gibson Dunn who Pressler said worked with Sorokin closely (although he didn't respond to the journalist's request for comment at the time), and Peter Hennecke, who was supposed to head up Sorokin's family office in Germany, but Pressler said "he seems to have been a fictional character".

The tumultuous holiday to Marrakesh in episode six with Delvey, her personal trainer, videographer and Vanity Fair journalist Rachel DeLoache Williams actually happened, too. The scenes in the show were not only a reflection of Pressler's piece, but also based on a first-person account written by Williams for Vanity Fair in 2018, although Williams has since described her depiction in the show as "shocking”.

Updated: February 16, 2022, 8:30 AM