In 2013, Anna moved to New York City, where she told new acquaintances she was a German heiress with an $80 million trust fund. Six years later, having swindled over $250,000 from banks and five-star hotels, Sorokin was convicted of grand larceny and theft of services. Released in February 2021, she was rearrested by ICE for overstaying her visa and is currently waiting to see if she’ll be deported to Germany – meanwhile, Netflix’ new nine-episode limited series Inventing Anna will see Julia Garner play the ‘fake heiress’ as she cons her way to the apex of luxe Manhattan.
How Artists Are Reinventing Anna
Anna Delvey, real name Anna Sorokin, was born in 1991 of a truck driver and small convenience store owner in a satellite town southeast of Moscow. As a teenager Anna studied fashion at Central Saint Martin’s College in London, before dropping out and interning for Paris magazine Purple. Like many young creatives at the fringes of the cultural industries, she was determined to ‘fake it till you make it’. Unlike many, she actually did.
"she was determined to ‘fake it till you make it’. Unlike many, she actually did"
Making an appearance in Inventing Anna is a character based on Michael Xufu Huang, a millennial art collector whom Sorokin conned out of around $3,000 and a trip to the 2015 Venice Biennale. After all, Sorokin claimed to be a lifelong art collector of ‘Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha, Anish Kapour [sic], and Helmut Newton, to name a few’ – so reads copy from an 80-page brochure aimed at investors in the ‘Anna Delvey Foundation’.
Sorokin’s end-game was securing a $22 million loan for a 19,650 square foot gallery space in what is now the Fotografiska building. While her plans were ultimately scuppered, Huang would go on to co-found the X museum in Beijing and to buy a portrait of Sorokin by the Chinese artist Gong Jian, which is now housed there.
"Art is only there to fulfil the need for 'Taste' for a slice of the world’s population, instead of to genuinely contemplate and propose alternative ways of living. Anna sharply took note of such phenomenon"
Asked what inspired the portrait, Gong Jian told Plinth:
The contemporary art scene is becoming increasingly vain, ludicrous, and quixotic. Art is only there to fulfil the need for 'Taste' for a slice of the world’s population, instead of to genuinely contemplate and propose alternative ways of living. Anna sharply took note of such phenomenon, and adapted it to her advantage. Just like what Žižek brought up in his recent interview: "If one pays attention to contemporary art—the sheer idea of it repulses me—one will notice how all of them claim solidarity with anti-capitalism, while acting in perfect harmony with the consumeristic, capitalistic management of the art market.
Whether or not you agree with Gong Jian, it’s difficult to dispute that Sorokin’s unique understanding of the art world is what enabled her to exploit it – particularly its fetish for ‘Taste’, an idea which she toys with in her Riker’s island prison diaries (though in a much more tangible way). ‘This past Thanksgiving,’ she writes, ‘I was flipping through the channels while my prison sis put the finishing touches on our holiday dinner – sprinkling dried shiitake mushrooms on top of vegan mac & cheese, and stirring coconut chickpea curry.’
These references to meals, as well as to yoga routines and complaints about the quality of television, are typical of the prison diaries. But if Sorokin parodies herself, which self would that be? ‘The ultimate unreliable narrator’, as she herself put it in an article for Insider penned from ICE custody, shouldn’t proclaim her own unreliability – but Anna knows what she’s up to: ‘My life is performance art’, @theannadelvey tweeted.
Whether or not her life is ‘performance art’, it has certainly involved more fiction than most – hard to resist for her fellow creatives. First tasked with depicting Sorokin for the New York Post, courtroom photographer Steven Hirsch was present for the duration of her trial – and having taken her photograph, Hirsch would go on to reimagine Anna in a series of paintings debuted by New York art dealer Marion Harris at the Outsider Art Fair in 2020. For the first painting he made of Anna, ‘I tried to imagine photographing Anna in a studio’, Hirsch explained. A later work shows ‘A fantasized vision of Anna on an American west road trip after being incarcerated for 20 months’; another depicts ‘one of the first times Anna appeared dressed up for her trial.’
"Whether or not her life is ‘performance art’, it has certainly involved more fiction than most – hard to resist for her fellow creatives"
‘During pretrial appearances she appeared in sweats’, Hirsch continued. ‘Anna was an enigma to me. She had fabricated an identity that wasn’t real and, in my mind, seemed like a digital image of a real person – in other words, pixelated.’
New York artist Cynthia Talmadge also reimagined Sorokin’s courtroom appearance, in Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey at Piccadilly Circus’ Soft Opening gallery in 2019: here, a quick succession of outfits wind-mill past a five-panelled painting screen, as if Anna herself (or rather, a caricature of her) were back there flaying her wardrobe to find the right outfit.
"Anna was an enigma to me. She had fabricated an identity that wasn’t real and, in my mind, seemed like a digital image of a real person"
‘For the Four Courtroom Outfits of AD I researched each piece of Zara TRF, Saint Laurent, and Ann Taylor Loft (!) that Delvey and her stylist chose for her court appearances’, Talmadge explained.
‘I was interested in a stylist-mediated expression of Delvey/Sorokin’s innermost thoughts and feelings and the psychic weight of a public identity being actively constructed and reconstructed. The clothes fly upward in an infinite cycle behind a dressing screen— an early animation trope which is used to describe a quick costume change or sartorial indecision. It was about the interplay between the performance and experience of emotion, which is a recurring theme in my work.’
"It was about the interplay between the performance and experience of emotion, which is a recurring theme in my work"
Talmadge’s folding screen reminds us what we can’t see, while indicting the voyeurism of the whole affair. We will never know the inner workings of the ‘real’ fake heiress – that said, buckle up for a slurry of TV, plays, art and writing which will fight tooth and nail to get as close as possible. In the age of imposter syndrome, marked by precarious work and social media’s unrelenting standards, it’s no wonder people are bewitched by the exception that proves all those rules.
As long as the space behind that screen remains hidden, people will continue to pour their ideas and speculations into the name ‘Anna Delvey’ – less a name than an enabling myth. As Aristotle put it, myths are lies that tell the truth. All eyes, as ever, are on Anna – just as she always wanted.
By Sammi Gale