BY JULIE MILLER FEBRUARY 15, 2022
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY VANITY FAIR, PHOTOS FROM GETTY IMAGES, NETFLIX.
Rachel Williams, the former Vanity Fair staffer who was conned out of $62,000 by Anna Sorokin, known as Anna Delvey, never wanted to discuss her former friend again. She purged her recollections of the traumatic friendship in an essay for Vanity Fair and, later, a book, My Friend Anna. But when Netflix reportedly paid Sorokin $320,000 for her life rights—allowing the convicted felon to profit from her crimes after she was forced to use part of the sum to pay restitution and fines—Williams was irked. And when the adaptation of those rights and Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine feature made its way to TV screens on Friday, in Inventing Anna, Williams was shocked to see the degree to which the series sympathized with Sorokin (Julia Garner).
“I think promoting this whole narrative and celebrating a sociopathic, narcissistic, proven criminal is wrong,” Williams told Vanity Fair in her first interview about the series. “Having had a front-row seat to [the Anna circus] for far too long, I’ve studied the way a con works more than anybody needs to. You watch the spectacle, but you’re not paying attention to what’s being marketed.”
The way Williams sees it, Netflix and Shonda Rhimes were conned into believing that Sorokin was a special and even inspiring person—just like Williams was. They didn’t see her as a felon who was convicted on eight charges, including second-degree grand larceny, theft of services, and first-degree attempted grand larceny. (Sorokin was acquitted of attempted grand larceny in the first degree in regard to a $22 million loan she tried to obtain, and of stealing $62,000 from Williams. American Express later protected Williams from the Morocco hotel charges.) Sorokin was released from prison in February 2021. After overstaying her visa, Sorokin is currently in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement where she is fighting deportation and offering the occasional interview to press.
Even more dangerously, Williams contends, the series recklessly blurs fact with fiction—opening each episode with a cheeky title card: “This story is completely true, except for all the parts that aren’t.” To Williams, the show could convince viewers that Sorokin is some trailblazing renegade worthy of further fascination and financial payouts in spite of her crimes. (A Netflix spokesperson would not confirm the figure to The New York Times, but did clarify that “payments were made to an escrow account monitored by New York State’s Office of Victim Services.”)
Ahead, Williams reacts to the series and its unflattering depiction of her, and shares her own truth.
Vanity Fair: I just reread Jessica Pressler’s original article about Anna for The Cut, on which Inventing Anna is partially based. In the story, you’re depicted straightforwardly. Did you have any sense that the show would portray you as an opportunistic hanger-on?
Rachel Williams: I was caught off guard when Netflix announced its description of the character Rachel. [Editor’s note: Netflix described Rachel as “a natural-born follower whose blind worship of Anna almost destroys her job, her credit, and her life. But while her relationship with Anna is her greatest regret, the woman she becomes because of Anna may be Anna’s greatest creation.”]
To say a woman is someone else’s creation is counter to a feminist narrative. I looked at it and I was like, Really? That’s where you’re going to go with this? So I had some unease, but nobody thinks that someone is going to be reckless with facts, especially when the character is given my name. To me, it’s not making a statement but convoluting truth in a way that’s dangerous.
How much of the show have you seen, and what was your viewing experience like?
I haven’t watched the whole thing yet—I’ve been skimming. I started and was like, I’m not sure I have the stomach for this. I’ve seen enough of it to know my objections. Part of the reason I didn’t want to speak up [initially] was because I think people will want to couch my statements within the Rachel-vs.-Anna narrative. And I mean, yes, I am concerned about some very obvious, refutable factual inaccuracies.
But I’m more interested in this kind of true-crime entertainment. Some people online think this is a fact-checked series. Books are fact-checked. This show is playing with a fine line—peddling it as a true story, but also [in the opening disclaimer] saying, “except for all the parts that aren’t.” I think it’s worth exploring at what point a half-truth is more dangerous than a lie. That disclaimer gives the show enough credibility so that people can believe [the fictional elements] more easily. I think that’s really dangerous territory. Plus, it affected real-time criminal-justice proceedings.
Is there any particular story point that you want to go on record to correct?
I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of what is right versus what isn’t right. But I obviously was not laid off at Vanity Fair for this. I was not complicit [in] helping my friend defraud my employer. But the second I sit down to defend myself—especially because there’s now this false narrative about me and about the broader story—then I’m just feeding into this picking-sides-ism, when this isn’t something that is actually two-sided.
One person’s a criminal. The story profits her. This is a narrative designed to create empathy for a character who lacks it. The whole thing is very problematic. If I start saying “fact” or “fiction,” I feel like my voice will be lost and also more of a distraction.
The show dramatizes Jessica Pressler reaching out to you when she was working on her New York magazine article, and you declining to participate because you wanted to tell your own story. But in terms of the TV show, did Shonda Rhimes or the series reach out to you at any point?
They reached out to get my option, but at that point HBO already had it. [Editor’s note: Williams’s book was optioned by Lena Dunham, but it is no longer in development. The story rights were returned to Williams.]
At that point they already had optioned Jessica’s story?
Do you have any theory why you’re characterized this way?
Who knows. Julia Garner’s a terrific actress. But I think that whatever elusive charismatic powers Anna has come through less in the way the story is presented, [and more in] the way the whole story was created. Everyone talks about Anna’s star power—they were so clearly taken with this subject that they began to empathize with her. If you think about it, what do con artists do? They tell stories. Stories have so much power when it comes to creating belief. So everybody has bought into this fantastical narrative that has become so devoid of fact but still has the illusion of truth. The facts are boring, I guess, but they’re important.
How did you feel once you started watching the show? Did the Anna debacle harden you to the point where you aren’t surprised by anything anymore related to her?
I think there is a false narrative with regard to me not having been a strong person before this entire thing. I have learned a lot, of course.
In a lot of ways, though, reality has gotten stranger than I ever imagined. So yes, the next gross bag of tricks probably shocks me less than it would other people. But I think my resolve is strengthened. Certainly not because of Anna. But you learn at some point that kindness is not mutually exclusive from strength. I think I was trying too hard to emphasize kindness for too long with Anna, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t strong.
Sometimes we hesitate to draw a firm line with someone who tests our limits because we think that leniency is kind. But at a certain point, it’s actually the opposite for both people.
I just would like to raise questions that I hope other people would see the value in exploring.
Like the fact that Netflix paid Anna over $300,000 for her life rights.
Yes, and to say she doesn’t profit because there isn’t much money left over after she pays lawyers…it’s like, at what point does $75,000 worth of attorney fees factor into not being her profit? The fact that she financed a private criminal defense attorney, and chose to spend the money that way, doesn’t mean it wasn’t money.
In your character’s scene on the witness stand, Anna’s lawyer accuses you, too, of profiting off of Anna because you sold a book—even though you sold a book, in part, to help recoup your losses from Anna. But there were other immeasurable negative effects of your relationship with Anna, I imagine.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the impact because it’s been however many years, but it certainly took a huge toll on me. As I’ve said one too many times, this is the hardest thing I’ve gone through—the betrayal as much as the money. Having been betrayed by someone I trusted—and to have been betrayed in a huge way. Her entire identity had been a complete sham. That really sends you into a ricochet of memories, looking back trying to look for all the signs you missed. That’s why I wrote a book—I was drowning in rumination and trying to process what had happened.
So it was like this giant purge of all these cached memories that I strung together so I could step back, look at them, and figure out what had happened, what to make of it, and hopefully leave it behind me.
Katie Lowes, who plays you on the show, said she wanted to use the real you as a jumping-off point, and actually based the character on someone else she knew. Did she ever reach out to you?
No, I never heard from her. From what I’ve seen of the series so far: Lowes’s concern for accuracy, when it comes to portraying me as I am, seems limited to the spelling of my full name. This sort of half-truth is more insidious than a total lie because it causes uninformed viewers to mistake fiction for fact based on mere fragments of reality—like my place of work, for instance, and even a photo of the real me within the end credits.
Have you heard from Anna or Kacy, played by Laverne Cox on Inventing Anna, since the trial?
No. I mean, it speaks to my objections about the way truth is [dealt with on the series], but there’s this constructed world within the show—which I guess is the necessity of television—where it creates this illusion that I was close friends with Neff (Alexis Floyd) and Kacy. I like them. I’m not going to speak negatively about them. But they were not my close friends.
In one of the final episodes, Kacy criticizes your character for participating in the sting operation that led to Anna’s arrest, and seems to point a finger at you for being a bad friend, despite everything Anna did to lead you to that point. Do you want to respond to that?
I don’t want to litigate every [plot point]. But are we forgetting the fact that this person is a convicted felon and chronic hustler? How come every other character [in Anna’s circle] is completely enamored with Anna, and yet my character’s liking of Anna is the only one that people think must have been for reasons that are objectionable? Could it not have been that I, too, thought she was interesting and smart and funny?
What bothers you most about the series?
The show’s trying to straddle the divide between fact and fiction. I think that’s a particularly dangerous space, more than the true-crime medium, because people sometimes believe what they see in entertainment more readily than what they see on the news. It’s the emotional connections to a narrative that form our beliefs. Also hunger for this type of entertainment urges media companies to create more of it, incentivizing people like Anna and making [crime] seem like a viable career path. [Editor’s note: In an interview with the BBC last year, Sorokin was asked if crime paid. She responded, “In a way, it did.”]
In the show, the character based on Jessica Pressler defends Anna as a product of our culture, and that’s seemingly how she rationalizes her sympathy for her. Do you have anything to say about that?
I think it’s the same with Netflix. It’s the same with Shonda. It’s a really convenient narrative people are projecting. But when you do that, you have to recognize you’re not looking for truth. You’re looking for your own version of the truth, and that’s not necessarily related to the reality of the people and the events [involved]. This is Shonda Rhimes’s first foray into a nonfiction story…And I think that they came into it thinking they were going to make a statement about what it’s like being a young woman in a man’s world, or the materialism of the fashion and art world. Obviously, there are a lot of things about those subjects that we all would agree with.
I just think that there is a risk when you try to project a fictional narrative onto a real [crime story]. You may have shaped [a show] in a way that’s convenient for your story, but it’s a disservice to the people whose stories you’re telling.
I’m curious what will happen to Anna because of the show and the attention on her. For some people, attention is a more powerful commodity than money.
I agree. Attention is a form of currency, and if history is any indication, it’s what Anna will continue to seek. It’s what she needs in order to convince people to keep buying into her stories.
Joan Didion was right—we tell ourselves stories in order to live. For a fake heiress like Anna, the statement rings especially true.
Julie Miller is a senior feature writer at Vanity Fair