clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Real Stories Behind the Characters in Netflix’s ‘Inventing Anna’

In ‘Inventing Anna,’ fact and fiction have a way of blending together. So what’s real and what’s not? Let’s break it down, character by character.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

In Inventing Anna, Netflix’s new Shonda Rhimes–produced series that delves into the exploits of fake-German-heiress-turned-real-con-artist Anna Delvey (real name: Anna Sorokin), fact and fiction have a way of blending together. Every episode begins with a coy disclaimer: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.” And indeed, some elements of the show—from the VIP treatment at Rikers to the realities of Scriberia—were either exaggerated or outright invented.

But much of what is depicted in Inventing Anna is, in fact, true to Sorokin’s story, in which the Russian-born, German-raised Sorokin swindled banks, hotels, and myriad moneyed acquaintances out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate a jet-setting lifestyle for several years before she was ultimately arrested in 2017. These depictions are especially accurate with the people who Sorokin-as-Delvey encounters—that is, charms, defrauds, allegedly defrauds, wines, dines, scandalizes, etc.—along the way. The journalist Jessica Pressler’s original 2018 story for New York magazine, “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People,” mentioned many of these real-life figures by name. Others, however, were not named, an arrangement that is explained in Inventing Anna as a way of Pressler (whose character is renamed Vivian Kent and played by Anna Chlumsky) bartering for additional access and sourcing assistance. Some of these figures are portrayed in Inventing Anna. Others appear on screen for the first time, with the series focusing on Chlumsky’s Kent, as well.

Who were the real-life people who found their way into the Anna Delvey saga? And how do their appearances in Inventing Anna stack up against their descriptions in Pressler’s reporting? Let’s break it down.

Vivian Kent, reporter for Manhattan magazine

How it goes down in Inventing Anna:

Much of the Netflix series focuses on Kent (Chlumsky) as she reports on Sorokin. In the show, she fixates on a professional embarrassment from several years earlier, in which she was assigned a story on a high school student who had purportedly made millions in the stock market. Shortly after the piece went to print, the student admitted that he made the entire thing up, a sufficiently high-profile media bungling that cost Kent a glitzy job offer. Inventing Anna presents Kent as desperate to pull off a piece that will salvage her journalistic reputation. And she has a very specific deadline: Kent is pregnant during the entirety of the reporting process and dots the last i’s immediately after having her water break on her editor’s shoes.

How it really happened:

The real Pressler is indeed a writer, though she works for New York magazine and not its fictional twin. And she was duped by a teenager, prompting an apology by the magazine after the duplicity went public (more on that below). Pressler’s redemption arc, however, is exaggerated. For one, in the interim between that story and her Sorokin piece, Pressler wrote “The Hustlers at Scores”—another hit longform story, which was adapted into the 2019 film Hustlers.

For another, though Pressler was pregnant while working on the Sorokin story, she gave birth “two weeks or so” after the piece was finished, as she told Vulture, and was far from conducting a final source call between labor howls. Pressler added that although she gave Sorokin clothing for the trial, as depicted in Inventing Anna, she did not cover the proceedings.

Donovan Lamb, the high school student who duped Kent

How it goes down in Inventing Anna:

In the series, we learn that a student named Donovan Lamb tricked Kent into publishing a piece about the nonexistent millions he made in the stock market. Kent says that she had a feeling something was off with Lamb’s account and asked her editor to check it out—only for the editor to publish the story as originally written and then lay the blame at Kent’s feet.

How it really happened:

In December 2014, Pressler wrote a dishy story in New York about the blockbuster stock market success of Mohammed Islam, then a senior at Stuyvesant High School and a member of the school’s investment club. Over a $400 snack of apple juice and caviar, Pressler reported:

Mo got into trading oil and gold, and his bank account grew. Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the “high eight figures.” More than enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan—though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18—and acquire a BMW, which he can’t drive because he doesn’t yet have a license. Thus, it falls to his father to drive him past Tudor Jones’s Greenwich house for inspiration. “It’s because he is who he is that made me who I am today,” Mo said.

The day after the story was published, Islam and the friends he’d taken along to sample caviar with Pressler came clean to the New York Observer, fessing up to the fact that Islam’s stock market gains were entirely fictional, as was the idea of him renting a Manhattan apartment. For their part, the kids did seem somewhat chastened by the debacle, and the Observer reported that the teens had hired a crisis PR firm. Islam told the Obersver that a New York fact checker had indeed attempted to back up Pressler’s reporting; Islam shared a falsified bank document.

New York issued an apology: “We were duped,” it read in part. Shortly thereafter, Bloomberg News rescinded a job offer to Pressler to join its investigative unit.

A LinkedIn page under Islam’s name that lists attendance at Stuvesant High from 2011 to 2015 and involvement in the Stuyvesant Investment Club says that Islam currently works at Saphka LLC, an Albany-registered corporation with little other publicly discernible information.

Chase Sikorski, Sorokin’s boyfriend

How it goes in Inventing Anna:

Sikorski is one of the many fictionalized names in the series that does not appear as a pseudonym in Pressler’s piece. Unlike in the original story, Sorokin’s boyfriend is a major character in the show, joining her through much of her early New York–based grift, including a too-long stay with a wealthy friend-cum-benefactor and the gatecrashing of a yacht in Ibiza, where Sikorski attempted to secure funding for his dream-focused app, Wake.

How it really happened:

Sorokin’s boyfriend makes only a fleeting appearance in Pressler’s story—a fact explained in Inventing Anna by Kent bargaining with him to keep his name and other details out of print in exchange for more info on Sorokin and his history with her. Here is the boyfriend’s complete appearance in the 2018 New York piece:

The CEO met Anna through the boyfriend she was running around with for a while, a futurist on the TED Talks circuit who’d been profiled in The New Yorker. For about two years, they’d been kind of like a team, showing up in places frequented by the itinerant wealthy, living out of fancy hotels and hosting sceney dinners where the Futurist talked up his app and Delvey spoke of the private club she wanted to open once she turned 25 and came into her trust fund.

Then it was 2016. The Futurist, whose app never materialized, moved to the Emirates, and Anna came to New York on her own.

The identity of Sorokin’s boyfriend was the subject of much fixation when Pressler’s story initially went to press. Consensus has circled around one name in particular: Hunter Lee Soik, who was indeed part of the TED Talks circuit and whose—ahem—dream-focused app, called Shadow, was written up in The New Yorker in 2013. “What do women in Stockholm dream about in the wintertime?” he asked in that piece. Sadly, we still do not know; Shadow never came to fruition.

Kacy Duke, Sorokin’s personal trainer and friend

How it goes in Inventing Anna:

Duke, played by a scene-stealing Laverne Cox, is portrayed as a celebrity personal trainer whom Sorokin hires to train her and her friends. We see her doubling as a life coach to Sorokin and her regular A-list clientele; this culminates in Duke bringing a client dubbed “Nicole”—who is apparently famous enough that the reporter Kent is shocked to hear she was there—along to an intervention for Sorokin in a restaurant.

That intervention followed a disastrous trip to Morocco, when the would-be heiress’s webs of deceit and debt finally caught up with her at a luxury hotel—leaving her friend Rachel DeLoache Williams, who is also at the intervention, on the hook for the bill. It’s Duke whom a distraught Sorokin is shown calling, pleading for help to buy a plane ticket home from Morocco—and then specifying that she’d prefer first class.

How it really happened:

Duke is a real trainer based in New York City who was the founding creative director of Equinox; she has bragged about getting Denzel Washington—one of her clients, naturally—to try a 10-day lemonade-only diet, as well as helping Monica Lewinsky “secretly slim down for her grand jury appearances without becoming paparazzi fodder in a health club,” according to a story in The Washington Post. Duke has also been said to work with Gwen Stefani, Bruce Willis, Julianne Moore, Mary J. Blige, and Kirsten Dunst, among others.

While Duke’s personal website now includes a tab dedicated to Inventing Anna, she was not always keen to go public with her involvement with Sorokin. As with Sorokin’s boyfriend, Duke is not mentioned by name in Pressler’s story, which Inventing Anna once again explains by showing Kent make a deal in exchange for background intel (in Kent’s case, whilst in the throes of labor). Pressler wrote that “the trainer,” as she was identified, “​​had taken a motherly interest” in Sorokin:

I know a lot of trust-fund babies, and I was impressed that Anna had something that she wanted to do, instead of, you know, living like a Kardashian,” said the trainer. Plus, she said, Anna seemed lonely.

As in Inventing Anna, Pressler wrote that it was ultimately Duke—whom Pressler described as “a personal trainer–slash–life coach she’d found online, a svelte, ageless Oprah-esque figure”—who helped bail Sorokin out of the mess in Morocco. In the piece, the trainer recounted purchasing Sorokin’s ticket back to New York, at which point Sorokin “snuffled,” “‘Can you get me first class?’”

Pressler also described the intervention with Sorokin, the trainer, and Williams, though it’s unclear whether, like in Inventing Anna, the trainer brought along a celebrity client, whom we see in the series gulping rosé and correctly identifying the grift at hand, even as the others remain in denial.

Rachel DeLoache Williams, Sorokin’s friend

How it goes in Inventing Anna:

Kent tries, and fails, to interview Williams, whom we see eagerly tumble into Sorokin’s glitzy life of bottle service, infrared saunas, and sessions with Duke before things start to go awry. It turns out that Williams had a reason for staying mum: She was working on her own story about her former friendship with Sorokin—and the trip to Morocco that left her with bills totaling more than $62,000—for Vanity Fair, where she had been on staff, which is eventually expanded into a book called My Friend Anna. (Duke, with her high-flying connections, gets her hands on a galley.)

In the show, Williams is questioned by Sorokin’s defense attorney during her trial, weeping as she declares, “This is the most traumatic experience I’ve ever been through.”

How it really went:

Williams did indeed write about her experience in Morocco with Sorokin, Duke, and a photographer, “whom, at a dinner the week before our trip, Anna had asked to come as a documentarian.” (Chris Lowell, who played that documentarian in Inventing Anna, said that he thinks the character is “a composite of a couple of different characters, some of which were or might’ve been in Morocco during this time.”) The courtroom tears depicted in the series were the real deal.

Last week, Williams again wrote about her experience, in an excerpt of her (real) book’s new afterword. Williams, who says she separately optioned her story to HBO, bristled at her depiction in Inventing Anna. “Because I became an author, I’m asked on occasion whether I’m grateful for what happened between Anna and me,” she wrote. “My answer is of course not.”

Neff Davis, Sorokin’s friend

How it goes in Inventing Anna:

Davis appears as the concierge at the 12 George hotel, the stand-in for the real 11 Howard, and is portrayed as Sorokin’s one ride-or-die ally, as well as the only person Sorokin made whole, apparently out of loyalty. Davis solidifies her friendship with Sorokin when she helps her evade the skeevy advances of a banker given the name of David Morrison. Morrison’s firm, Fortress Investment Group, was courted by Sorokin to financially back her doomed Anna Delvey Foundation.

How it really went:

Davis is the central figure in Pressler’s story, beginning with the lede:

It started with money, as it so often does in New York. A crisp $100 bill slipped across the smooth surface of the mid-century-inspired concierge desk at 11 Howard, the sleek new boutique hotel in Soho. Looking up, Neffatari Davis, the 25-year-old concierge, who goes by “Neff,” was surprised to see the cash had come from a young woman who seemed to be around her age. She had a heart-shaped face and pouty lips surrounded by a wild tangle of red hair, her eyes framed by incongruously chunky black glasses that Neff, an aspiring cinematographer with an eye for detail, identified as Céline.

“Anna is my friend and always will be,” Davis, who Inventing Anna’s closing credits describe as having moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, told Bustle this week. “We have blocked and unblocked each other, cried, and laughed.” Davis was hired by Shondaland to work as a consultant on Inventing Anna.

During Sorokin’s trial, texts from a Fortress banker named Dennis Onabajo caused a minor sensation: He wrote to Sorokin that he found her “sexy” and “insanely beautiful,” and once asked to “come upstairs” at 11 Howard. Sorokin declined.

Todd Spodek, Sorokin’s attorney

How it goes in Inventing Anna:

Spodek is presented as being out of his depth with Sorokin, beginning with him bitterly joking that his office is located in a WeWork. “My last big client was a woman who claimed she was the lovechild of a president,” he gripes to his wife in the first episode. Spodek develops a love-hate relationship with his client, and does about as well as could be expected given all the, well, crimes.

He faces off against assistant district attorney Catherine McCaw, who brags in the show that she has seven people on the case and 11,000 pages of discovery to sort through, which she suggests might be too much for Spodek’s two-person practice. “​​Todd, have you thought about helping her get a different attorney?” McCaw asks.

How it really went:

First things first: Spodek really did represent a woman accused of stalking Alec Baldwin in 2013, as mentioned in Inventing Anna’s seventh episode. “At the hearing,” reported the New York Daily News, “Assistant District Attorney Zachary Stendig asked Spodek to keep his wacky blond client under control.” Not for the last time, as it would happen!

The show’s portrayal of Spodek’s no-nonsense defense of Sorokin, occasionally against her wishes, seems to match up with reality. In 2017, shortly after Sorokin was arrested, Spodek offered his thoughts on a dubiously decreed “Love Your Lawyer Day”: “Everyone needs a little love, however, ‘Love your Lawyer Day’ seems a little bit of stretch,” he said. “However, I think an ‘Appreciate Your Lawyer’s Efforts, Even Though Everything May Not Go Exactly How You Wish Day’ could be appropriate. In certain instances, particularly when you are faced with picking the best of the worst options, this is hard for people to remember.”

The real Spodek has a cameo in Inventing Anna: During his television counterpart’s interrogation of Williams, he appears in the courtroom pews.