“What drives me? That’s a good question…” Anna Delvey ponders this for a few moments, before answering: “I would love to create something out of nothing, to build stuff.”
Delvey is talking to me over the phone from Orange County Jail, where she is currently being detained by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is surreal to hear her voice directly, with so many imitations of her jumbled Russian-German-American accent ricocheting around the world ever since the Netflix series inspired by her life, Inventing Anna, was released earlier this year.
Starring Julia Garner, Inventing Anna chronicled Delvey’s rise to the heady heights of New York’s social scene, posing as the heiress to a $60 million fortune while swindling others out of enormous sums of money; and her dramatic fall, which culminated in her indictment at Rikers Island prison for stealing nearly $275,000 in total. She was sentenced to serve four to 12 years in prison, fined $24,000 and ordered to pay her victims restitution.
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“I obviously made mistakes in the past, but I would just love to move away from this image of me being a scammer, or this conniving, calculating person,” says Delvey. “It’s nice and funny when somebody else kind of mocks me, or jokes about those things, but I don’t want it to be coming from me. I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
I obviously made mistakes in the past… I don’t want to be that person anymore
Chloe Fineman and Kate McKinnon parodied her in a Saturday Night Live skit; Millie Bobby Brown delivered the notorious Delvey-ism “Why do you look poor?” on The Tonight Show; and the comedian Nicole DuBois’s TikTok impression of her went viral – to name just a few. But Delvey is yet to experience the full extent of her newfound notoriety: having been released from Rikers on good behaviour last year, she was taken back into custody six weeks later for overstaying her visa. “I’m pretty secluded from the outside world, so I’m not really exposed to social media the same way I would have been if I were out. There’s been a big difference in perception,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “I mean, if any officers did not know who I was, they do now. That’s the biggest difference in my day-to-day life.”
Delvey has only seen 30 minutes of the series, but says she approves of Garner’s portrayal. “My friend said Julia got me pretty well. I guess I know how to take it. It’s not like a documentary, it’s a dramatised version of my life, it’s been inspired by my story, so there are accurate moments.” She continues, “People who are smart enough know to take it with a grain of salt and not see it as a documentary… And the rest don’t really matter.” While she may be behind bars, Delvey’s self-confidence remains unbound.
The now 31-year-old is currently waiting on a Board of Immigration Appeals to decide on her case, but hopes to stay in New York. “I just love the energy of New York,” says the Russia-born, Germany-raised Delvey. “There’s all kinds of people and they’re very accepting of all cultures. Where I came from, everybody was the same; they had the same backgrounds and the same stories, so coming to New York was very exciting to me.”
With time on her hands, she has created a collection of sketches for exhibitions held in NYC, which she has called “Free Anna Delvey” and “Allegedly”. Most recently, she has also launched a series of NFTs granting buyers exclusive access to interactions with her. Titled, “Reinventing Anna”, she describes the project as being “one of the first steps for me to start telling my own side of the story”.
Token-holders will receive a phone-call with Delvey herself, and some will get an in-person meeting. She is also offering a selection of personal items she has accumulated in jail – “a whole bunch of stuff that ranges from stationery that I personalise, like my pens, to my clothing items” – which she and the buyer will choose from together. She is also taking commissions for her sketches, which depict vignettes of her life past and present. One shows a woman dressed in an ICE jumpsuit adrift on an ice cap; another a glamorously dressed figure on what appears to be a private jet, with the sentence “I know what I’m doing” written four times.
“I started by leaning into more what people expected from the show, from the past, so it was kind of a humorous take on how I see my story. Like, the stuff that happened the way I saw it. I think I’m pretty ironic, and I’m trying not to take myself too seriously. That’s one of the things I wanted to show.”
I think I’m pretty ironic, and I’m trying not to take myself too seriously
Over the past few months, Delvey has received a flurry of emails and enquiries for interaction, and “Reinventing Anna” was her way of responding. “I get so many offers and – how can I say it? Basically, people want to talk to me, so I decided to do something on my own, so I can take control of the narrative.” I ask her where she thinks the public’s fascination with her comes from. “I don’t know. One of my theories is because my story encompasses so much: I’m a young female – I started working on this project in my early twenties – and it touches on feminism, and also criminal justice and immigration, the class system, money… there’s a bit of everything.”
Having studied fashion illustration in Paris, Delvey’s interest in art was sparked while interning at Purple magazine when she was 20. “That was my first main introduction to the art world. We had all kinds of artists popping in and out of the office randomly, and we covered the art fairs. It kind of went from there.” It also planted very early seeds that in 2016 would grow into her idea for the Anna Delvey Foundation, a proposed members’ club set in 281 Park Avenue South, focusing on art and housing restaurants, bars, working spaces and a hotel – for which she fraudulently secured large bank loans. “I wouldn’t ever want to recreate the Anna Delvey Foundation,” she states. “I just feel like there’s so many better uses of my time. Now more so than in the past, I’d like to make a difference.”
Delvey says her experiences in prison have inspired her to focus on criminal-justice reform, in order to more successfully rehabilitate felons when they are released. “Before you’re about to leave, you have to take this free course where they prepare you for life on the outside,” she describes. “They make you watch VHS tapes, which were recorded clearly in the Eighties, saying a great way to get a job would be to look in a local newspaper. Just crazy stuff. It’s really unhelpful and does not prepare you for anything – especially for people who have been incarcerated for a while.” She also suggests that large conglomerates like Amazon should have government incentives to recruit and train former criminals, “because what happens when they come out in the community is that it’s very hard to get a job – and to survive – with a record”.
The burning question is whether someone like Delvey is capable of change, but she insists that she is approaching these past years as “a learning experience”. “I don’t want to be put in a box; but people have seen the show, and now everybody just expects me to do the same thing. I find that pretty hard, because people have certain expectations. I would love to be given an opportunity to do something else with my life.”
At this point in our conversation, an automated voice through the jail’s telephone system says: “You have one minute remaining.” Delvey continues talking regardless, making every second count. “You just never know how life is going to turn out, and I did have very bad stretches of time. But I’m really, really looking forward getting out of jail, that’s like my first priority right now, and just restarting my life when I’m outside.”
The threat of the call ending hangs on the line as she adds her parting words: “I think the way you see life is all about perspective and how you approach things. You can always create something positive out of something negative. You know, don’t quit and keep trying.”
We are cut-off here, and I’m left grappling with the fact that – against my better judgement – I enjoyed our conversation. Delvey was engaging, polite, direct, funny, all the qualities that make her someone people want to be around – and all the reasons why she was a successful scam-artist. While second chances are never a given, she will seek out opportunities for hers at every turn. Whether we like it or not, Anna Delvey is planning her comeback.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR UK