From New Yorks fake heiress to Donald Trump, were living in the age of the scam | Hadley Freeman
Everywhere you look, there are people who have figured out ways to game our shoddy system
Unless you are Bob Dylan in the 60s, or Bret Easton Ellis in the 90s, it is very hard to capture the zeitgeist when you are still living through it. But while I have yet to write my The Times They Are A-Changin or American Psycho, Im going to describe this era as the age of the scam. Everywhere you look, there are people who have figured out ways to game our shoddy system, from politics to pop culture, and who are making inordinate amounts of money out of nothing or worse. Nothing feels entirely true; everything feels calculated to manipulate. Authenticity, instead of being a descriptor, has become a marketing concept.
Which is why many of the most hotly discussed stories of the past year have been about scams gone wrong. Here we have confirmation of our suspicion that this is how the world works now, as well as rare moments of comeuppance for the scammers. There have been two documentaries about Billy McFarland, the entrepreneur behind the 2017 Fyre festival disaster; and a podcast series and documentary devoted to Elizabeth Holmes, who founded Theranos, the fraudulent tech startup once valued at more than $9bn. These werent your run-of-the-mill scams, but ones that emerged, respectively, from social media and Silicon Valley, both of which have an inherently scammy feel to them. Last week, another scam saga came to an end with the conviction of Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, the phoney heiress found guilty of, among other things, stealing more than $200,000.
Sorokin arrived in New York from no one-knew-where in 2014. She slipped easily into circles I know all too well from my first job, when I wrote about fashion: there were magazines that proved their edginess by blurring the line between style and soft porn, bewilderingly pretentious private members clubs, international art festivals that felt like fancy fronts for money laundering. These ever so au courant milieus, where adults value coolness with the passion of insecure teenagers, repelled me, and for a while I thought this was a failing on my part. Get on board with the zeitgeist, Freeman! But I just felt confused by the people I met there, and opted out.
Delvey, by contrast, was embraced by this world, as she talked about opening a 45,000 sq ft private members dynamic visual arts centre in Manhattan. It was assumed she was a German heiress because she acted the part, always Instagramming herself at the right restaurants and cultural events: what other proof was needed? This is what her social circle did. Everyones life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone, Sorokins lawyer told the jury. And thats true. But Sorokin actually the daughter of a Russian former truck driver made a mistake in flat-out stealing, including $62,000 from a photojournalist. No amount of dynamic visual arts centres can obscure that.
McFarland and Holmes also exploited a culture that prioritises image over reality. Holmes was a college dropout with a (possibly fake) deep voice who claimed to have invented a machine that would revolutionise blood testing. The fear among investors and journalists was that, by not getting behind Holmes, they would be missing out on the next Google, as John Carreyrou, the journalist who finally exposed her, puts it in his book Bad Blood. (Fear of missing out, or Fomo, is also very much the spirit of our age.) Some have argued that Holmes represents the dangers of white feminism, because she seems to demonstrate how the lean-in culture, as advocated by Facebooks Sheryl Sandberg, endorses privileged white alpha women. But Holmes was always supported by men, not women, let alone feminists. It was male journalists who adoringly profiled her in tech and finance magazines, and it was men including Henry Kissinger, the economist George Shultz and the former US defence secretary James Mattis who endorsed her. This young, attractive woman looked the way they wanted the next tech guru to look, so they backed her. Meanwhile, McFarland represents our Fomo culture in its purest form, putting so much energy into getting Instagram influencers, including Kendall Jenner, to post plugs for his festival that he forgot to plan the festival itself.
And while we might laugh amazedly at Sorokin, Holmes and McFarlands hubris, they are mere microcosms of a more damaging macro scam. It is entirely apt that these stories should emerge from America during the Trump presidency. Trump cares little for anything as boring as policy, preferring instead to use the White House to leverage his brand, wealth and children (well, Ivanka, anyway). He casts a shadow over the whole culture. Since he was elected, every time I file my US taxes there is a little voice in my head that asks: Why am I doing this? I bet the president who has never shown his tax returns doesnt. Because when a scammer is in charge of a country, a splinter of scamminess enters all its citizens hearts.
Listen to Hadley discuss the Anna Sorokin case and sentencing on the Today In Focus podcast.