The faux heiress joins Document to discuss her newfound interest in political advocacy, the death of American entrepreneurship, and transitioning from con artist to fine artist
“I hate the term ‘con artist.’ It’s about the mindset,” Anna Delvey says over a crackling phone line. “Nobody’s going to give you anything—if you want something, you have to go and take it. It’s just like, where do you draw the line of what’s acceptable?”
Delvey is recalling a period of American culture in the mid-2010s, when the “fake it till you make it” mentality was considered not only acceptable, but admirable. This was the climate she grew up in: before hustle culture was labeled as toxic, or increasing disillusionment with labor conditions spurred the rise of anti-work ideology among Gen Z; before Kim Kardashian came under fire for advising female entrepreneurs to “get your fucking ass up and work,” or popular TV shows like Squid Game and Maid raised questions about the myth of meritocracy. “It’s different now,” Delvey says. “Ambition’s not being glorified anymore.”
If Delvey is to be believed, we’re witnessing a cultural sea change, with everyday Americans demonstrating more interest in people who attempt to game the system and fail than those who succeed by its rules. If you’re reading this, you probably know that Delvey herself is at the center of this shift, having risen to prominence after she was accused of posing as a wealthy German heiress and conning major financial institutions, hotels, and wealthy acquaintances to the tune of $275,000—a story that was chronicled in a viral article by The Cut’s Jessica Pressler, and further dissected over the course of Delvey’s very public trial, which saw her don plunging necklines, sheer tops, choker necklaces, and Céline frames while she awaited her sentence. (“It’s not, like, breaking news to anybody that I care about clothes,” she quips.)
Delvey sold her life rights to Netflix, using the funds to cover her legal fees, pay court-ordered restitution to her victims, and cover the $24,000 fine she received; Inventing Anna, a limited series starring Julia Garner in the titular role, was released earlier this year and quickly became one of the most-viewed shows on the streaming platform. But while the rest of the world has been watching a version of her unravel on the big screen, Delvey has been working hard to reinvent herself. “Whoever I was 10 years ago, or five years ago, I’m not really that person anymore,” she says. “[At the time] I thought I was so well traveled, and I knew all kinds of people. But I did not know how sheltered I was before I went to jail.”
Having spent the past four years behind bars—19 months of which were served at the infamous Rikers Island—Delvey has come face-to-face with the realities of the American prison system, and has emerged as an unlikely advocate for criminal justice reform, a cause she now hopes to address through both her artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors. “It cannot be overlooked—what incarceration does to America,” she says. “It would be a shame if I didn’t use my voice to change the system for the better, because I’m one of the few people who’s been through it, and I know what can and should be changed.”
Before she was arrested, the faux heiress was hustling to finance her entrepreneurial vision: an elite Manhattan art club called the Anna Delvey Foundation, with rotating exhibitions from the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, as well as several restaurants, a bakery, and a juice bar. During our conversation, she shares her vision for a new iteration of ADF—one that centers advocacy, not exclusivity. “I’m not interested in creating a private social club in New York. Like, absolutely not,” she says. “I just don’t care about that anymore.”
The statement is ironic, not because of Delvey’s former aspirations as a New York socialite, but because of the nature of her recent success: Her first solo art exhibition, Allegedly, was a one-night, invite-only party held in a swanky room at PUBLIC Hotel. Attended by New York media, Delvey fans, and prospective art collectors, the show included lanky models in BDSM-inspired masks, carrying Delvey’s pen-and-paper sketches through the crowd; a highly-anticipated voicemail from Delvey herself, played on speaker while a sea of smartphones filmed it for Instagram; and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” blaring at full force while the models strutted around, illuminated by the—you guessed it—flashing lights of countless cameras. Witnessing the scene, it appeared that, in a roundabout way, Anna Delvey had achieved her original goal: an exclusive, art-focused social club in New York City, centering her as the star. Delvey addresses this dissonance in our interview: “It looked like a fashion show, but what it really is about is a pen and pencil prison sketch,” she says, describing the elaborate process of attempting to acquire art materials in jail, and the challenge of creating art using only rudimentary materials.
“It would be a shame if I didn’t use my voice to change the prison system for the better, because I’m one of the few people who’s been through it and I know what can and should be changed.”
The resulting drawings feature imagined scenes from Delvey’s life alongside written commentary—an effort to reclaim the narrative, “telling my story from my own perspective.” Rendered crudely in pencil or pen, they stand in contrast to the works featured in other art shows about incarceration, such as MOMA PS1’s recent exhibition Marking Time, a group show bearing witness to the realities of the carceral system through works described as “laborious, time-consuming, and immersive.” Delvey’s approach is different; “I think it’s less about the execution and more about the idea behind it,” she says of the drawings, which she first began making during her trial as a means to express herself. While she appears to play into her opulent reputation with coy illustrations—some of them featuring designer names, newspaper headlines, and cheeky slogans—she says it’s the message behind the artwork that counts, asserting that “you can’t really talk about incarceration without it being political.
In the months since Allegedly opened, Delvey’s art has been described as the “death of culture,” an example of the “Anna Delvey-industrial complex,” and “just another scam,” as evidenced by Los Angeles artist Julia Morrison claiming that she is still owed $8,000 in connection to one of Delvey’s recent art shows. (Delvey declined to discuss this on record.) She’s started selling NFTs, not of her drawings, but of herself: one-on-one phone calls and personal objects to be snatched up by her countless fans. The building that brought about her downfall, 281 Park Avenue South, has hit the market for a whopping $135 million, more than five times the $29 million that Delvey was trying to raise for the Anna Delvey Foundation.
Life, for Delvey, goes on; currently in ICE detainment, she describes a daily routine involving walks in the yard (always early in the morning, or late afternoon—“Being in jail and having nowhere to go, I avoided years of sun damage to my skin”) dietary changes (“I’ll be switching to a different brand of trail mix and cutting out caffeine from my diet”) and self-reflection (“Every interview is kind of like therapy,” she says, describing the way she’s forced to contemplate her prior actions). She’s not exactly happy things turned out this way, but says she’s learned a lot in jail, from subjects ranging from human behavior to criminal justice reform. “Being imprisoned has been like a crash course in everything: in politics, in society,” Delvey states. “It’s not like I was just in jail doing nothing, staring at the wall for years. I still have a pretty dynamic life, if you want to put it that way!”
Camille Sojit Pejcha: I attended your recent show and it was quite the scene. Can you tell me about how your art career came together?
Anna Delvey: When I went to trial, I’d just sit in court all day, every day, for weeks. So I started sketching while in court; it was like an outlet. They make it seem different on TV—more exciting—but the reality is that you just wait a lot. It’s also kind of interesting because you’re observed all day, every day; you’re being watched by the jury, by the photographers, by the judge.
I sketched my prosecutor doing the closing statements. Then, I was supposed to have a visit at Rikers, and I was expecting a friend of mine to come, and [at the same time] Emily [Palmer] from the New York Times showed up. I didn’t check, because I just got off the phone with my friend and she was on the way, and if you want to pass the visitor something, you have to drop it off [with the guards] before they visit. So I gave them the sketch—it says ‘For Jessica’—and she just kind of took it. That’s how it ended up in the New York Times.
When I was on trial, I wasn’t really giving any interviews because all my points would be used against me during the hearing. Sketching was the only way that I could come up with to communicate with the people on the outside. I came up with a couple sketches and I sent them to Neff to put them on my Instagram—she used to run my account at the time—and people loved it. I think it’s less about the execution, and more about the idea behind it and what I’m trying to communicate with each one. The way the show came about was struggle after struggle, because they would not let me have full size paper, because it’s ‘too dangerous.’ They finally let me have colored pencils, but I could only have 12 of them—don’t ask me why. We can’t have erasers—I don’t know why—so I couldn’t make any mistakes. And I guess the idea of it was like, ‘The sketches made it out of jail, but not me!’
“It cannot be overlooked—what incarceration does to America. Because it’s not only affecting the person who’s in jail, it’s a ripple effect. It’s affecting their community, their partners, their family, their children.”
Someone pointed out the dissonance of this kind of the show—that it looked like a fashion show, but what it really is about is a pen and pencil prison sketch. The real story is what happened to the sketches before they even made it out… There’s a whole process [mailing things from jail]. It was like everything that could be complicated, this place makes sure it actually is complicated.
Camille: I’m curious; beyond the persona and actions you’re known for, what’s really important to you in terms of how you want to be remembered?
Anna: Well, I think I’m just like any person, I constantly change and evolve. Whoever I was ten years ago, or five years ago, I’m not really that person anymore. I think everybody between the ages of 20 and 30 goes through such a big change, right? And it’s just kind of like, [there was] a decade where I was trying to work on my idea for the Anna Delvey Foundation, I got charged with my crime, and I went to prison. Whatever I was trying to build years ago, I’m not interested in anymore. I just want to make a difference, I just want to affect more people. It would be a shame if I didn’t use my voice to change the prison system for the better, because I’m one of the few people who’s been through it, and I know what can and should be changed. But there are so many other people who can tell you the same thing, they just won’t be listened to. A lot of people come out of jail and they want nothing to do with it, they just want to forget and they want to move on.
I mean, you can’t really talk about incarceration without it being political. I have so many ideas, and that’s why I want to start my own foundation or whatever you want to call it—a kind of reform initiative. I will need to figure out the legality of it, but it just affects so many people, and it cannot be overlooked—what incarceration does to America. Because it’s not only affecting the person who’s in jail, it’s a ripple effect. It’s affecting their community, their partners, their family, their children. It has such a massive impact. I feel like every person, if they really look around, knows somebody who knows somebody who was incarcerated.
Camille: How has your perspective on the system changed since experiencing it firsthand?
Anna: The law about non-violent offenses changed since I went to Rikers. So if I were to get arrested today for the exact same charges, I would have been free. This is a dramatic difference, spending 19 months in one of the—so they say—most dangerous places in America. But the saddest thing about it is just, like, being in Rikers is like being in jail everywhere—that’s what people don’t realize. Every jail you go to has a different name and a different backdrop, but the idea and the concept is the same, it just doesn’t have the same history or the same rap.
Camille: Am I right in thinking that these days, you’re conceiving your platform as an opportunity to talk about what happened as a result of your crimes, versus articulating the original vision you were pursuing before being imprisoned?
Anna: I moved on from the Anna Delvey Foundation in its original iteration. I’m not interested in creating a private social club in New York, like absolutely not. It’s just like, I don’t care about that anymore.
Camille: I’m curious what your vision is now.
Anna: I don’t want to say anything too early—hopefully I will be out really soon, and I’ll see what my options are—but I’m already in talks with a couple of people who have foundations of their own, and I’m really interested in what they’re doing, and how I can contribute to that, and kind of add my voice to the conversation.
Camille: In thinking about the people who have been labeled as ‘con artists’ in popular culture, especially other female entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Holmes, I’m curious how you consider the role of privilege in terms of how you’ve each been treated by the public—the way that people have interacted with your stories, versus the experience of the inmates and other people you’ve encountered going through the criminal justice system.
Anna: Generally in jail I’ve encountered only support, and nobody really says anything mean—like, not to my face. I’m sure that people say all kinds of things, but nobody’s publicly attacking me in jail or prison.
I have a lot to say about the Elizabeth Holmes thing. I just hate the term ‘con artist.’ It’s just so, like, diminutive.
Camille: I’ve heard you say that you weren’t consciously intending to run a con—that you got carried away, and thought that it would work out differently?
Anna: Definitely. Correct. And I guess that’s what Elizabeth Holmes did too, because who in their right mind just sets out to do something like that, and for it to fail? A ‘con artist,’ to me, is like ‘I’m trying to trick you into something, and I already know you’re not going to get your money back.’ It’s about the mindset.
Camille: How do you feel about the mentality of ‘faking it till you make it’ in business and in life, now that you’ve experienced the other side of it? Do you still believe in that kind of thing?
Anna: I think it’s not about if I believe it or not, it has to do with confidence. When I hire [someone] I want that person to believe in themselves. I don’t want to be the one to explain to them that they can do it, and that can also be interpreted as ‘fake it till you make it.’ Ten years ago, it was a really different climate, with the whole tech scene—if you read old interviews with Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, it was glorifying that ‘fake it til you make it’ approach.
“[Scamming] is another way of selling the American Dream. You’re not selling the dream of getting married to a rich guy and having a home and being pregnant by 22… You’re selling the dream of getting back at the system.”
Camille: How do you feel about the idea of meritocracy in America? I feel like this plays into kind of a broader issue in American culture, the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps—but there are ways that some people can get away with doing it and others can’t, and it’s all kind of on a sliding scale of privilege.
Anna: Definitely. If somebody white does it, and they get caught, it’s not regarded the same way as if a person of color were to do it. So it just plays into the whole history of the country and of the world. It’s not just even in America, like, if you go anywhere else in the world, you have the same situation.
Elizabeth Holmes grew up admiring Steve Jobs, it’s not surprising that she chose to follow his path. He made it so clear that he put the survival of his company above everything and everybody else. The problem with her is, like, hers was a medical startup and it actually affected people. But I don’t think that she’s really done anything that Steve Jobs wouldn’t do.
Camille: Is there anyone like that who you admire, who you kind of modeled your actions after?
Anna: No, I didn’t model my actions off of anyone, I was just like, growing up in that time—you don’t really become the kind of person that you are just by watching one interview, it is everything [in the culture]. In the early 2010s, and early 2000s, the whole vibe of the time was a really glorified version of ‘fake it till you make it.’
Camille: So you feel you were really taking in the message of the culture overall, around money and success, and ambition.
Anna: Definitely. I mean it’s just like, nobody’s going to give you anything—if you want something, you have to go and take it. And that remains the same today. It’s just like, where do you draw the line of what’s acceptable?
Camille: What do you think has changed?
Anna: Ambition’s not being glorified anymore. It’s different now. You know how Kim Kardashian said, ‘Get your fucking ass up and work,’ and she’s been criticized for that—I think that’s interesting. From what I understood, she was met with kind of a big backlash, like there was a lot of negative coverage after her saying that.
Camille: Do you think that’s because people have an increased awareness now of the role of privilege and class in setting someone up for success?
Anna: I think it’s a bit of both, yeah. I don’t think [Kim Kardashian] would have been criticized for saying that 10 years ago. And she obviously did not mean to offend anybody, but because she’s like, in her 40s now, she still has that mindset—in her eyes, she was like, ‘I’m just empowering people to work more.’ She was trying to say, ‘Oh, nothing has really been given to me, and everything that I have now, I worked for it.’ And the criticism she got all came from younger people.
Camille: I think a lot of younger people are disillusioned with the system, and rightfully so, because often working hard means your work only benefits someone else, depending on what you’re doing or what company you work at. I think maybe they were responding to the fact that not everyone feels equipped to build an empire, or has the resources to be their own boss.
I think it kind of indicates a declining belief in the American Dream, that Kim Kardashian saying ‘Go work for it’ means people responding, ‘But that doesn’t work anymore’—not in today’s system. There’s not really a clear path to success today, where if you just work hard for a certain amount of time you can afford a house and whatever you want.
Anna: Definitely, and it’s also generational. I think people feel conned when people say, ‘Work more, work more, and then this is going to happen,’ and it doesn’t happen. There’s only so long you can get away with it.
Camille: I think it’s also maybe part of the reason the public became so interested in con artists, because so many of us feel scammed by the broken system and want to see someone scam it back.
Anna: They want to live vicariously! [Scamming] is another way of selling the American Dream. You’re not selling the dream of getting married to a rich guy and having a home and being pregnant by 22… You’re selling the dream of getting back at the system.
Camille: Right! But I think praising the so-called scammer means attributing that person with the intent to scam the system, when often the people convicted of fraud were actually attempting to make the system work for them with the privilege they had.
In the TV show, your character says something to the effect of ‘every day, men do worse things than what you’re alleged to have done, and face no consequences for their actions.’ Is that something that resonates with the real you?
“Elizabeth Holmes grew up admiring Steve Jobs, so it’s not surprising that she chose to follow his path. He put the survival of his company above everything and everybody else. I don’t think that she’s really done anything that Steve Jobs wouldn’t do.”
Anna: Well, I’m trying not to think in those terms—‘What would it be like if I were a man?’—but definitely. I love to see feminism as being more nuanced, because I feel like so many women are just being idolized or vilified, and there’s hardly anything in between. You can either be very good or very bad. As much as people want to kind of put you in a box, we need to accept that no one is just bad or just good. But that’s what makes the criminal justice system so complicated, because there’s just so many things that need to be taken into consideration. I just don’t like people who speak in absolutes. Because nobody is just bad or just good.
Camille: Right. Part of seeing women as equals is that they’re allowed to have nuance and bad traits and make mistakes [laughs].
Anna: This has been an issue for a long while. I feel like women are so far from being equal to men [in the culture].
Camille: Do you feel that this played into the way that the public received your story?
Anna: Definitely. Even the fixation with my outfits—like, you don’t really hear people talking about what guys are wearing to court. The whole point of it was that I was just trying to get dressed, but it became this huge spectacle, and they somehow made me out to be shallow. I was interning for fashion PR and a fashion magazine, so it’s not like, breaking news to anybody that I care about clothes!
Camille: How do people’s expectations kind of shape your persona and the way you interact with the public? Do you ever find yourself kind of leaning in harder to stereotypes, or other people’s expectations of you to be this larger than life person?
Anna: I’m actually trying to avoid leaning into that, and I guess that was a mistake I made when I was released for the first time. When people say you’re bad, it’s [tempting to be] like, ‘I’m going to show you how bad I am.’ But I’m trying not to be reactive like that. I’m trying to take control of the narrative and rewrite my story like myself, not by pushing back [at others]. Because I totally don’t agree with the whole narrative of me being a scammer.
Camille: You’ve said that you’re constantly exposed to self reflection, through speaking with journalists and interacting with the media. What’s a meaningful thing that you learned over the last couple of years, and do you think it’s something you still would have learned if not for the way things went?
Anna: Every interview is kind of like therapy in a way because I’m forced to reflect on my past actions or how things went and where things went wrong. I can’t say I would just be sitting here and doing that on my own for like, no reason.
I wouldn’t say I’m happy things went that way, but it’s like, maybe I needed this lesson. The only way to look at this is just to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve learned so much.’ I’ve done so much over the past year, even though I was in jail. And if the Anna Delvey Foundation were to have succeeded, I would just be sitting in a private club or taking flights with people. I thought I was so well traveled, and I knew all kinds of people, but I did not really know how sheltered I was before I went to jail. Being imprisoned has been like a crash course in everything: in politics, in society. I’m constantly surrounded by so many people that sometimes it gets distracting, because I have so much going on. I learned so much about human behavior. It was like a huge social study, at the expense of my freedom. But it’s not like I was just in jail doing nothing, staring at the wall for years. I still have a pretty dynamic life, if you want to put it that way!