Opinion

What our obsession with Inventing Anna tells us about the age of the personal brand

What happens when we're all inventing our own Annas?

On the surface, Inventing Anna — Netflix's latest series about the art of the grift — appears to be for true-crime junkies who prefer their felonies heavy on fraud, light on gore. Coming hot on the heels of the Elizabeth Holmes trial, Shonda Rhimes' soapy, nine-part miniseries about the fake heiress Anna Sorokin, more famously known as Anna Delvey, is the perfect deep dive for the viewer who's already devoured The Tinder Swindler documentary and wants more jet-setting scams.

But take a closer look and there's more to Inventing Anna than a girlboss-flavored Fyre Festival. We are living in the age of the personal brand, where image is its own kind of currency — one that anyone with a knack for Instagram and/or the right brand name friendships can inevitably print.

Inventing Anna follows Sorokin (played by Julia Garner) as she swindles her way through Manhattan society, posing as a billionaire heiress trying to build a business. Like Holmes (who has a miniseries of her very own, The Dropout, releasing on Hulu on March 3), Sorokin's story has inspired something of a cult following. Fans follow her in and out of the courtroom, on social media — where her bios describe her as a "Professional Defendant" whose "life is performance art" — and, now, into fictionalized accounts of her crimes.

Why can't we get enough of shows like Inventing Anna and the real-life stories of the extreme pretenders behind them? Is it, as some theorize, our cultural glorification of the fake-it-til-you-make-it American dream? Or our macabre appetite for crime that Netflix feeds just as shamelessly as Sorokin skipped bills?

I think the answer lies in Inventing Anna's dual protagonist, fictional reporter Vivian Kent (played by Anna Chlumsky), who will do just about anything to get to the bottom of how Sorokin engineered the persona of Anna Delvey. Kent convinces Sorokin to give her an exclusive interview with the promise to make her famous. "Everyone will know the name Anna Delvey," she says as she sits across from Sorokin at Rikers. The series follows Kent as she digs through Sorokin's Instagram Rolodex, hunting down friends and lovers to piece together a portrait of the con artist as a young grifter. In doing so, we learn that Kent isn't much different from her subject; she, too, has been branded a fraud due to questionable reporting that recently got her fired from Bloomberg. Her story on Anna is as much a quest to rescue her own personal brand as it is about delving into Delvey.

And that, ultimately, is what this show is about. Inventing Anna is a story of modern brands — not simply the brands we wear, but the brands we are. Sorokin is successful in her con because she understands that it's no longer enough to merely wear Balenciaga. You have to become your own Balenciaga.

And she's far from alone. Between Kent's dash to rebrand herself as a respectable writer before she has a baby, and the desperation of Anna's attorney (played by Arian Moayed) to distance his brand image from the "WeWork lawyer" in the eyes of the legal elite, all the major players in Inventing Anna are in some process of personal invention or reinvention. Anna's boyfriend, Chase, knows the power of a personal brand; he manufactures an immigration backstory to pull on investor heartstrings for his tech startup, all while pouring every bit of funding into marketing. "He never cared how it worked, he just wanted it to look cool. And then he stopped paying us," a disgruntled ex-employee tells Kent.

Anna's real-life wager at least seems to have paid off: Netflix reportedly paid Sorokin $320,000 for the rights to her story. Perhaps this is why some see Inventing Anna as a glorification of the modern grifter; within the walls of this miniseries, and personal brand culture more largely, one's business acumen is measured not by the strength of a business plan or the technology behind an invention, but the ability to market it. And, even more importantly, the strength of the brand-name person behind it.

That's why we can't get enough of scam stories like Sorokin's. Because in personal brand culture, inside all of us is both an Anna and a Vivian. We are all simultaneously scam artists and sleuths, cropping our lives and careers online for public consumption while at the same time becoming increasingly skeptical that the stories our feeds tell us are anything more than fiction. Our suspicions are flagged partially because we know firsthand how easy these tools make it to invent our own Annas.

Perhaps this also accounts for Netflix's seemingly sympathetic portrayal of Sorokin. The show acknowledges that fake-it-til-you-make-it is no longer just the stuff of scammers; it is increasingly the cost of doing business in an internet culture that privileges perception over true innovation. Who has time to painstakingly build a reputation when the girlboss next door can invent hers, seemingly overnight, with a little help from Facetune and Rent the Runway?

We are terrified and transfixed by swindlers like Sorokin, not because we fear she's coming for us, but because, deep down, we wonder how long until we become just like her.

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