We are living in a golden age of grifting. For an ambitious scammer in 2018, this is like being a sculptor in 1500s Florence — every major force at play in our world is like a wind at your back. In politics, a team of all-star grifters now runs the United States, and their fake-it-till-you-make-it ethos bleeds into everything it touches and elevates aspirational young con artists into national figures. Technology now allows you to create and maintain an entirely constructed identity, giving you not just the tools to manipulate your image and massage the truth of your everyday life, but also an audience hungry to consume that image and believe in it.
Our culture doesn’t discourage any of this — it celebrates it, and rains wealth and prestige (at least briefly) upon those whose game is strong enough. We now live by the edict of Joanne, the fictional patron saint of scammers: “Scam today, before today scams you.”
Is it any wonder, then, that when someone manages to run an audacious con that extracts large amounts of money from rich people and their businesses, it’s hard to get too mad about it? This month’s most prominent scammer was Anna Delvey, who, as New York magazine revealed in joyous detail, managed to trick much of the New York City social scene into believing she was the type of wealthy European heiress who thrives in certain Manhattan circles — complete with the idle Soho rich kid’s must-have accessory: an ambiguous plan to launch a mixed-use art space.
The most compelling moral of the Delvey story might be that once people believe you’re a specific type of useless-but-loaded socialite, actual riches will follow — you’re welcomed into a weird kind of anything-goes world that is virtually invisible to the rest of us. You can just show up at a fancy hotel and stay there for weeks, running up room service bills comparable to a nice monthly salary, and nobody even asks for a look at your credit card. You can charter a private jet with no money down, promise to pay for it later, and it just works. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” as our country’s most successful grifter once said in significantly more disgusting circumstances. “You can do anything.”
That kind of world seems absurd to those of us who need to put down a cash deposit to stay the night in a Holiday Inn, and it’s hard to feel particularly sorry when any of its participants get burned by an interloper. We’re all, on some level, living in the fighting pit and cheering on anyone who attempts to scale its steep walls. “Scammers show us the glitzy bullshit intrinsic to stratospheric wealth in America,” Jia Tolentino wrote today, and while Anna Delvey may not be the person we want our children to become, at least she got a free ride on a private jet.
If there’s something fun about Delvey, it’s that her victims were mostly the kind of people who can afford to take the occasional financial hit — and some of them probably deserved to. But her seemingly darkest act — saddling a young magazine staffer with $62,000 in credit card debt — is the primary reason she can’t be celebrated as a kind of scammy Robin Hood. It’s also a good example of the road all grifters must navigate: the thin line between fun evil and dark evil.
The fake teen doctor? Funny photo, bad scam. The Colombian guy who has spent decades pretending to be a Saudi royal? You do, in fact, gotta hand it to him. Theranos grifter Elizabeth Holmes? If her startup simply hosed gullible investors and pretended it invented a perpetual motion machine, it might earn a golf clap or two. But wreaking havoc on people’s health care puts her well into bad scam territory. Billy McFarland, organizer of the Fyre Festival? His victims were mostly the kind of people who think something like the Fyre Festival is cool, and the week that the entire internet spent celebrating their misfortune was his gift to us all.
There are now whole industries based on a kind of harmless scammery, and they are somehow both above board and flush with corporate cash. Becoming a social media influencer is one of the most straightforwardly bullshit hustles of them all: You, neither famous, nor interesting, nor rich, must convince the world that you are some combination of these three things, via strategic Instagramming. One you convince about 80,000 people that you’re the lifestyle icon you claim to be, companies will start sending you clothes, money, jewelry, and invites to fancy parties. And once you start wearing those clothes, showing up at the parties, and spending the money, you get more of all those things. You made it!
But while we may have some level of grudging respect for people who manage to get free stuff just by pouting in front of murals, the truly special ones put in the effort and take it to the next level. Consider last week’s other problematic icon, Tommy Muscatello, an Italian American from upstate New York who, as the Wall Street Journal reported, learned how to put on the clipped accent of the British upper class and was reborn as Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, “one of Britain’s authorities on royalty.”
He was all over TV screens during the recent royal wedding, even sharing with one interviewer, in his absurd haughty British accent, a skepticism about how an American interloper like Meghan Markle could “swoop in” to Britain and claim her place in its upper crust. He also launched a royal-themed cryptocurrency, because of course he did.
The esteemed Mr. Muscatello-Mace-Archer-Mills reminds us of another incredibly thin line — between a grifter and success story. It’s hard to know exactly which side most of us are on: Who among us hasn’t learned to fine-tune our accents or behave a grade or two above where we might have come from? Who hasn’t developed a finely edited life story that matches where we want to be? He just took it a few steps further, and reaped the rewards without really hurting anyone.
Delvey exposed this thin line even better, by ending up on the wrong side of it. While she’s now a flamed-out failure facing jail time, it’s easy to imagine things turning out dramatically different. In this alternate reality, she gets the big-dollar bank loan to build her art space and pays back the people she owes money to — particularly the relatively innocent middle-class civilian bystanders whom she saddled with debt. In a few years, she’s a legitimate NYC art scene fixture, and she learns to tell the story of her grifting years in a whole new way. It wasn’t a con, it was hustle, she explains in her speech to an adoring Southampton gala audience:
It was tough, for a while there — I spent every cent I had trying to make it happen, borrowed from friends, ran up huge bills, almost lost it all. But every time I see how my art foundation changes lives, I remember that the tough times were all worth it.
You’ve heard that story from successful people so many times that it’s a cliché, but it carries a kernel of truth: Most of them were once Anna Delvey, in some way big or small. They just made it to the other side, and maybe you can too. ●