The Tinder Swindler, Inventing Anna & Status Peacocking
The recent high society cons expose our fake social life and explain why so many people are opting out.
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s Whenever-I-Have-The-Time-To-Write magazine on the intersection of community, society, web3, F&B and more — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick and how tech is changing it, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club in Tribeca, check it out.
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I love the Netflix preview scene for “Inventing Anna” — sitting in prison, Anna Delvey tells a reporter who is visiting her that she looks poor.
The reporter, flustered, starts rationalizing, saying she’s pregnant and maternity clothes are hard to come by until she realizes the absurdity of it and points out Anna’s situation — the fraudulent wannabe socialite is dressed in a prison jumpsuit, literally broke, judging other people based on their image.
The exchange is reflective of how a segment of our social life, namely, “the scene,” currently functions. It didn’t matter that Anna Delvey was ACTUALLY poor, literally broke and in prison, behind bars, she was still judging how everyone else looked.
“The scene,” has always perplexed me.
In the nightclubs of Manhattan, Tulum, Mykonos and the Hamptons, music is turned up so loud that there is zero chance of actually being able to speak to someone, people mill around pouring drinks and engaging in a sort of fake “dancing” by kind of waving their hands in the air, swaying back and forth around a bottle and occasionally bro hugging someone they barely know. It has never been fun for me and I never really understood how anyone else found it fun.
But I’ve recently realized that this is the point of “the scene” — it’s not to make conversation or even meet people. It’s to put on a show.
And it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from The Dark Knight:
Social life isn’t social anymore. It’s performative. It’s one big status game. It’s a mating exercise.
Social life is one big peacocking exercise.
What’s peacocking you ask? Cosmopolitan says, “like the feathers of a luxurious bird vying for a mate, peacocking is an infamous pickup-artist move where a person wears or does something just to get noticed.”
While status has always been a part of nightlife, two things have led to its degradation into its most concentrated attention-whore state:
the ability to build a widespread audience/status via Instagram.
the need many people feel to establish one’s status as our societal structures have frayed.
So are we that surprised that some people have realized that in a game where everyone is faking it and performing, you could perform on a much grander scale and pull off a con like Anna Delvey did?
Inventing Anna & The Tinder Swindler
For years Anna Delvey was a fixture of the social scene in Manhattan, throwing big dinner parties at fancy restaurants, living out of luxury hotel 11 Howard and presenting herself as a German heiress. In reality her real name was Anna Sorokin, a woman with no pedigree and no wealth, and she was carrying on her lifestyle by defrauding banks and sticking others with the bill, successfully conning a chunk of New York “society.” She did all this in a grand fake-it-until-you-make-it effort to start a social club where Fotografiska currently is. Her antics gained such notoriety that Netflix put out a recently released series called Inventing Anna.
In the last couple months there was a second example of a high society con-artist profiled by Netflix — the Tinder Swindler, aka “Simon Leviev”:
His scheme, according to the Netflix doc, was as follows: he would meet women on Tinder, lead them to believe he was a wealthy heir working in the dangerous diamond business, and begin long-distance relationships. All the while, he was “traveling for work” and living lavishly on the dime of his previous target. After he’d been dating one woman for a while, he’d explain that he was in danger, send videos of his “bodyguard” bleeding, and tell his girlfriend that he needed to use a credit card in someone else’s name so he couldn’t be tracked. According to the film, his girlfriends sent credit cards, took out loans and lines of credit, and even flew suitcases of withdrawn cash to him in his time of need. He promised them he’d pay them back. Of course they believed him, he was the prince of diamonds, flew private everywhere, stayed at the fanciest hotels, and was always dripping in designer clothing. And he did pay them back: with checks that bounced, fake watches, and bank transfers that never went through. Little did each woman know that all the wealth they bore witness to had been paid for by the woman who came before them—women who were, by that time, alone, in debt, and desperate for answers.
I strongly suggest you watch the documentary if only to use the phrase “my enemies,” as his go to line has now become a meme . . .
So how did Anna and Simon do it?
The author of the first piece that really blew the Anna story open was asked the same question — “during the course of my reporting, people kept asking: Why this girl? She wasn’t superhot, they pointed out, or super-charming; she wasn’t even very nice,” and finally concludes with an astute observation: “Anna looked at the soul of New York and recognized that if you distract people with shiny objects, with large wads of cash, with the indicia of wealth, if you show them the money, they will be virtually unable to see anything else. And the thing was: It was so easy.”
To be clear — I don’t think anyone deserves to be conned — being bewitched by wealth and status doesn’t mean you deserve to have your life ruined, as Simon has done to several women who are now hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for the rest of their lives.
But you can feel sorry for Anna and Simon’s victims and also diagnose that they somewhat bought into this transactional money equals value worldview. It was easy for Leviev and Delvey to pull these cons because so much of social life has become about status signaling over substance. In this world, actually liking someone doesn’t matter if they are “generous” — spending money on you becomes a stand-in for “being a good person.”
And people become increasingly transactional.
The Cut elaborates on one of Anna’s main friends, Neff:
“Anna didn’t understand why Neff had a boyfriend. But he was rich, Neff protested. He’d promised to finance her first movie. “Dump him,” Anna advised. “I have more money.” She would finance the movie.”
God forbid you’d date someone because you actually liked them — no, no, it made sense because, look, money.
But while Anna and Simon primarily engaged in peacocking-via-displays-of-wealth, some peacock-via-scandalous-behavior.
The Cut’s Nightlife Newsletter
If you want to see the sad and depressing state of nightlife, look no farther than The Cut’s nightlife newsletter. I was shocked when this article came across my feed a few months ago as the first edition of “Are U Coming,” glorifying a night out with some guy named Remy Duran whose apparent qualification to follow around for a night is that sex for him is more “social than carnal” and that he is a “reknowned top.”
“9:25 P.M. | Remy and Zoey arrive to a frenzy of attention. People greet him with shouts of “The father-to-be!” And they greet Zoey, who is dressed in a tiny fringed skirt and a cowboy hat, by touching her enormous exposed belly. “I’ve got some drugs!” Remy tells me as soon as we have a second alone.”
. . .
10:11 P.M. | Remy pulls me to the front of the bar for cell service. He wants to show me a few of his fight pics on Instagram. “I’ve only lost one fight, in high school,” he says. Then he heads back to the dance floor and does a key bump of ketamine.
While I raised my eyebrows at doing Ketamine next to your pregnant wife in a bar, I suppose if she’s chill with it, that’s between them, but the bigger thing is this: there isn’t an iota of substance in the article. It’s rife with scandalous asides, men getting blowjobs in the club, hard drug use, a trans woman saying she will “rape” the wallets of her clients. It all plays for shock value and that’s it.
And if you read some of the other articles in the series you’ll realize something — to New York’s The Cut, and I suppose our society at large, this IS nightlife. Non-substantive, scandalous and attention seeking behavior deems you worthy of a feature apparently.
8:57 p.m. | Still waiting in the cold considering what to do next, Meg cautions that the group is blacklisted from some of the neighborhood bars. They’re not allowed at St. Dymphna’s, across the street from Tompkins Square Park, for example, because they got kicked out three times in one week (for offenses including throwing drinks, throwing punches, stealing booze, breaking glasses, smoking cigs, and vomiting).
Apparently being a group of raging assholes makes you “cultural” now.
I found myself wondering if the editing staff at New York/The Cut ever looked at each other and asked themselves “why are we featuring these insufferable idiots and pretending like there is some cultural significance to their misbehavior?”
But I realized they are just reflecting the current state of nightlife — going out is about attention. It’s about signaling status. It’s about peacocking. This isn’t just The Cut’s interpretation of nightlife, it IS nightlife . . . whether you’re loud via displays of wealth or via your ridiculous behavior, the lesson is clear — “the scene” is about getting attention.
Going Out For The ‘Gram:
This performative behavior thrives partially because Instagram & Twitter have given everyone a platform to build status on a global scale and people have risen to the occasion.
If you’re at all social I’m sure you’ve been roped into that friends dinner and sat across the person who is looking around, trying to check out if there is anyone famous there. You’re at an overpriced trendy location that Kim Kardashian just ate at. And he or she documents every dish on Instagram stories. They spend a good chunk of the dinner texting with some friend about the next spot, unsatisfied with the current company, seeking the next “hit.”
Anna Delvey’s friend Neff again pops up modeling perfect behavior:
As for Neff, she was not as discreet as she had been with Macaulay Culkin, tweeting after the fact that Shkreli had played her and Anna the leaked tracks from Tha Carter V, the delayed Lil Wayne album he’d acquired. Anna was furious, but Neff refused to delete the tweet. “I wanted everybody to know that I heard this album that the world is waiting on! But Anna was pretty mad. She didn’t come down to my desk for maybe three days.”
Neff wasn’t excited that she enjoyed the experience — she was enjoying the fact that she had an experience other people couldn’t have!
But Instagram is just the enabler.
There is an underlying reason why we feel this need to build status.
Little Italy Used to Be Filled With Italians
As our own social hierarchies have degraded, as we are all “nobodies” in a big city like New York and it’s harder and harder to find your “place” in society, many of us have felt increasingly insecure.
And so we’ve resorted as a society to showing our status at every opportunity.
When I talk about the degradation of our neighborhoods a favorite line of mine is to point out that Little Italy used to be filled with Italians. People seem to understand what that means. You could be unknown outside of Little Italy but in your local context, a local hierarchy existed within which you meant something — you had status — you were THE butcher for the Italians or THE coffeeshop owner. You were a SOMEONE. And a few neighborhoods over in East Village (formerly Ukrainian Village) the Ukrainians had their own notable someones.
A thriving local community meant that we felt more secure. We felt like we belonged. We had status. We felt seen.
It’s no surprise that many people cite their college years as the best years of their life — on a campus of ten’s of thousands of people at most exists one of the few opportunities where you have that local context in our modern society.
But globalism has created one big context — you are either rich and famous or a nobody. There is no Big Man On Campus in New York City. There is no opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond — we have only an ocean now, and a bunch of anonymous fish who rarely ever run into each other, unless they, well, try REALLY hard to stand out . . . by dropping money on fancy dinners or well, behaving like a raging asshole.
And in the ocean, well, don’t be surprised if there are sharks like Simon Leviev and Anna Delvey.
The anonymity of modern society and the jumbling of the status hierarchies has left everyone clawing their way to find a place.
The Great Opt-Out
As a person who would like to consider myself an auditioning “New Yorker” (3 years here and counting) I take offense at the final quote of the Anna Delvey article about the “soul” of New York — we’re not all transactional.
In fact I’d argue that most people hate this dynamic, even many of the ones participating in it, and the statistics support that — according to both Diageo and William Grant, pre-pandemic, 80% of alcohol sales are off-premise — if you take alcohol consumption as a rough equivalent of socialization (I know, the sober curious are rising) that means 80% of people are choosing to socialize away from official gathering spots — it’s the house parties and dinner parties where most people are choosing to gather.
In short, most people are opt-ing out.
Even many of the people participating in this dynamic pull the escape cord the minute they don’t have to put up with the bullshit anymore — there is a reason nightlife is the domain of the single person — single people are the least secure in our societies hierarchy (to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, the single most important career decision you’ll make is who you marry) and so have the most need to peacock in order to, literally, find a mate.
And that gives me some hope — hope that the peacocking is a passing phenomenon and that as we find new social structures to stitch our neighborhoods back together and give meaning and belonging to our local communities again, some of the worst behavior will stop and we’ll stop falling for the Simons and Annas of the world.
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David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle