In a world where appearance and identity can be manipulated more easily than ever, how fluid has our sense of self become?
You think that there was some evolution, like in the movies or whatever, but I was always who I am”
When the Netflix documentary Inventing Anna – a drama about fake heiress Anna Delvey – hit screens earlier this year, it not only exposed the myriad identities and lies of one young woman, peddled over several years in New York, but also reminded us how easy it is to become someone else.
Clothed head to toe in high-end fashion, changing her name from Sorokin to hide her Russian heritage, as well as a crash course in art and staggering lies about her wealth, Delvey created a vision of the person she wanted to be, and lived that truth for as long as she could. And her deep conviction that she was who she said she was opened doors easily. As fashion director Vanessa Friedman wrote for Refinery29, ‘The quick and easy way with which she made friends with influential people is undoubtedly how she convinced so many to part with so much.’
Long stays in expensive hotels, endless dinners at elite restaurants, travel via private jet and aggressive networking bolstered her persona further. ‘Her reputation most definitely preceded her,’ wrote Friedman. ‘So, when she attempted to secure loans in excess of $20 million to start The Anna Delvey Foundation… hedge funds and banks initially bought the idea.’
We’ve written in this issue about how identity is, in part, about inhabiting a persona – about creating a mantra that speaks to who you want to be. But what does this mean in the case of someone like Delvey, who tricked her friends out of tens of thousands of dollars, and almost convinced banks to part with millions? Where do you draw the line?
We all reinvent ourselves in some way. Silicon Valley execs dress casually, to differentiate themselves from what they see as the corporate world. ‘Mum dressing’ has turned into wardrobes full of athleisure, trainers and ‘mum buns’. Pearls and Alice bands characterised London socialites in the 1980s. And goth culture has evolved into an identifying uniform.
As we grow up, we change our favourite drinks and foods, read different books, watch different television programmes, have different friends. With the advent of motherhood – one of the biggest shifts for women – we develop a new pack mentality with our ‘mum friends’. We mix infrequently with childless friends. We talk less about work and politics and more about weaning and the developmental stages of toddlers. We inhabit these new personas, these identities, these uniforms, because they fit our new lives – but also because we are trying to fit ourselves into our new lives.
Elizabeth Holmes, who faces prison for misleading investors with her company Theranos, embraced her chosen identity with laser-sighted specificity. As she began to move up through the entrepreneurial ranks, Holmes wore the same black polo necks as Steve Jobs, even sourcing them from Issey Miyake as the Apple supremo had done. She dropped her voice to a distinctive low timbre. She wore minimal makeup, bar bright red lipstick, straightened her hair or wore it pulled sharply back. Staff at Theranos reported that the metamorphosis happened before their eyes. ‘She did change her aesthetic,’ one employee told ABC News, ‘and I think it was for the best.’
When the business fell apart and a trial beckoned, Holmes’ chameleon tendencies became clearer still. She arrived at court with bland, beige clothing, wavy hair, ballet pumps and a diaper bag dangling from her shoulder. Having given birth months before the trial began, Holmes was now a mother, and playing the part to perfection. ‘The diaper bag functioned as an implicit reminder of her maternal status and family values,’ wrote Friedman. ‘In case that accessory wasn’t enough, she often entered the courthouse with an actual family member – her mother, her partner – in tow, and a hand to cling to. It was code-switching of the most skilful kind.’
In a time of crisis, Holmes turned to family to find her new identity. When we feel lost, or face a crisis of identity, we often turn to our heritage to try to understand ourselves better. We take the parts of ourselves that we think are the most interesting and turn them to our advantage. We identify with aspects of our parents’ nationalities, or attach significance to where we were born or raised, or what our parents did for a living, or the religion we were brought up in, and trade on our points of difference or similarity. We form alliances with people based on shared traits, like gender, religion or sexual orientation. This can help us to feel seen but can also divide us and lead to over-identification with just one aspect of ourselves.
To feel balanced and to align with our authentic self, we must be true to who we are, inside and out. Sorokin mimicked who she wanted to be.
It was artifice: her internal truth didn’t match her external lies.
And yet her self-belief is quite extraordinary. ‘You think that there was some evolution, like in the movies or whatever, but I was always who I am,’ she told journalist Jessica Pressler, whose New York Magazine exposé inspired Inventing Anna. And she remains remarkably unrepentant, coming closest to an admission of guilt with, ‘I completely understand that a lot of people suffered when I thought I was not doing anything wrong.’
Even since leaving jail, Sorokin’s Instagram account – which has more than one million followers – still bears her Delvey moniker and her trademark monochrome images, though she has changed her occupation to ‘professional defendant’. Maybe she truly embraces those ideas of intentional and purposeful living: being who she wants to be, inside and out. Who she believes she is has become her lifeline. ‘I wanted to learn everything, so I could be anything,’ she is quoted as saying in the Netflix show. ‘They will not call Anna Delvey a dumb socialite. I’m smart. I’m a businesswoman.’