Netflix's Inventing Anna chronicles the lavish crimes of fake heiress Anna Sorokin. In 2019, The Weekly spoke exclusively with Anna's friend, Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams who paid a high price falling under Anna's spell, but ultimately helped bring her to justice.
Rachel watched, intrigued, as the new girl at the table ordered another bottle of imported vodka and swept her tangle of auburn hair away from her face. Anna Delvey's European accent was hard to place. There was a rumour she was an heiress of some sort — German, or Russian? Her manners were unusual, as was her appearance. Anna's eyelashes were long and dark but her face was unexpectedly make-up free.
In a city like New York, where excess rules, the heiress's style was markedly paired-back. However those who paid attention, as Rachel did, would notice her simple strappy shoes were Gucci and her thick lashes were expensive extensions. As the pair fell into easy conversations that first night, in a dim bar on the Lower East Side early in 2016, Rachel was flattered by the magnetic stranger's attention. She had no reason to question Anna's motives. But her natural desire to please left her wide open to the chaos the fake heiress was about to unleash.
"For a lot of our friendship I knew there was something not quite right about Anna but it never occurred to me that the not-quite-right went that deep," Rachel DeLoache Williams says two years after her friendship with the volatile social climber nearly destroyed her life in 2017.
Speaking exclusively to The Weekly in a world-first interview ahead of the release of her memoir, My Friend Anna, she details the odyssey of excess Anna led her on, and the nightmare that followed when it all came undone.
"I thought she was disorganised, I thought maybe she had some mental health issues, or was under socialised and lacked certain social graces. I never would have guessed she was living a total lie."
When Rachel met Anna, the con artist was nearing the apex of her chaotic reign. Anna lived in a high-end hotel and spent her days flitting from one chic restaurant to the next, taking meetings and "drinking Pouilly-Fume like it was water".
Her mission was to launch the Anna Delvey Foundation, an exclusive contemporary art hub for the city's elite, and she networked like a pro to achieve that goal. In between, she pampered herself with new-age beauty treatments, infrared saunas, work-out sessions with celebrity trainers and shopping sprees.
She was a nomadic socialite. A mysterious European hedonist with an appetite for excess. And she left a trail of devastation in her wake.
For a brief period in the spring of 2017, prior to Anna's downfall, she and Rachel were inseparable.
"Anna …appealed to a certain part of me and not necessarily the best part," Rachel recalls.
After their first meeting Anna's tastes grew increasingly expensive.
"She started in the shallow end and swam out fast…and since Anna liked to have company, she pulled me into the deeper water with her."
Anna's desires culminated in a lavish trip to Morocco, but when her funds dried up, Rachel was stuck with the US$60,000 (AUD$85,000) bill. Initially only a little concerned, Rachel thought Anna was careless and trusted she would be reimbursed. But as she pursued Anna for the money with increasing urgency, it became clear her friend was a sociopath.
"There was definitely a period of time where I was afraid of her," Rachel says.
Meanwhile, investigations into a string of unpaid bills in New York revealed Anna's real name was Sorokin, not Delvey, and her father was a truck driver, not an oil baron. As the lies unravelled, Rachel was caught in the cross-fire.
"I kept hoping to be wrong. I wanted her miraculously to be who she said she was," she says.
"I had no idea what was behind the mask. I didn't know her at all."
But on that first night back in 2016, Rachel was completely unprepared, when, tucked into a booth in the underground bar, Anna began to make her play. Anna paid the bill, and pressed Rachel for the details of her job as a photo editor at Vanity Fair.
Rachel observed that Anna was self-possessed, quirky, discerning. She was different from the girls Rachel grew up with, and she liked her more because of it. And if Anna was a bit odd, Rachel thought, it was probably because her unconventional upbringing in the palatial home of a Russian billionaire.
The next week, Rachel was invited for dinner and martinis at a steak house where Anna talked passionately about her plans for her art foundation.
"I think I was useful to her," Rachel says thoughtfully. Rachel's magazine credentials piqued Anna's interest and lent Anna a degree of credibility.
"She could be abrupt in her manners and I think I softened her when she was meeting people."
But she also believes Anna was genuinely lonely. "She enjoyed spending time with me," she says. "I'm not sure how pre-meditated it was or if she just took a shine to things that were useful to her without thinking too much about it."
As a staffer at Vanity Fair, Rachel rubbed shoulders with the most famous people in the world. She attended the Vanity Fair Oscars after party around the time she and Anna were growing close, where Mick Jagger, Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, Elon Musk were guests. Rachel was used to organising shoots in New York's most exclusive venues, and visiting them on locations scouts. "But never with friends," she says. Until she met Anna, whose choosiness made Rachel feel special for having been singled-out.
Anna "insisted on covering the cost". Anna pardoned and disarmed Rachel by flattering her, saying: "You work harder for your money than I ever have." Anna's grandiose gestures, "sometimes confounding, had a tendency to work in her favour." It reinforced her chosen persona.
The heiress liked to eat at Le Coucou, in the hotel 11 Howard, where she lived. The friends would sit in mohair banquettes under vaulted ceilings and Anna would charge the meal to her room. Her personal trainer was Kacy Duke, who is known for whipping Dakota Johnson into form for the Fifty Shades trilogy.
Side-by-side the friends sweated through $300 training sessions, Rachel in her T-shirt and shorts, Anna clad in a "high-performance ridged scuba suit" that Rachel describes as "nicer than my work clothes". Night time brought a continuation of Anna's epicurean lifestyle, and she would alight at the city's most decadent restaurant, bars and clubs.
Rachel was spellbound, she says, but not blind. If Anna was rude, or her actions suggested she was lying, Rachel chose to believe in her goodness.
"When I made those decisions, I wasn't doing it without thought," she says. "I think because I'd had healthy relationships models and positive friendships I made a conscious decision to give her the benefit of the doubt again and again."
Were there red flags?
"It's easy in hindsight to pick out those warning signs and to see where I didn't trust my gut instincts and instead chose to look for the good or believe in her goodness," Rachel says.
Their unequal relationship bothered Rachel's boyfriend, Nick. "If she wasn't open to going somewhere he questioned that," Rachel says. "She always picked what we were going to do."
But Rachel didn't see it as a problem, and since Anna was paying, it seemed fair that she should be the one to call the shots. Now, Rachel knows Anna's pickiness had less to do with taste and more to do with her payment structure.
"A lot of the things we did she didn't have to put down a card or payment immediately. There were systems she was able to exploit," Rachel says. "I was with her oftentimes and I wouldn't pay, but I didn't actually see her pay for things."
Anna gave Rachel permission to indulge and unleash a freer, fun side of herself.
"I liked that in our friendship," she says. "But at times she went so far over the line I should have … you know," she grapples for the right word.
"It's hard. You don't know the depth of those things until you're thrown into a foreign country and you go, oh this isn't good fun. This is actually kind of scary."
Because she wasn't a citizen, Rachel explains, Anna needed to periodically leave the US to reset her Visa and in early 2017 she planned to do this by taking a holiday to Marrakech.
She enlisted an entourage to join her, including Rachel and, insisted on booking a luxury resort at $7,500 a night, on the understanding that she would fund the entire thing.
As the trip drew near, Rachel became increasingly agitated at how vague and disorganised Anna was being. On the eve of their scheduled departure, the flights had not been booked.
Anna had invited Kacy Duke, and a videographer friend of Rachel's, and they too wanted to know what the hold-up was. When the time came to pay for the flights, a mere 10 hours before departure, Anna's credit card was declined.
WATCH: Former friend to fake heiress Anna Sorokin says she was conned out of $60k. Story continues after video.
Under pressure, Rachel bought four flights to Morocco amid Anna's assurances that she would cover it. Anna had decided to turn the vacation into a marketing opportunity for her foundation. She would make a documentary, hence the need for a videographer, and for five days, the foursome ate and luxuriated like royalty.
Early in the trip Anna purchased $1,340 worth of dresses. When it came time to pay, her debit card was declined. Again, she asked Rachel for the money and promised to reimburse her.
With Anna's cards out of action, Rachel picked up the tab for everybody's meals, travels and tourism experiences. She kept receipts and was promised it would be refunded.
On the second last morning, there was a problem. Anna couldn't pay the hotel bill. It came to $30,865.79. Could Rachel pay?
The large sum made Rachel uncomfortable, particularly as she had to put some of it on her corporate credit card. But, she says, she never for a second suspected Anna would not repay her.
"Not for a moment. I had known her to always live in hotels. I had seen her spend so much money. I thought that she had blown through her allowance. I worried about making her understand the urgency for my reimbursement. But I never for a second thought I wouldn't be reimbursed properly."
"I thought I knew her."
After they returned to New York, Rachel began to politely press Anna for the reimbursement. At first Anna was agreeable, and promised the transfer had been made. But Rachel never got the money, and as the weeks piled up she began to worry.
Anna's excuses grew more elaborate. At one point, she said she had written Rachel a cheque, but then claimed to have left it in her lawyer's car. Rachel wrote to her constantly, "begging."
"She kept changing the goal posts and changing the thing I was waiting on," Rachel says.
"I knew there was something wrong with that but what else could I do? I was trying to pin down a cloud. She kept moving and I kept trying to ask direct questions."
It was a sum of money that could throw Rachel's life off course. A debt like that would crush her. She feared she'd never be able to pay it back, buy a house, raise a family.
"I'd been through so much," Rachel explains. "I was so tired. I hadn't been sleeping. I was so panicked."
Amex was hounding her. She disputed the charges, but seemed trapped in a loop. Amex would agree to protect Rachel against the fraud, only for her to learn a few weeks later that the decision had been reversed.
She'd call them, crying, trying to make them understand, and the cycle would begin again. All the while, she pursued Anna, who seemed completely unmoved by Rachel's plight. She sought help from other people she knew had connections with Anna. That's when Anna turned nasty.
"She could really flip a switch and became very threatening or cold or menacing," Rachel says.
She was beginning to fear the worst. Confirmation came when Rachel saw Anna in the news. The article described Anna as a "wannabe socialite" who'd defrauded the Beekman hotel, the W and Le Parker Meridien. Rachel's heart sank. Anna was a con artist, and she'd been skipping out on bills all over town.
When Rachel accepted she'd been defrauded she put together a file of every exchange she'd ever had with Anna and gave it to the authorities. They were proceeding with charges related to various hotels, but when Anna failed to appear in court, Rachel decided to act. She reached out to Anna who claimed she was sick. Over time it transpired Anna had checked herself into a Californian celebrity rehab facility that charges "upwards of $60,000 per month".
Having reconnected with Rachel, Anna was eager to meet. She asked Rachel to fill some Voss water bottles with vodka for her to take back to rehab. Rachel agreed, but instead, she told the authorities. The police went to the café and Anna Sorokin was taken into custody.
Anna was christened The Soho Scammer by the local press. Her trial for grand larceny was an extension of her once lavish life. She entered the court room each day unrepentant, in a series of outfits by Yves Saint Laurent, MiuMiu and Michael Kors hand-picked by a celebrity stylist who had been hired by her defence attorney.
Rachel had to give evidence. She was nervous, but when she looked at Anna, smirking in the dock, she realised Anna no longer held any power over her. "I think when I understood she was a sociopath she lost her potency," Rachel says.
"She was delusional. I think to some extent she believed her own lies. She chose her own truth and got mad when other people didn't see it as fact."
Anna was convicted of defrauding New York's banking and service industries to the tune of US$200,000, and jailed. After months of anxiety, fear and despair, Rachel was free to move on. As part of her recovery, she documented the ordeal in a book. She hears Anna is also planning a memoir, but she is ambivalent about her former friend, the fake heiress.
"As long as she's not in my life I don't really have any strong feelings that," Rachel says. "I wish her well."
My Friend Anna: The True story of the Fake Heiress of New York City by Rachel DeLoache Williams is published by Hachette Australia, RRP $32.99.