Con artists are nothing new. But our collective interest in them has been piqued in recent years as a number of high-profile scandals have redefined the way we view scammers. Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes committed fraud in order to boost their images and get rich quick and, as a result, have both gained a kind of cult status within popular culture, with dedicated fanbases and podcasts, books, and TV shows being written about their lives. What is it that we find so appealing about women who scam?
Delvey — also known as the fake German heiress — committed fraud in order to scam more than $200,000 from banks and hotels in New York City. Her real name is Anna Sorokin; she changed her surname to Delvey to pretend to be a wealthy New York socialite with a huge trust fund, befriending wealthy members of New York society. Delvey, who was released from prison last February, was paid $320,000 by Netflix for the rights to a show about her life, Inventing Anna, according to Insider. A stage play — Anna X — starring Emma Corrin, which ran at the Harold Pinter theater in London last year, was also inspired by Sorokin’s story.
Holmes’ motivations were not dissimilar to Delvey’s. Founding Theranos in her 20s, she falsely claimed the company had revolutionary technology that could test blood for diseases using just a finger prick and received huge backing from investors. In 2015, Forbes named her America’s wealthiest self-made woman, with a net worth of $4.5 billion. But only one year later, the publication revised her net worth to zero and her company went bust. In January, Holmes was convicted of four counts of fraud but, nevertheless, she has fans all over the world who call themselves “Holmies,” often describing her as a feminist hero or a girlboss.
And media fascination with Holmes is showing no signs of slowing down: her fall from grace is at the centre of countless projects including an HBO documentary and award-winning podcast The Dropout. There’s also a Hulu limited series and an Adam McKay Apple TV+ film in the works, with Amanda Seyfried and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively, set to play the disgraced founder.
Unlike a lot of true crime, these stories aren’t gory or unthinkable. Although the average person would never go to the lengths of deception that these women did, many of us will have indulged in some minor scamming, maybe creating a fake email address to get an extra 10% discount when online shopping or telling a restaurant it’s your birthday for a free slice of cake. Women like Delvey and Holmes just went one step (or 100 steps) further than we’d ever dream of going, for unimaginable results. And even though we know these scammers are wrong and immoral, it makes sense that people put them on a pedestal and marvel at their elaborate scams. After all, a scheme like Delvey’s or Holmes’ takes not only brains but guts, too.
Part of these scammers’ appeal also comes down to their timing. They entered the public eye in the late 2010s, when girlboss culture was beginning to break down. Had their public trials happened even five years earlier, they would have become part of the cultural conversation at the peak of the girlboss era. The much-admired Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, wrote an autobiography entitled #GIRLBOSS, promoting the idea that with hard work, women can have it all.
But by the time Delvey and Holmes began to raise eyebrows, between 2015 and 2017, Nasty Gal was filing for bankruptcy. At the same time, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In — which was thought to epitomize the girlboss mentality — started to receive widespread criticism, with Michelle Obama commenting: “That shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Never has the death of the girlboss been more apparent than in 2022 when Molly-Mae Hague went viral for saying that we all have the same 24 hours in a day and that with hard work, people can achieve whatever they want. The influencer was criticized for not taking into consideration the disadvantages faced by people from different socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Essentially, Hague’s statement encapsulates everything that is wrong with problematic girlboss culture in its attempts to ignore the extreme privileges that come with being a middle-class, white woman.
Holmes and Delvey were girlbosses of sorts. Holmes’ infamous morning routine is straight out of the Molly-Mae-inspired, aspirational content seen on #ThatGirl TikTok. But their extremely public trials and undoing proved what most people were beginning to realize: being a girlboss is a scam. Girlboss culture is deception under the guise of feminism, whether it’s presenting yourself as “having it all,” acting as though your success doesn’t rely on the exploitation of vulnerable people, or suggesting that anything is possible for women who work hard enough. These are the lies that the girlboss must tell herself and the world in order to succeed.
The scammers proved the inadequacy of girlbossing by being so completely open in their immorality, accepting that they behaved badly in order to benefit themselves. “I did what I did,” Delvey told Insider in her first interview out of prison. Hague and Amoruso are less explicit, almost using the girlboss mantra to justify the exploitation of low-paid garment workers in pursuit of their own success at the head of fast fashion juggernauts PrettyLittle Thing and Nasty Gal.
Girlboss culture also relies on a near-impossible template of success whereby women are led to believe that a female leader can solve problems inherent to capitalism and start-up culture by becoming part of and promoting these systems rather than tearing them down. Holmes’ and Delvey’s obvious undermining of hustle culture — their refusal to do the work required to gain the type of success they yearned for — made them the accidental antiheroes of the girlboss era.
There’s no doubt that there’s an element of respect for the pair from people who are exhausted by the hustle culture mentality of “making the most of your 24 hours.” Working hard has never been less cool. In fact, just about the trendiest thing you can do right now is quit your job. In November, 4.5 million U.S. workers chose to leave their jobs, according to the Labor Department. Working long hours in a job you’re pretending to love is something people are simply uninterested in doing anymore. “No more girlbossing I want to girl rest girl sleep girl lay down etc,” wrote @colesucks in a viral tweet.
Holmes and Delvey never wanted to work hard. The philosophy of a scammer is: why do the most when you could do the least for the same or even better results? That is precisely why they went to such lengths to deceive the people around them. They wanted to be wealthy, comfortable, and respected without doing any of the difficult work that is typically required for a woman to get to that point. “Elizabeth Holmes is still #1 in my heart like did she commit fraud yeah but she did it in an epic way. Unprecedented for a woman. Epic. Like she was and is the blueprint for insane corporate girlboss,” says one TikTok user.
By being so completely open about their intention to deceive, the fake German heiress and the disgraced Theranos founder actually represent a new frontier of girlboss culture, one that proves we’re all seeing past the toxic lies we were sold for so many years. Being a girlboss relies on acting at the expense of others, whether or not you’re honest about doing so. After all, no one said anything about using your 24 hours ethically.
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