White Lady Nonsense
We Sure Do Love Our White Lady Grifter Stories
The genre comprising 'Inventing Anna,' 'Bad Vegan,' and 'The Dropout' delivers more than riveting girl-boss con-artist tales about white femininity. Together, they tell a bigger story about our society's susceptibility to their con.
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“Anna Delvey scammed her way into places that I’d never be allowed into,” said my friend Mutale Nkonde, founder of AI for the People, a non-profit dedicated to bridging knowledge gaps about artificial intelligence between civil society and technical experts.
Nkonde was referring to the title character in Inventing Anna, a nine-episode Netflix series about a faux heiress who girl-bossed her way through expensive dinners, gallons of Dom Perignon Champagne, and extended luxury hotel stays in New York and Morocco, without ever paying for any of it, even as she thoroughly documented her adventures on Instagram.
Nkonde and I are both riveted by these stories. Apparently, we’re not alone, judging from the bouquet of offerings in this emerging genre that I call “White Lady Grift.” The genre includes The Dropout, both a podcast and drama series about Elizabeth Holmes’s fall from the height of girl-boss success in Silicon Valley, with the supposedly innovative medical testing company Theranos. She persuaded wealthy, mostly older men, notably former U.S. secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schulz, to invest in her company without ever having seen the underlying technology demonstrated. Holmes was heralded for her entrepreneurial success, and Theranos was valued at $10 billion before the house of cards collapsed and Holmes was charged with fraud.
In Bad Vegan, we learn of chef Sarma Melngailis’s descent from covergirl for the raw-food crowd in New York City to fugitive. In 2004, Melngailis was head chef at Pure Food & Wine and its takeout offshoot, One Lucky Duck. In order to buy out her partner, Melngailis went into (perfectly legal) debt of around $2 million. Around this time, she met and married Anthony Sturgis, who held himself out to be a multi-millionaire who could “take care of” her, her adorable pitbull mix, Leon, and the $2 million debt if she would go along with a series of increasingly outrageous shenanigans to prove her loyalty. Together, Sturgis and Melngailis ripped off investors, employees, and family for over $6 million.
This genre of grifters and grifted-upon tells us a lot about white ladyhood. Consider the scene in Inventing Anna during which Delvey is unable to secure the $40 million loan. The bank was so scared of losing her business, they immediately give her a line of credit for $200,000. “It’s that line of credit that enables her to scam another bank. That just doesn’t happen to Black people,” explains Nkonde, who calls this the “racial rules of access.”
These grifter stories are about white femininity: Integral to the storytelling is that white, cisgender women are central to the narrative, and a key part of the grift is convincing us all that these women would never do something so bad as conning people—what, with their blonde hair, poreless skin, and designer clothes (all-black Issey Miyake turtlenecks in Holmes’s case).
Maria Konnikova, a writer for The New Yorker and a professional poker player with a Ph.D. in psychology, is the author of a book about con artists entitled The Confidence Game. In a recent interview, she said, “One of the things you realize when you study con artists is that we’re conning ourselves all the time about who we are, about our stories. And con artists just pick up on that. They figure out how we’re conning ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why we’re so susceptible.”
In a way, girl-boss feminism is a kind of con. The girl-boss ethos cheers for the individual woman, who reaches extraordinary heights of solo -accomplishment while maintaining a fabulously pulled together outward appearance. When shellacked with thin coat of empowerment, one woman’s individual success becomes, somehow, good for all women, hence girl-boss feminism. Several writers have argued that the time for girl-boss feminism is over, but it’s a myth with deep roots, so it keeps getting recycled for our entertainment.
For those who subscribe to the mythology of girl-boss feminism, there is a soothing quality in seeing a white woman on the cover of a magazine (or several) described as “the next Steve Jobs.” We take comfort in and envy the coronation of a new “Queen of Vegan Cuisine,” a contemporary symbol of purity and goodness. Or, we might enjoy scrolling through Anna Delvey’s Instagram account, which portrays a woman with easy access to luxury goods and posh interiors without any visible employment—evidence of a reality that she is somehow living her best life, while all the rest of us are “genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy,” as Jia Tolentino writes in her 2019 book, Trick Mirror.
Grifters like Holmes and Delvey see the game for what it is and try to beat the house. And, unwittingly, they also show us how we are conning ourselves about who white women are, and why we find these stories so compelling.
Conversely, there is a kind of visceral shock, and a good deal of schadenfreude, in seeing a white woman in handcuffs at Rikers (Delvey) or standing trial on 11 counts of fraud (Holmes) or sitting in the back of a police car (Melngailis). These images surprise us because the entirety of Western culture works to white women’s advantage to ensure this almost never happens, either in reality, or on your favorite streaming service.
The white women in these tales deploy a version of girl-boss feminism to execute their grift. To the extent that we buy into the conceit of girl-boss feminism, we become easy marks for the con. For example, in Inventing Anna, the person who is left with the bill for the stay at a luxury hotel in Marrakesh is Rachel Williams, one of the women Delvey befriended and ultimately defrauded. By her own admission, Williams says, “Without even realizing it, I gave Anna enormous power and influence over me.” When Delvey’s grift is uncovered, girl-boss feminism is revealed to be the Ponzi scheme that it always has been.
For the convicted grifters like Delvey and Holmes, the question just beneath the surface is, “How could it have all gone so horribly wrong?” The related question for those grifted upon, like Melngailis: “How could I have been so naïve?”
What we’re drawn to in the retelling of these stories is the spectacle of wasted whiteness. As the New York Post put it, Delvey’s is a story of “wasted potential.” In other words, there is so much potential in being raised white, that to live a life of profligacy is to squander the good life whiteness promises.
The white lady grift plays on our collective investment in the belief that white women are somehow more innocent, less capable of crime, and when caught, somehow out-of-place in the cages so clearly designed for Black and brown others. (Isn’t this the premise of Orange Is the New Black, after all?)
I asked Nkonde what it was like to watch these shows as a Black woman. “I’ve taken to telling my friends that my father is sending the wire whenever we go out for dinner to see whether that will be a thing, but it never is,” she told me. “As Black people, we have to prove so much because we’re not extended this same kind of humanity. It’s just a further reminder that we’re constantly held as being suspicious even when we’re being honest. Frankly, it’s exhausting.”
Anna Delvey was reportedly paid $320,000 from Netflix for rights to her story. And, there will be a gallery opening for some of the art she created at Rikers. Based on her conviction, Delvey is supposed to be deported back to Germany. However, on the date she was scheduled to be deported, she failed to show up at the airport. While her attorney appeals her deportation, she remains in ICE custody. And so the white lady grift continues.
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