Why streaming viewers love to hate lady scammers
Just when we thought we’d reached true crime saturation, so-called “scammer babes” are topping streaming watch lists and Twitter rants this month as the hits keep rolling in: Amanda Seyfried is frizzled fraud Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu’s The Dropout, and Julia Garner was recently praised by fake socialite Anna Delvey for nailing her marble-mouthed accent in Netflix’s Inventing Anna. Anne Hathaway is the glammy-spiritual cofounder of a woefully overvalued company in WeCrashed, and Bad Vegan follows a wealthy New York restauranteur who stole money from her own business in her quest to become immortal.
As the women glide around in designer labels collecting cash and oozing the illusion of success, viewers are noticing a pattern behind their infuriatingly simple, often loony but more-often successful schemes: the audacity, the oblivious entitlement, the manipulative victimhood, the indulgence of delusion, the toxic corporate cult of personality, the wackadoo Goop-y pseudo spiritualism that infuses their questionable ethics (Neumann is the cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s been dealing with her own workplace woes lately). The true crime genre has a 73% female viewership, but producers are realizing they can strike content gold and widen consumption by mining their own majority demographic for villains: white women.
After earning an Oscar nomination as silent film star Marion Davies in Mank, Amanda Seyfried is drawing more awards gossip with The Dropout, playing crooked tech startup founder Elizabeth Holmes. The willowy blonde Stanford dropout became the youngest self-made female billionaire by duping investors with promises of medical technology that never existed. But Holmes’s ultimate legerdemain, and the story’s real hook, was selling herself: as an uber-achieving, ultracompetent science genius, she leveraged her WASPy image to garner support from upper-crusters like Joe Biden, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton.
Seyfried digs into the enigmatic, determined Holmes beyond merely nailing the more sensational pieces of her strangely cobbled-together image (the trademark Steve Jobs turtleneck, the inconsistent baritone, the Busy Tech Wizard updo), revealing the chaotic currents beneath all the PR-friendly gravitas– while underscoring the insanity of it all with campy scenes of Holmes awkwardly dancing and quoting Yoda. She faces decades in prison on several wire fraud convictions, and viewers are savoring the shadenfreude: The Dropout, one of three new projects about the medical tech scandal, has hovered in Hulu’s top 10 most-viewed list all month.
Streamers are also flocking to praise Julia Garner’s sensational turn as Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna, another ambitious, talented young woman who lived the phrase “fake it ’til you make it.” Sorokin wanted a socialite lifestyle that her parents couldn’t afford so she became fictional German heiress Anna Delvey, a millennial J. Wellington Wimpy in chunky hipster glasses and Dior jackets. Sorokin bilked banks, hotels and acquaintances out of a quarter of a million dollars in a four-year orgy of wild spending.
Garner channels her brittle yet vulnerable Ozark character Ruth Langmore to poke at the audience’s loyalties as the imperious, prickly Anna: first demanding a wardrobe stylist for her trial and berating would-be debt collectors, then clinging to her celebrity status as she tearfully begs an acquaintance to visit her in prison. “Who is more famous right now than Anna Delvey?” she quavers. Sorokin served four years for grand larceny; she is currently fighting deportation to Germany and trying to launch an art career.
Watching an unsinkable sociopath lean into her privilege and follow her worst instincts only to rip off big finance and annoying trust-fund bluebloods is an emotional roller coaster, and the Shonda Rimes production is drawing plenty of mixed feelings on Twitter: “Anna Delvey took ‘eat the rich’ to a new level,” commented one user. Others were more critical: “My main takeaway from shows like [Inventing Anna] is that whiteness allows perceived innocence and access, resources, and entry in ways that would never be true for black and brown people.” Another ambivalent user added, “This phenomenon is both gross and fascinating.”
Corporate gotcha-drama WeCrashed reveals the sensational collapse of office startup WeWork and the bananas work culture propagated by its leadership. Anne Hathaway is Rebekah Neumann, a wealthy and well-connected “actress”/yoga instructor who teamed up with husband and Israeli entrepreneur Adam Neumann (Jared Leto in unintentionally creepy makeup) to lead the buzzy yet fiscally overextended coworking company.
Rebecca’s New Age leanings, perfectly in step with Silicon Valley startup culture at the time, seeped into the brand and attracted publicity and investors, but those same investors fatally overvalued WeWork. It went from billions to bust after a disastrously failed IPO. Although her vague spiritualism drives the corporate dynamic behind WeWork’s spectacular rise and fall, Adam’s charisma and the couple’s breathtaking narcissism take center stage in the series. Hathaway plays the role of woowoo corporate shaman and muse with the self-seriousness of the insular wealthy: “We’re selling an experience,” she intones between scenes of beachside retreats, wellness events and festivals.
Bad Vegan, another chart-topping Netflix documentary from the producer of Tiger King and the director of Fyre, tells another salacious tale of a gorgeous New York socialite with a shaky business plan and wads of ill-gotten cash. Sarma Melngailis owned an upscale raw vegan restaurant with clients like Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, until she met and married con man Anthony Strangis; she embezzled nearly two million dollars from the restaurant when Strangis offered her immortality and global success–at a price. This malfeasance led to unpaid staff wages, employee walkouts, and fraud charges; the documentary is sympathetic to Melngailis as an abuse victim with astounding reserves of credulity, trapped in a bizarre long con.
The Girl from Plainville (starring Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter, convicted of manslaughter for urging her boyfriend to kill himself in a barrage of chilling texts), The Eyes of Tammy Faye and LulaRich also made headlines by tracking the maddening rise and satisfying fall of entitled, unethical white women. Netflix even fictionalized the 2019 college admissions scandal involving Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin in Operation Varsity Blues. The streamer’s 2016 Amanda Knox documentary and Hulu’s The Thing About Pam (starring Renee Zellweger as a suburban mom who murders her friend for money) take from bluer-collared but no-less-compelling headlines of manipulation, sex and corruption.
The golden age of true crime podcasts has dovetailed with callout journalism, work-from-home malaise, a blooming post-Madoff accountability culture, the multitudinous failings of the justice system, and deepening economic indignation to create an audience thirsty for white-collar scandals, white privilege comeuppance, and million-dollar karma. Who doesn’t seethe over the moral myopia of the blinkered gentry, or relish the thought of a spoilt enfant terrible getting their just desserts?
But what happens after the cameras turn off reveals the true immorality behind scammer stories: Elizabeth Holmes is living in a $135 million mansion with her rich husband while awaiting sentencing in September, while Anna Delvey is planning a solo art show and still reportedly spending money like it’s on fire. The Neumanns took a $1.7 billion payout in 2019 after their corporate flop, while Adam reportedly moved to a multi-million dollar consultant position in the company; meanwhile, WeWork has laid off more than 20% of its global workforce to date. Sarma Melngailis spent an entire four months in prison for stealing $2 million from investors and employees in service of her delusional quest: that’s one day in prison for every $16 grand she stole. She says she would reopen her dubiously managed restaurant Pure Food and Wine “in a heartbeat.”
Even after eating a five-million dollar fraud ruling last year, LulaRoe is still in business with a quarter-million followers on its Instagram page. Most disturbingly, Amanda Knox falsely accused Congolese bar owner Patrick Lumumba of her roommate’s brutal murder back in 2007; her own homicide conviction was later annulled and she received a reported four million dollars for her memoir, while Lumumba lost his business and had to move out of Italy even after being exonerated.
The frustration behind rage-watching beautiful brats who swindle millions by lurking in socially-conditioned blind spots isn’t just the ease with which they wield their privilege; it’s how their privilege continues to serve them after their crimes come to light. In a society that likes to finger-wag about bootstraps, these women breezed into enormous wealth on the merit of their image alone, and their outrageous plots resulted not in lengthy prison sentences but book deals, paid film appearances and consultant gigs.
“Glorifying grifters as businesspeople who just catch bad breaks is sort of what got us to where we are now,” commented one Twitter user. “It’s clear we put a much more empathetic lens on white collar crime,” agreed another. And thanks to the recent glut of streaming con-tent, viewers are catching on to the real scam.