A cooperating witness against the fake German heiress who conned New York’s elite filed a defamation lawsuit against Netflix for portraying her as a “sponger, a freeloader and a disloyal friend” in the series Inventing Anna.
Presenting herself publicly as a German heiress named Anna Delvey, fraudster Anna Sorokin was convicted by a New York jury on eight charges, including grand larceny. Prosecutors said that Sorokin stole more than $275,000 from major financial institutions, banks, hotels, and acquaintances in the United States in a brazen scheme that stretched between 2013 and 2017.
In the series bearing her birth name, however, Sorokin appeared to have been portrayed less as a villain than a feminist anti-hero. Several critics noted that the writers gave far less sympathetic treatment to one of her victims: Rachel DeLoache Williams, a former Vanity Fair photo editor who published a story about her time with Sorokin and turned state’s witness against her. That piece ran a month before the New York Magazine story upon which the Netflix series is based: “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People,” by reporter Jessica Pressler.
Williams later optioned her story to HBO, leading her attorney to question whether his client’s negative portrayal stemmed from sour grapes.
“The reason why we had to file it is because Netflix used Rachel’s real name and biographical details, and made her out to be a horrible person, which she is not,” her attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs told Law&Crime in an email. “The devastating damage to her reputation could have been avoided if only Netflix had used a fictitious name and different details. Why didn’t they do this for her, when they did for so many other characters in the series? Perhaps the reason was that she had chosen to play for the other team, i.e., HBO.”
The 59-page lawsuit includes quotations from critics who also made that connection.
The Independent, a U.K.-based online news source, asked bluntly in its headline: “Inventing Anna has a brutal vendetta against Rachel DeLoache Williams – is Netflix bitter she sold her story to HBO?” The Times of London similarly inquired of Williams’s depiction as a “loathsome freeloader”: “Is this character assassination an early swing at the competition?”
Other critics simply noted the show’s seeming antipathy for Williams. HuffPo commented that the series “inexplicably vilifies” her for organizing the sting operation that brought down Sorokin, and Vogue observed that the show makes her out to be “simultaneously vacuous and materialistic, naive and snobby.”
“As a result of Netflix’s false portrayal of her as a vile and contemptible person, Williams was subjected to a torrent of online abuse, negative in-person interactions, and pejorative characterizations in podcasts, etc. that were based on the Series, which establish that Netflix’s actions exposed her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or induced an evil opinion of her,” the lawsuit states, alleging that Williams has been barraged with “thousands” of “abusive messages.”
Episodes of Inventing Anna began with variations of the disclaimer: “This story is completely true, except for all the parts that are total bullshit,” but Williams claims this “confusing” caveat did not spare her from the “tidal wave of vitriolic messages.”
According to the complaint, the series gave fictitious names to certain characters or otherwise protected their identities, but Williams received no such consideration.
“Given the easy alternative of protecting her by using a fictional name, the decision to use her real name evidences Netflix’s intent to harm her reputation, thereby justifying the imposition of punitive damages, especially if Netflix made that decision because Williams had sold her rights to the rival Sorokin project being developed by HBO,” the lawsuit says.
Netflix did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Williams seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages for false light invasion of privacy and defamation.
Read the complaint here:
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