Elizabeth Holmes, Billy McFarland and a Brief History of Millennial Grifters

Millennials, per popular stereotypes, are not known for our firm grounding in reality or steely sense of personal responsibility. We spend loosely, and save little. We’re idealists with incoherent ideals. Every so often, we build things that change the world, probably for the worse. And, though grifting is an ancient art, today’s young con artists bring a generationally distinct flavor to the craft: They prey on our faith in the mythical startup founder—and, to a further extent than scammers of yore, anyway, they buy their own BS. When they fall, their stories transfix us.

Take the viral tale of “Faux It Girl” Anna Delvey.: The 27-year-old daughter of a truck driver from a working class suburb of Cologne, Germany, ensorcelled high rollers in the Soho arts scene and racked up massive bills at downtown hotels, passing as an eccentric heiress with a bottomless trust fund. She slipped every waiter or bellhop a $100 bill. Armed with a falsified records of a 60 million euro Swiss account, she’d talked her way into a $100,000 line of credit. Her Instagram and the high-society friends she snookered fortified her fake persona, while she courted investors for an exclusive arts collective she claims—even now, from Rikers Island—that she honestly intended to found. Just last week, she carried out one last con as a remandee in Rikers: the sale of her story to Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes for a new Netflix show, which I will definitely watch.

It’s easy to compare Delvey—neé Anna Sorokin—to David Hampton, who conned Manhattanites in the 1980s. In the age of Instagram and Ancestry.com, Hampton couldn’t have fooled his friends—first, classmates at Connecticut College; then, a circle of well-heeled Manhattan liberals—into thinking he was Sidney Poitier’s son. Hampton, who died in 2003, was the inspiration for John Guare’s hit play Six Degrees of Separation, no less searing a send-up of polite society’s susceptibility than Hampton’s actual handling of them was. And shades of him live on in the unsubstantiated appeal of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, 34, too.

Fashioning herself as the first female Steve Jobs, Holmes built a $9 billion blood-test startup on pure bluff, and amassed a gobsmackingly impressive board of advisers: Jim Mattis, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Frist, and David Boies, among others, overlooked absurdly grandiose and overwhelmingly false claims about her company’s output, if they looked at all. Her company’s inventions, even once they were in use across the country, failed to work as advertised—while a hoodwinked media covered her as world-changing, life-saving technical genius. John Carreyrou’s investigative reporting for the Wall Street Journal exposed Holmes’s high-stakes scam. And his new book, Bad Blood, recounts how her charm and intense conviction won over investors and advisers in part because of how much they wanted to believe her. Holmes’s success, with their help, would have lent believers a feminist do-gooder sheen, not to mention a profit. But, as it turned out, she was an adept liar, a con artist, and quite possibly completely nuts.

Holmes at least got a taste of glory, as the amply profiled youngest ever self-made female billionaire, before she crashed and burned. Billy McFarland, who may be the most generationally emblematic con man of the cohort, was not so lucky. The 26-year old entrepreneur behind the disastrous Fyre Festival cashed in on the allure of Instagram “influencers” to entice high-paying ticket holders to a Bahamian Island, where they’d been promised a music festival luxe enough to leave their left-behind followers crackling with jealousy. Instead: they found UNRA-style carpeted tents, a food shortage, no musicians—and flights back to Miami delayed. The world, online at home with running water, laughed.

New York’s Southern District court charged McFarland, who is facing as many as 40 years in prison, with new counts of wire fraud and money laundering committed while he was out on bail. His perseverance in grift shouldn’t surprise us: This is the same guy who believed, if his $5,000 to $125,000-paying attendees were drunk enough not to notice how little he’d prepared for them, that he could pull it off.

Delusional optimism is endemic to millennial grifters. They believe their own bullshit to an extent that David Hampton, lying about his lineage, never could have. Delvey, Holmes, McFarland—they didn’t just think they could get away with their deceits. They appear to have actually thought on some level that their entrepreneurial projects—the massive fraudulent medical company, the made-up arts collective, the unplanned music festival—were real, willed into reality by the right blend of ballsy fakery and proven startup magic.

Being characters in their own fantasies, millennial grifters become the authors of ours. They don’t just lie to us; they include us in the lies they tell themselves. We can’t help but hate Holmes, a probable sociopath as Carreyrou concludes. But we do love the digital-age art of grift enough to devour stories of it and thirst for more. And with the details of their unravelings—the second half of any good scammer story—we get another fantasy, the one that lets us sleep at night and keeps human society humming along: that truth and justice will prevail.

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