What’s more surreal than having a segment of your life become part of a viral New York Magazine cover story?
Probably selling your life rights to Shonda Rhimes so the story in question can become a Netflix show.
And what might be more surreal than all of it?
Coming full circle to join the actress who played you for an interview with New York Magazine’s Vulture.
Thus, we have this conversation between two Neffs. One is Neffatari (Neff) Davis, the filmmaker, former hotel employee, and friend of the now-convicted con artist Anna Delvey — the strategic social-climber (real name: Anna Sorokin) who claimed to be a German heiress and took down several heavy players in the New York finance and real-estate scene. Then there’s actress Alexis Floyd, who portrays Davis as Delvey’s ride-or-die all the way up to, and beyond, her trial in the Netflix limited series Inventing Anna.
“All these people are seeing a part of my life that was so long ago,” Davis says. “I had a chance to watch the show and relive that part of my life. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my 20s were crazy.’”
Davis, who moved in September to Los Angeles from New York, kept in contact with Floyd throughout the making of the show. They united again on Zoom to speak with Vulture about what Inventing Anna gets right, which liberties have been taken, and how the ordeals — both factual and fictitious — impacted their lives.
In the limited series, Neff is working at the 12 George hotel — a stand-in for the swanky 11 Howard in Soho — when she’s found by journalist Vivian Kent (actress Anna Chlumsky’s interpretation of Jessica Pressler, the real-life reporter who wrote the New York story). Is that how it happened?
Neff Davis: I left the hotel at the end of 2017. I was managing the Starbucks in New York’s Diamond District when Jessica found me on Twitter. When the article dropped, I was still working at Starbucks, and people would see my name badge and be like “Hey, are you the girl from the article for New York Magazine?” I’m like, “Yes. How do you want your coffee?”
I worked there all the way up until my life rights were purchased by Netflix and Shondaland. It was such a blessing that Jessica direct-messaged me.
What happened after Netflix bought your life rights?
ND: I was living in, like, the hood in Harlem, and my apartment was 300 square feet. When Netflix bought my life rights, I literally Googled “luxury apartments in Brooklyn” because I had always wanted to live in Williamsburg. I had lived in New York for ten years and said, “One day, I’m going to get me one of those apartments.” I paid off my rent for two years. And I started writing, writing, writing for my own projects and consulting with this show. It’s amazing the research they do with this show.
What does it mean to be a consultant on this show?
ND: In my case, I had the privilege of being in contact with the head of research at Shondaland. We did a Zoom with the whole writers’ room and Shonda, and I broke down everything from the beginning of my life to where I was at. Imagine getting hundreds of emails about different things from “What’s your favorite color?” to “When you worked at the hotel, how did you enter the hotel?”
Were you involved in casting Alexis?
ND: I wasn’t, but Alexis lived down the street from me, so we could meet up. If she ever had questions or needed to study me in any way, I could be there for her.
Alexis, were you sitting there studying every nuance of Neff’s movements and mannerisms?
Alexis Floyd: I was. I must confess, Neff, I was watching you. I love the way you move. You have this glide about you. Neff was really generous and let me record some of our conversations for private use. I would put you on my headphones and walk around the city and try to speak like you, just trying to absorb your vibe.
Neff is an incredibly self-studied, intelligent person who knows herself inside and out in a really special way. It taught me a lot about character development that I think I will take forward in any character I build — how a person’s life is saturated with details, the ways these themes come up, and how our lives are sort of magically constructed as stories.
Neff, has there been a different kind of attention on you now that the show has premiered?
ND: When the article came out in 2018, it was more of a Twitter world. Now that TikTok and Instagram are very popular, so many people started following me. Of course, I got negative and positive messages — it was tough the first few days. Because the writing is so well-done, people aren’t able to separate the real Neff from the Neff in the show.
The positive comments from people are like, I need a friend like Neff or I’m naming my daughter Neffatari. A lot of people have been hitting me up saying they’re inspired because they also work a job and also have a dream. The unfortunate part is a lot of racist comments and people who don’t understand the dynamics between me being a Black woman and Anna being a white woman. They were feeling like, especially during Black History Month, my character was just someone who kissed Anna’s ass too much. They mistook my loyalty for something else.
I get it. As a Black woman, I know we are pitted against Caucasian women a lot of times. But at the end of the day, my loyalty with Anna wasn’t because of her skin color — I called her out on several things she said. It was based on how she treated me. I never saw the bad side of Anna. I never got scammed by her. She never didn’t pay me back. It is interesting to see people disappointed in my friendship with Anna. I’m like that with all my friends. All my real friends are watching, and they’re like, “You’re like this with me.”
Neff, how much of your relationship with Anna is accurate in the show? Alexis, are you surprised by how strong her loyalty is to Anna?
ND: It’s almost like a seesaw. I have to set boundaries. Sometimes I won’t answer the phone because I had to let her know I have my freedom. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not going to be able to answer every single phone call from jail. But if you need some panties or some coconut milk for Thanksgiving, I’ll send it. I definitely had to set boundaries during the trial because Anna started losing her mind a little bit when it came to being famous in jail and by herself without family here in America.
As far as our friendship now that she’s been released … I’m all the way on the West Coast. She’s in Orange County, New York. We speak as much as we can, which is like once a month right now. I spoke to her yesterday, actually. It’s like, if I’m bored, I’ll pick up.
I try to give her some type of stamina to keep going because she literally has no one out here in America. I mean, of course, she talks to her dad and mom, but they’re so far away, and they’re so confused about her fame.
AF: I remain impressed, first and foremost, with Neff’s loyalty to herself. I’m really impressed with how in touch you remained with yourself through this whole — I keep calling it a “glitter tornado.” You really stayed center, girl. You were listening to your body. You were trusting your gut. And you were able to be respectful but still have distance.
There’s also Inventing Anna actress Katie Lowes’s depiction of Rachel DeLoache Williams. The then–Vanity Fair staff member accused Anna of conning her into paying for their trip to Morocco after they’d arrived, convincing her to put the trip on credit cards with the promise that she’d be paid back. But the series suggests Rachel acted with free will and was obsessed with the lifestyle Anna promoted (Williams has claimed that the show is a “dangerous distortion” of the actual events). Neff, do you think the show depicted her fairly and accurately?
ND: You know, I respect Shondaland. I think one of the things people miss before every episode that I love was the note that “everything is real except for the parts that are made up.” I’m not going to go against the Rachel depiction because that’s how the writers saw the Rachel character. It’s loosely based on all of us.
As far as how I feel about Rachel, I really don’t have any feelings toward her. Me and Rachel were never friends. Anna was the only middleman between us. She has said unkind things, and she doesn’t really care for me. But that’s fine.
She really loved Anna. I mean, loved her to the point that she really wanted to be her, in a way — even though she might not want to admit that now. Anna also wanted to be Rachel in a way because Rachel was legit. She had the Vanity Fair connects. I think they both pull different things out of each other.
AF: What the show does a really good job of is getting the root cause of this need to appear as something you’re not and this feeling of never having enough, never being connected enough — this hunger for external validation. It shows up in different ways. Rachel has symptoms of it. Anna has symptoms of it. That’s a big part of what’s causing her to make all these displays of wealth and pomp and circumstance that she doesn’t have actual access to — this hunger to win this race that is never-ending.
Neff, how relieved are you that you didn’t go on that trip to Morocco with Anna and Rachel?
ND: The director of that episode, Nzingha Stewart, gave me such anxiety because of the way she shot it. I kept thinking, What would I have done? My mom watched it, and she was like, “You would have faked passing out in the lobby and gone to a hospital, and we would have gotten you a plane ticket.” But I’m so relieved. I almost went — to the point that I’m the one that booked the hotel for them. From Instagram, it looked like they had an amazing time. I didn’t know until Jessica contacted me how bad it went.
Wait, you didn’t have any connection with Anna or Rachel after the Morocco trip?
ND: The last time I saw Anna, she had paid her bill at the hotel. She’d pulled up in a Tesla and was like “I’m out, bitch.” I was like, “Okay, rich stuff.” I thought she could just leave, and I went on with my life.
It was all brand new to me when Jessica reached out and told me that Anna says I’m her only friend in New York. I’m like, “Okay, this ended up bigger than just a rich guest at my hotel who provided me with a lifestyle I was already trying to achieve on my own.”
What’s your relationship like now with Pressler?
ND: We’ve kept in contact once a week for three years. It’s like having a mom in New York.
We’re seeing a lot of shows right now based on actual female con artists, and they’re all white women. What do you think about that, not just in regard to representation, but also in regard to what people are able to get away with?
AF: This question of the value we place on our exoskeletons is fascinating, and that we see a pattern — I think we have to be sensitive to that. It shows up in so many stories, and I appreciate that there’s an illumination that this character has a different set of cards. From the minute they walk in the door, there’s something that precedes them that says they’re valuable, they’re intelligent, they’re connected, and I can trust them.
These stories are giving us an opportunity to reexamine the stories we superimpose onto identities before we have the chance to do due diligence. Because before we hear a word out of their mouths, we’ve already made so many decisions about one another. And in this country, it can literally be a matter of life or death. Or freedom or not.
ND: I definitely know that Anna being a white woman is one of the main reasons she was able to trick those bankers and trick our hotel. It’s not like Anna is super stunning, gorgeous, or whatever. Anna literally just used her skin in a way to convince people like, “Why would I lie?” Anna’s confidence on top of her skin tone helped her get through a lot of doors. Shondaland shows us that classism and racism. Anna is a representation of a lot of people in America: the Trumps of the world, the Wall Street guys, people who are able to get away with things people from my background wouldn’t be able to.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misidentified a photo from Neff Davis’s Instagram. It has been corrected.