The secret ingredient is crime
Simon Leviev – real name Shimon Hayut – is a conman convicted of theft, forgery and fraud. He’s spent three years in prison in Finland, and 15 months in prison in Israel. According to The Times of Israel, Leviev allegedly conned around $10 million from victims across Europe in a Ponzi scheme. At present, he’s wanted for various fraud and forgery offences by Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
If you’ve watched The Tinder Swindler, it’s likely you know all this already. Millions of people have seen the Netflix documentary which features testimonies from three of Leviev’s victims – Cecilie Fjellhøy, Pernilla Sjöholm, and Ayleen Charlotte. And yet, despite watching a 114-minute breakdown of Leviev’s various crimes, the audience remains most interested in the eponymous swindler: at present, Leviev boasts 1.4 million Instagram followers, while Fjellhøy has only 273,000. I say ‘despite’, but really, the documentary has (obviously) done nothing but stoke fascination in Leviev.
Quietly marvelling at the audacity of con artists like Leviev doesn’t equate with condoning conning innocent people out of thousands of pounds, sure. But by continuing to engage with content from ‘celebrity criminals’, we play into what they’ve likely wanted all along: fame, power, status. Our fascination is why Leviev now has an agent, sells Cameo videos, owns a merch collection, and, most recently, has created an NFT. It’s why there’s another Anna Delvey docuseries in the works. It’s why you can buy a Joe Exotic mug or socks. But why are we interested in the first place?
It’s easy to sympathise with victims like Fjellhøy and Sjöholm: they seem nice, kind, funny, intelligent. But they aren’t captivating. They’re normal people, the kind you might encounter in the pub or supermarket or gym. Leviev, however, is decidedly not normal. He is not the type of man you would bump into in Sainsbury’s. He’s narcissistic, sociopathic, evil. And captivating. It’s oddly enchanting to watch a video of Leviev cruising around Israel in a Mercedes-Benz without a care in the world. How can someone be so callous? So remorseless? God knows – but it’s spellbinding to witness his chaotic life play out in real time.
Scammers are also particularly mesmerising given the rise of the anti-work movement. One ironic moment in Inventing Anna – the Netflix series based on the rise and fall of Delvey – sees hotel concierge Neff tell Delvey that she can’t just quit her job to pursue her dreams. “Bullshit,” Delvey says in response. “If it’s important enough, we do the things we want to do [...] leap and a parachute will appear.” If these words were spoken by a real heiress, they’d be tone-deaf and naive. But – as the audience knows – Delvey is not a real heiress. She actually does manage to supersede capitalistic, patriarchal, and elitist power structures (albeit briefly) through sheer tenacity, gumption, and, admittedly, selfishness.
Her refusal to live in the real world is weirdly inspiring, and there’s arguably a small part of us which admires people like her and Leviev for having the gall to pull off such audacious scams. Don’t we all wish we could quit our jobs and live incredibly glamorous lives without having to work for it? Leviev and Delvey bring this fantasy to life.
But – obviously – these are not good people. Leviev nearly drove an innocent woman to suicide. Delvey defrauded her closest friends. So why is it so easy to forget that?
The memes don’t help. The more you see jokes about “needing 25k” because “my enemies are after me”, the further it gets divorced from its original, tragic meaning. One TikTok trend, which uses an audio clip from Inventing Anna where Delvey shouts “I do not have time for this! I do not have time for you!”, has over 19,000 videos. In reality, Delvey would throw tantrums to emotionally manipulate and blackmail her friends into giving her money and shelter – but, again, this crucial information is forgotten as her story becomes memeified.
Leviev and Delvey have both done awful things, but this is easily lost in translating their crimes into entertainment. Julia Garner’s Anna is savvy and whip-smart. In Tiger King, Exotic is portrayed as a tragic anti-hero. Leviev is at least memeable. Sure, things aren’t black and white in real life: people aren’t either ’good’ or ’bad’, it’s possible to be charming but malicious, and we know the criminal justice system is deeply flawed.
But it’s important that we try and remember the bad with the good, given that our intrigue lines the pockets of people like Leviev and Delvey who are hustling to capitalise on their notoriety. After all, is it right or fair to fund and lionise fraudsters, when justice has hardly been served to their victims?
Stories like The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna are engrossing, and it’s human nature to be curious about such unusual individuals with lives so different to our own. But if we indulge in obsessing over these captivating criminals every now and then, we would do well to keep their victims in mind, too. So: on the off chance that you were considering buying Leviev’s NFT, maybe consider putting that money towards his victims’ GoFundMe fundraiser instead.