Lying to someone effectively is often less about the content of the lie than about how it’s told and who’s telling it. People will believe wildly implausible things if the presentation is compelling and the lie is convenient for them — say, that a 25-year-old Russian nobody is actually a German heiress hoping to build Soho House, But For Art. Or that a college dropout with little training has developed a miracle technology that will transform diagnostic blood tests. Anna Delvey, a wannabe socialite and faux art luminary, and Elizabeth Holmes, founder of now-disgraced medical startup Theranos, both constructed elaborate personas for their grifts, but if you look closely enough, the seams of their self-invention showed in the same place: their hair.
Delvey’s appearance has been discussed in detail since the public was introduced to her in Vanity Fair in April, and against last week in Jessica Pressler’s reporting in New York Magazine, but much of the attention has been on her clothing choices, which ultimately aren’t that revealing. Delvey had an ever-expanding designer wardrobe, which helped shore up her con to the high-end service workers, low-tier celebrities, “influencers,” and trust-fund idiots in her social orbit. What she didn’t have was taste, and as Rachel Tashjian argued last week in Garage, that’s perfectly in line with being rich: plenty of wealthy people have underdeveloped senses of personal style. Wearing expensive clothes badly is just as expensive as wearing them well, and not being precious or careful with expensive things is a board-certified Rich Behavior.
For the wealthy — and especially for those born rich, as Delvey claimed to have been — money also frequently buys you both boredom and a ceaseless desire to be catered to. This is why rich white women typically have great hair, or at least hair that looks like a lot of time and effort went into it, and why it was immediately so conspicuous to me that Delvey’s was terrible. In all the photos that emerged of her after she was exposed, her hair was an enormous tangle of frizzy, poorly colored, untrimmed straw. She claimed allegiance to ultra-fancy New York salon Sally Hershberger, where haircuts from the founder cost $800, but anyone with even a moderate interest in personal care could see that well-trained professionals were rarely, if ever, in contact with her head.
High-end salons are expensive, time-consuming meccas of flattery and narcissism, which is why they’re such a deeply pleasurable place to occasionally visit for average people, and practically a place of residence for those wealthy enough not just to bypass bourgeois concerns like employment, but to fill that empty time with vanity projects like a combination art gallery/nightclub. Rich people get biweekly blowouts, trims every two weeks, root touch-ups every month or so, and monthly conditioning treatments, not just because they’re obsessed with themselves and how they look, but because it’s something to do, and the idle rich need to structure their time. Ruth Madoff, wife of disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernie, was known to be "religious" about maintaining her blonde, going for foil highlights at the tony Pierre Michel salon in New York City every six weeks. For men, it’s often golf or some other leisure pursuit, and for women, it’s tending to a physical appearance that helps guarantee a continued existence in privileged spaces.
Delvey’s problem was that she didn’t actually have the money necessary to be bored all the time. Scams take constant maintenance, and she spent her energy currying favor with those who could lift velvet ropes for her when the “wire transfer” was “taking longer than expected.” Her desire to adhere to the stringent physical standards expected of Manhattan’s wealthy, well-coiffed, Equinox-bodied elite seemed to have been nonexistent; the personal trainer she hired was as much a “life coach” and lunch partner as anything else. Delvey, apparently, only had to be close enough to the real thing to get people to believe lies that were already extremely convenient, and that turned out not to require a keratin treatment for her frizzy ends.
The hair of disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, the subject of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, a devastating new book on her multibillion-dollar tech scam, on the other hand, was selling a different lie: that she was a technological genius and once-in-a-generation medical innovator who had found a way to test for a variety of medical conditions with only a few drops of blood. Like Delvey, there was also a lot of misbegotten money tied up in whether people chose to believe her — in this case, it was hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital from investors in her bogus blood tests. As a result, Holmes ruthlessly curated her public persona in a way that should have read as flagrantly over-contrived from the beginning. This was most obvious in her self-consciously bland appearance, which looked as though she had done a focus group on how a young woman might optimize her look in order to placate male investors perhaps more inclined to believe in the genius of other men. And that wasn’t so far off from the truth — according to author John Carreyrou, the new CEO adopted her infamous black turtlenecks after an early hire from Apple suggested that she ditch her weird suits and bad sweaters for something more becoming of a burgeoning tech baron. So she just ripped off the most famous one. Where Delvey was looking to telegraph that she had time to waste, Holmes was making sure you knew she had no interest in wasting any.
Holmes’s hair and makeup seemed to acknowledge that she understood what was expected of her appearance as a relatively young woman, but she’d really rather focus on more cerebral matters. She couldn’t let herself be ugly enough to turn men off or pretty enough to make them doubt her intelligence, so she appeared to color her hair but left the ends scraggly and dead as it grew. Her blonde highlights were always present, but that was part of the problem — you could see them and where they were painted on, and high-end hair color would have hidden in plain sight. Holmes also always wore the same makeup, and not only was it always applied poorly, but specifically in such a way that you noticed its poor application. She created problems with her appearance that weren’t really there — like the fuzzy hair of a bad blowout that could have been easily smoothed, or the slightly askew application of a neutral, easy-to-apply lipstick — and then she pointedly declined to solve them. Just look at her over there, being beautiful but serious.
At its height in 2016, Holmes’s net worth was estimated at $4.5 billion, but even then, long after the press and investors had been fooled, her hair looked like mine does when I’ve put off a haircut a month too long while waiting for an overdue freelance check — thin and split at the ends, dry-looking, uneven from breakage. Her mistake was the opposite of Delvey’s: she overcorrected. Once everyone agrees you’re important in tech, you’re allowed to care about your appearance. Elon Musk is rumored to have gotten hair plugs once he was flush with PayPal cash (if you look at side-by-side photos of him from earlier in his career and now, it’s clear that his scalp was altered, either through a cosmetic procedure or an act of God). Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has hair that always looks shiny, well-kept, and neatly trimmed — not like a newscaster, or even a movie star, which requires some aesthetic allegiance, but the Platonic ideal of hair. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos clearly understood his male pattern baldness was more in line with the kindly bookseller of his past, so he shaved his head, got swole, and is now visually aligned with his current identity, that of the self-optimizing, union-busting tech oligarch.
Maybe more than any other part of our physical selves, hair has the ever-present capacity to betray us. Grown-out roots or bad box dye are revealing in ways that a chin zit or cheap leggings just aren’t, because hair’s omnipresence makes it a higher-stakes part of someone’s appearance, and one that requires more attention and maintenance. Carefully style your hair to hide its shortcomings, and that’s all out the window with a stiff gust of wind. Get the nervous sweats before a job interview and you’re a frizzball, even if you manage to calm down before the meeting. For Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, the truth was always sitting right there, but only now do we know what we’re looking at.