The True Story Behind Inventing Anna’s Donovan Lamb Is A Rollercoaster

The actual article subject also kept up his ruse via expensive dinners.

Donovan Lamb on Netflix's Inventing Anna is based on a real person, Mohammed Islam. Photo courtesy o...
Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

Part of the fun of watching Netflix’s Inventing Anna, which follows the crimes of Anna Sorokin, aka fake German heiress Anna Delvey (Julia Garner), is obsessively researching what details are factual. From the wardrobe based on Sorokin’s actual clothes to her ties to Fyre Festival scammer Billy McFarland, the more you uncover, the more wild the story seems to get. Another storyline that seems to be fictional but isn’t has to do with Vivian Kent, the reporter working for Manhattan magazine writing about the convicted fraudster.

Throughout the series, the pregnant Vivian (played by Anna Chlumsky) is hell-bent on pursuing Anna’s story, writing the article literally until her water breaks. Fans later learn that Vivian’s obsession with this piece isn’t solely because Anna’s story is riveting, it’s also because Vivian is trying to save her career after publishing a story about a kid named Donovan Lamb that went viral for the wrong reasons. Turns out, just like Vivian Kent’s character is based on the actual journalist who wrote about Sorokin, Jessica Pressler, the Donovan arc also mimics Pressler’s real life.

While working on an article about reasons to love New York, Vivian included Donovan’s story of making millions in the stock market as a high school senior. After the story came out, Donovan retracted his account, telling the media that Vivian forced him to lie. She was dubbed a “bad journalist,” her Bloomberg job offer was rescinded, and Paul, her editor and former friend, blamed her for the fact-checking error. Later in the series, Vivian’s past comes back to haunt her when Donovan gives an interview for a show on bad journalism.

Like Vivian, Pressler wrote a list of reasons to love New York, an annual series published by New York Magazine, the real-life publication she was working for. So, in December of 2014, Pressler published a profile of Stuyvesant High School senior Mohammed Islam, aka the real-life Donovan. Mohammed’s story, as published, was astounding. He allegedly started trading with penny stocks at 9 years old and later “became a scholar of modern finance” and made around $72 million. Pressler even chronicled how one interview with Islam and his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov was conducted over a $400 meal of freshly-squeezed apple juice and caviar.

Just a day after publication, Islam backpedaled. In an exclusive interview with the Observer, Islam admitted his story was completely made up. When asked if there was any money “at all,” he said, “No.” Apparently, the only trades Islam was making were of the “simulated” variety at his high school’s investment club. Another follow-up report from the outlet detailed how Islam managed to dupe Pressler and her magazine. Islam admitted to showing the fact-checkers a fake bank statement and that even the dinner was “designed to impress a reporter.”

To an extent, the aftermath of the article mimicked what happened on the Netflix show. Pressler’s new job offer as an investigative reporter at Bloomberg News was indeed retracted, and she was publicly criticized by fellow journalists.

But unlike in the show, Pressler’s workplace and editors took responsibility for the mishap. On Dec. 16, two days after the initial story was published, New York issued an apology to readers. “We were duped. Our fact-checking process was obviously inadequate; we take full responsibility and we should have known better. New York apologizes to our readers.” The same apology is now included as an editor’s note in the original article.

On Dec. 19, CNN reported that Adam Moss, New York’s editor-in-chief at the time, sent an internal memo about Pressler’s future in the company, saying, “We feel very lucky to be keeping [Pressler] on, and look forward to publishing more of her with pride.”

Meanwhile, Pressler doubled down on her piece. A day after publication, she told CNN, “I still think the piece is skeptical enough.” She later added, “The story is the reason to love New York ... And I came to love the fact that these kids are running around the city with these big dreams. It can only happen in New York, these kids eating caviar, talking about how they're going to be the new Koch brothers. It seems like a uniquely New York milieu.” She also said that the biggest issue with the story was the original headline (“A Stuyvesant Senior Made $72 Million Trading Stocks On His Lunch Break”), which has since been changed. “I feel like the headline was pretty glib — I feel comfortable about what's in the actual piece,” she said.

Rich Fury/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Pressler, of course, stayed with New York, eventually writing the Anna Delvey story in 2018 and another scamming story that turned into the Hollywood film Hustlers with Jennifer Lopez. These days, Pressler is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair.

After Inventing Anna came out, Pressler addressed the Donovan Lamb arc. She told Vulture on Feb. 14, “I didn’t bring up the ‘Reasons to Love’ thing to Shonda and the others, it was just something they found since it was easily Googleable.” She added that she “understood” why it was included, saying, “I get that there’s this parallel in that you’re writing about a con artist and then appear to have been conned.”