One of the victims featured in the hit true-crime Netflix film The Tinder Swindler now finds herself recognised in the street by fans of the movie. “They smile and want a picture like this is a performance,” complains Cecilie Fjellhøy, who was defrauded out of $250,000 (£185,000) by the conman known to her as Simon Leviev, although he was born Shimon Hayut and has operated under many names over the course of a criminal career that is based entirely on “a performance”.
The Tinder Swindler tells the story of Hayut’s elaborate fraud, which operated like a Ponzi scheme. He would seek out a woman on the dating app Tinder, subject her to a process of “love bombing”, and fool her into believing that he was a billionaire by flying her around on private jets and booking out hotel suites for $5,000 a night. Then he would trick her into transferring huge sums of cash to him, and he would use this cash to woo and defraud the next woman. The Times of Israel estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, Hayut may have conned $10m from his alleged victims.
Two moments stood out to me in The Tinder Swindler, both highlighting the role that fiction clearly played in generating this real-life drama. The first comes at the very beginning, when we hear from Fjellhøy, a British-Norwegian woman who had been on Tinder for a whopping seven years before she was victimised by Hayut. “The first memories I have about love are from Disney,” she tells the camera. “I memorised the Beauty and the Beast cassette, I knew all the songs. I just love Belle. She’s a small-town girl like me, hoping for something bigger.”
The second moment comes at the end, and is so brief you could easily miss it. One of the victims, Ayleen Charlotte, is recounting her confrontation with Hayut after she accused him of defrauding her. Among a string of WhatsApp messages shared onscreen, Hayut accuses her of being a fantasist and of “watching too much Netflix”.
Pretty rich coming from the guy who has clearly seen Ocean’s Eleven far too many times. Hayut’s escapade is exactly like something from a heist movie, and the impression one gets of this vain, mannered, devious man is that he has constructed his persona by paying close attention to films such as Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) – which dramatises the life of a real conman in the 1960s. The influence of American Hustle, from 2013, is also evident in Hayut’s glitzy Instagram aesthetic: big sunglasses, big cars, and big lies.
The difference, though, is that while the protagonists of these films defraud faceless institutions like casinos and banks, Hayut defrauded individual women out of their lifetime savings, sometimes pushing them to thoughts of suicide. He took the caper genre, put his own psychopathic spin on it, and then took advantage of the guileless trust of women brought up on a diet of Disney. In The Tinder Swindler, we have two highly gendered fantasies running in tandem: the feminine romantic movie, and the masculine heist movie. And we have two sets of fantasists: Shimon Hayut, and the women on the search for – as Fjellhøy puts it – “Prince Charming in real life”.
No doubt Hayut had an eye for identifying women who were most vulnerable to his trickery. Gullibility and a healthy credit score were essential qualities in his victims, but what’s also clear from watching these women being interviewed is that all of them have been left befuddled by romantic fiction that has little to no relationship with… well, relationships.
That’s not really the fault of novelists or screenwriters. It’s their job to create exciting stories, and it’s rare to see a stable, happy relationship portrayed in fiction because stable, happy relationships are dull to watch or read about. Romantic drama is usually interested in the courtship phase of a relationship, and ends on the wedding day, while more gritty drama might focus on the collapse of a relationship, or some tragedy that befalls an initially happy household. But what you almost never see in novels or onscreen is the day-to-day routine of domestic friendliness, even though that is the real goal and the real accomplishment of any successful match.
It’s well-known that the children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce themselves. One posited reason for this is that it’s easier to build a durable relationship if you have observed one at close quarters while growing up. In such cases, fiction can fill the gap where real-life experience ought to be, even though that fiction is likely to offer a very poor guide.
About a third of UK children do not live with both of their birth parents (in practice, this almost always means that they do not live with their fathers). About a third of UK children are therefore not witnessing that, as the feminist writer Mary Harrington puts it, “it’s perfectly possible to have a thriving, stable, long-term prosocial marriage that’s a bit ‘meh’ in romance terms… Life is long, and rough patches can take years to work through but still find their way back out into affection, respect and intimacy.”
Next time you’re in WH Smith, note the difference between the one-year anniversary cards (“Roses are red, violets are blue, one amazing year of being married to you!”) and the 30-, 40-, or 50-year anniversary cards, which tend to feature a lot more sardonic humour about toilets, flatulence, and the stealing of bedcovers.
Not very Disney. And not very Tinder Swindler, either.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times