It’s 2019, and scams are practically a pop culture genre of their own. But has there been one to so perfectly encapsulate class, gender politics, and the art of “getting even” more than the four-month scam that inspired Hustlers?
To label the women strippers would be a reduction of what was really happening in 2013. Actually, if you ask Samantha Barbash, the group’s ringleader (called Ramona and played by J. Lo in the film), they weren’t strippers at all. They were creative con-artists. They were also brazen criminals. And they almost got away with it.
By now, the true story behind Hustlers has been told and retold. Back in 2014, when the women were caught, their story unfurled in straightforward reported pieces, whose clinical language downplayed the wild premise: Hello! They drugged extremely wealthy men and ran up their credit cards!
At last, in 2015, the scheme got an appropriately glossy magazine treatment when journalist Jessica Pressler wrote a now-viral article for New York magazine, based on an in-depth interview with Roselyn Keo (Constance Wu’s Destiny in the film). Four years later, the modern-day Robin Hood story has been turned into a movie, already generating an Oscars glow.
But how much of the story in Hustlers is true? While Keo seems to be on board with the film — she attended the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival along with the cast — other women involved aren’t thrilled by what ended up on screen.
Fact: Roselyn Keo (Destiny) really lived with her grandmother
Destiny's grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) has a major part in Hustlers and in her real life. Keo was raised by Cambodian immigrants in Rockland County, NY. When Keo was a little girl, her parents left her and her brother with her elderly her grandparents and ran away to Atlantic City. In an interview with New York, Keo wonders if that’s what made her the way she is.
When she was 17, she dropped out of high school and was working at the New City Diner in Nanuet, NY to help support her grandparents.
Some of her customers worked at Lace, a strip club nearby. They, along with the HBO show G String Divas, convinced her to try out dancing. Soon, she was making $500 to $1,000 a night, and made even more money when she started dancing in Manhattan clubs like Flash Dancers and Larry Flynt’s Hustlers Club.
Keo met Samantha Barbash in a strip club in 2007. Eventually, Keo stopped dancing. But when she had a child with her boyfriend, she returned to the clubs to support her family. When she reconnected with Barbash in 2013, the fishing scheme had begun.
And so, our story begins.
Fact: Hustlers captures the women’s con perfectly
It was 2008, right after the financial crisis. Men who would drop thousands at a strip club in a night years before were suddenly more fiscally restrained. So, Barbash invented another way of extracting money. She called it fishing.
In the early days of the con, Barbash would go through her contact list and send men pictures of two of her friends, Marsi Rosen and Karina Pascucci. If the men were interested, they’d take the women out for an evening. Then, amid all the festivities, either Rosen or Pascucci would spike the man’s drink with a blend of MDMA and ketamine. They’d freely use their credit cards and rack up tens of thousands of charges. Pascucci and Rosen would also look for targets in bars.
When Keo joined, the women started looking for men in more upscale locations. They scoured New York for signs of wealth: Rolex or Patek Philippe watches, Amex Black cards. The women made sure to target married men, relying on their sense of shame to prevent them from reporting the charges.
Keo took advantage of her unassuming appearance and posed as a fellow finance worker, or a mom unwinding at a bar. Then, she roped men in for a night they would hardly remember — aside from the credit card statements.
Keo turned the con into an organized enterprise, keeping track of each target and how much they took. “I could do all the math in my head. Like, if you told me the bill was $40,000, I knew exactly what cut went to what,” Keo told New York Magazine. She also cultivated connections at clubs, like the Roadhouse in Queens, so women could take a cut of the charges. For every dollar the men spent, they’d get a percentage.
As in the movie, Keo and Barbash also hired sex workers from Craigslist and Backdoor, and brought them in on the spoils. Keo remembers buying her first pair of Louboutins.
Fiction: One man brought down the scheme
The bigger the scheme got, the harder it was to control. While speaking to New York Magazine, Keo describes how Barbash became increasingly reckless with her targets. The latter preyed on a father who lost his house in a hurricane.
The NYPD eventually got a call from a New Jersey cardiologist, Zyad Younan, who claimed a group of ex-strippers drugged him and charged $135,000 over four visits to the Scores Club. Unlike a lot of other people claiming false charges, Younan had a tape of him speaking with the perpetrator. From there, the police quickly tracked down the key players and brought Barbash, Parscucci, Rosen, and Keo to Rikers Island prison.
In total, there were four victims working with police. So in the movie, a few men — not just one — tip off the police to the women’s crimes. Doug (played by Steven Boyer) racks up a disastrous amount of money on his corporate card.
Fact: Destiny was the first to take a plea deal
After being arrested, all four women were charged with conspiracy, grand larceny, and other charges. Keo was the first to take a plea deal in 2014. Barbash sent her a text: We heard you took a plea deal. Good luck. In the movie, Destiny tells Ramona in person, immediately after taking the plea. A text just doesn’t have the same drama.
Fiction: Ramona and Destiny are not their real names
The characters in Hustlers are based on the real women who ran the fishing scheme — but they aren’t exactly the same people. For one, the names are changed. The “Samantha” figure, who runs the people side of the business, is called Ramona. The “Rosie” figure, who handles the numbers side, is Destiny.
Plus, the real women weren’t stripping when they started fishing. In fact, Barbas was never a stripper. She told the New York Post she plans to sue Lopez and STX Entertainment, the movie’s production company, for misrepresenting her. “If she wants to play me, then she should have gotten the real story,” Barbash said.
Hustlers also features other main players. Destiny and Ramona are flanked by the movie’s other strippers, played by Cardi B, Lizzo, Lili Reinhart, and Keke Palmer.