‘Everything is shades of grey’: inside the bizarre world of Netflix hit Bad Vegan | Documentary

Even by Netflix true crime standards, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives stands out as bizarre and disconcerting. The four-part series from Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened director Chris Smith, released last week, details the confounding downfall of vegan chef Sarma Melngailis and her restaurant Pure Food and Wine, a buzzy Manhattan hotspot that was once on the forefront of the “raw food” movement and a celebrity magnet. Blonde and sylphic, Melngailis was the enviable face of a sleek, clean lifestyle; her two cookbooks from 2005 and 2009, which advertised raw-food recipes to “get the glow,” featured a picture of her on the cover looking coy and satisfied, the embodiment of the energy, clarity, and health that was the vegan way.

But in 2011, Melngailis met a man online who, as the series outlines, cast a svengali-like spell over her and manipulated her into stealing money from investors and stiffing employees. By 2015, Melngailis disappeared from New York with her then-husband, Anthony Strangis, an inveterate gambler and reply-guy to Alec Baldwin’s tweets who had convinced Melngailis that if she passed a series of grueling emotional tests, including sexual degradation and giving him money, he would be able to make her and her beloved pit bull, Leon, immortal. According to the series, Melngailis’s debts totalled around $6m, including $400k bilked from her mother by Strangis. The couple was arrested in May 2016 at a motel outside Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Melngailis plead guilty to grand larceny, criminal tax fraud, and a scheme to defraud, and Strangis to four counts of fourth-degree grand larceny. Melngailis served a total of four months at Rikers Island, Strangis one year.

The bare facts of the case really don’t do the strangeness of it justice, but it did make for instant tabloid fodder. An Ivy-educated, attractive vegan poster woman charged with stealing from employees, found on the run via a Domino’s Pizza order? The gossip press, which dubbed her the “vegan Bernie Madoff,” ate it up. Bad Vegan, for which Melngailis provided and in-depth interview and access to her vast archive of journals, text messages, emails and other communications with Strangis, attempts to set the sometimes inaccurate record straight and paint a fuller picture of Melngailis’s delusion and Strangis’s coercive control.

“I definitely don’t think [Melngailis] would’ve been in this situation where she was convicted of fraud on her own,” Smith, also an executive producer on Tiger King, another Netflix true crime smash, told the Guardian of the project. “Had Anthony Strangis not entered her life, I definitely don’t see her going down this road.

Over the course of four hours, Bad Vegan delves into Strangis’s contorted and, in recorded phone conversations, menacing manipulation of Melngailis, to increasingly baffling and illegible ends. (Strangis declined to participate in the series.) Over time, Strangis, who first met Melngailis under the Twitter pseudonym Shane Fox, convinced her that he was a special ops officer constantly under surveillance; that she should provide him access to her digital accounts for her own safety; that the money she gave him from her profitable business – ultimately millions of dollars – would eventually be returned; that a nebulous, semi-divine group called “The Family” would confer to her special powers and protection if she only proved herself worthy. That last point is significant, given that, as Melngailis explains in her interview, filmed over the course of eight hours in 2019, she was under a large amount of personal debt at the time she met Strangis and worried about maintaining her restaurant.

Though the series features interviews with several former associates and friends of Melngailis – the “and” is common, as many former Pure Food and Wine staffers recount an admired boss known around her kitchen as “Sarmama” – the bulk of the series is built around Melngailis’s interview, which becomes more enigmatic and oblique the deeper she goes into the alternate reality. Melngailis often speaks dispassionately, as if in a trance; she relays what one can infer are traumatic experiences in passive tense, i.e. “whatever physical relationship that we had was not one that I wanted.” There’s a lot about her months on the run with Strangis that she either can’t discuss or can’t remember. According to her only post-Bad Vegan interview – with Vanity Fair’s Allen Salkin, who reported on the saga in 2016 and offers commentary in the series – Melngailis’s experience with dissociation and loss of memory feels akin to survivors of a cult.

One’s display of emotion shouldn’t, of course, be the barometer of trustworthiness. But exactly how Strangis brainwashed Melngailis, if he did, remains unclear, and the internet is unforgiving. On Twitter, the general response to Bad Vegan has been a lack of sympathy for Melngailis, sometimes apologetically and often straight-up victim-blaming. On the heels of the Tinder Swindler, another massive Netflix true crime hit on a conman who bilked women for hundreds of thousands of dollars, there’s a general disbelief and scorn for women – in these cases, white women – who have given their money to a man. “It’s been hard to watch people react in the way they have,” said Ryann Fraser, an executive producer on Bad Vegan. “And I feel like more empathy would be a nice thing.”

Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Sarma Melngailis in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. Cr. Netflix © 2022
Photograph: Netflix

Melngailis, both in the series and now outside it, seems wary of the criticism. In a blog posted the day after the premiere, she wrote that there’s “a lot” that Bad Vegan “gets right,” but “it’s hard not to get stuck on the things that aren’t right or leave an inaccurate impression.” She called the portrayal of her marriage to Strangis in 2012 “inaccurately condensed” – the series leaves open the possibility that she married him for his (perceived) money, but Melngailis wrote she “didn’t want to marry him.” She expanded further in Vanity Fair: “The impression in the doc is I intentionally married Anthony so he could transfer me money. That is completely not the case. At some point, Anthony did some of his mindfuckery and got me to marry him.”

Asked about her comments, Smith stood by the series. “I think it’s very clear in the series that there was a real connection between the two of them, in their communication online, in that she really did fall in love with him. In terms of their actual marriage, what she said to us is that she was asking the accountant how he could transfer this money to her, and he said ‘why don’t you get married,’ and she said 24 hours later, we went and got the certificate. That’s what we had to go off of based on the interview.”

Melngailis also took issue with the final scene of the series, which plays an excerpt from a phone call with Strangis that sounds friendly in tone; she called the ending “disturbingly misleading,” as she was “not in touch with Anthony Strangis.” Smith said he was “confused” by this characterization, because the phone call occurred in August 2019, shortly before her master interview with the film-makers. “I’m unclear as to why that phone call is ‘disturbingly misleading,’” he said.

Was the portrayal fair? “Look, everything is shades of grey,” he said. “We tried to represent it as accurately as we could from the information we had through the documentation that was presented to us and through the interview.”

From Bad Vegan to Tinder Swindler and Smith’s own Fyre documentary, to scripted series on fraudsters such as Elizabeth Holmes (Hulu’s The Dropout) and Anna Delvey (Netflix’s Inventing Anna, another global hit), the level of scam content appears to have reached high tide – for now. “There’s something about seeing how these things are perpetrated and watching that unfold is fascinating,” Smith said of our evergreen fascination with stories of grift and deceit. “Part of it is trying to assess how you would react in a similar situation,” he added. “You hope people learn from these stories and can avoid similar situations for themselves.”

That, at least, is one thing everyone seems to agree on – that somewhere in this confusing, messy, bizarre story is a lesson to be learned: on coercive control, or dissociation, or the yawning gap between public image and private turmoil, or the risk of Twitter reply-guys. “I’d be glad if my situation becomes a case study in all kinds of ways,” Melngailis told Vanity Fair. “I want this stuff to be useful, not merely fodder for people’s creepy entertainment.”

Leave a Comment