For more than a decade, Sarma Melngailis was known as the patroness of vegan haute cuisine. Capitalizing on the rise of the wellness industry, exclusivity in fine dining, business skills learned at the Wharton School and Bear Stearns at the University of Pennsylvania, and perhaps her beauty, the restaurateur has made Manhattan’s Pure Food and Wine both a haunt of hip celebrities and the flagship of a movement. Then, in the mid-2010s, it all dissolved like so much cucumber foam. As Melngailis begged, borrowed and (in the form of unpaid wages) stole millions, she and her then-husband Anthony Strangis spent months on the run before a pizza delivery order – of all things – don’t drive them straight to the motel in Tennessee where they’d locked up. Called “the vegan Bernie Madoff” by the tabloids, she ended up paying for her crimes with a stint at Rikers.
The fall of Melngailis is the subject of Bad vegan: fame. Fraud. Fugitivesa four-part Netflix docuseries from Chris Smith, the director behind schadenfreude-focused nonfiction hits like tiger king and FIRE. And the story is even crazier than you think. As Melngailis recounts, Strangis had not only convinced her that he was an undercover military agent and that they should marry for his protection, but had also ensnared her with a strange and quasi-witty account of how the world really work. According to him, a mysterious and supernatural group known as “the family” had blessed him with eternal life and unlimited funds. Melngailis could join him – and even his beloved dog, Leon, could become immortal – if she passes a series of tests. Conveniently for Strangis, these tests involved wiring him sums of money that ultimately amounted to $1.7 million.
The big question is, how could a woman smart enough to have gone to one of the best business schools in the country and built a thriving food empire (even if it wasn’t as profitable as it could have been) look) fell in love with such an absurd scam? And while it might be just as glib a show as Smith’s previous Netflix projects, the answer bad vegan suggests says something profound about the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts.” The same brand of anti-establishment skepticism that draws someone like Melngailis to the feel-good culture can also make them vulnerable to fake gurus and dangerously outlandish ideas.
There’s nothing normal about the way Melngailis got mixed up with Strangis, who went by the name Shane Fox when she noticed him popping up frequently in Twitter conversations with friend Alec Baldwin. They cultivated a relationship, slowly at first, over puns with friends, eventually meeting in person towards the end of 2011. He seemed a bit rougher than how he described himself, but Melngailis says that she didn’t want to be superficial. Then Strangis insinuated himself into his work; he would give orders to staff and make unauthorized decisions about his business, which also included juice bars and snacks packaged under the One Lucky Duck brand. Employees who had affectionately dubbed Melngailis “the Sarmama” were taken aback.
As Strangis siphoned off money wherever he could, whether it was cash receipts from Pure, the personal funds of Melngailis already in debt, or his concerned mother, the relationship grew increasingly bizarre. Although her lack of physical attraction to him was always an issue and acquaintances mention on the show that they rarely acted like a couple in a romantic sense, her eventual weight gain torpedoed any chemistry they might have had. . He seemingly defended the almighty image he had forged of himself by telling Melngailis that his new “meat suit” was yet another test of his dedication. She says he would blindfold her, ask her to perform sex acts on him, and then apologize, acting like he had no choice in the matter.
There must be a lot going on here, psychologically, despite Smith’s constant insistence on the “what” and “how” of his outrageous crime stories, rather than the “why.” For the most part, despite its clickbait title, bad vegan seems sympathetic to Melngailis. But in the latest episode, a few interviewees theorize that she originally believed she was the one scamming Strangis – or at least using him for his ostensibly limitless wealth, hoping to escape punishment. financial insecurity endemic to the restaurant industry. Journalist Allen Salkin, a frequent presence in the doc, who first reported on many of its biggest reveals in a 2016 Vanity Fair article, compares Melngailis to Patty Hearst, raising the specter of Stockholm Syndrome.
Insofar as brainwashing was involved, its history also resembles that of cults like NXIVM, whose leader Keith Raniere, who is currently serving a 120-year sentence following a sex trafficking conviction, has noted, controlled and coerced women into having sex. . There are also echoes of the horror story novels on which the true-crime genre thrives, in which one (usually male) partner essentially creates a cult of two by tricking the other (usually female) partner into accepting his distorted view of reality. Such “coercive control” claims were central to Elizabeth Holmes’ defense, as well as that of Melingalis.
But none of that necessarily explains why she was sensitive to Strangis in the first place. More likely, based on Smith’s interviews with Melngailis, her family, and others close to her, it came from the same hostility to conventional wisdom that made her a culinary pioneer. Salkin points out that, in circles that frequent raw vegan restaurants, it’s common to come across “people who believe in New Age mysticism, in palm reading, in crystals”, so Melngailis “comes out of this ferment of things that are ethereal and don’t obey the normal rules of life.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with veganism per se; many adherents have strong environmental, health and animal rights reasons for choosing a plant-based diet. I don’t know if I’d even assign most of the blame to extreme wellness culture, ridiculous as this world may be. After all, a 2018 Pew poll found that most Americans, with a wide range of religious affiliations, believe in psychics, astrology, reincarnation, or more than one of the above.
If you believe in these things, why draw the line to a bespoke faith that incorporates shapeshifting and your husband’s love of Chris Hemsworth as Thor? (Really!) Especially when, like Melngailis, you identify as a maverick ready to question everything. “I tended to be attracted to more eccentric people,” she says, as Smith shows pictures of herself in high school, with pink and punk green hair, when she was friends with “misfits “. Outspoken atheism may be the stereotypical path for this kind of person, but in this paradoxical case, Melngailis’ skepticism might have actually made her a Continued gullible target for indoctrination.
Although bad vegan only beginning to say it, the ordeal of Melngailis, if you choose to believe his version of events, is about the whole constellation of bizarre, factless ideologies currently flooding the public square. Anti vax. QAnon. Pizzagate. Electoral fraud. A classic: the Illuminati. For a restaurateur struggling with debt or a true believer whose contestant lost, it might be easier to embrace a hopeful alternative set of facts than accept the frustrating truth, especially if you’ve lost faith in the so-called “reality-based community,” or ever had. If all the information is, in your opinion, misinformation, it makes sense to inhabit the tall tale that ends with you becoming a billionaire queen who will live forever, surrounded by a king who has thrown away his meat suit, The beauty and the Beast style and the pup you both adore. “This is a story on what is real,” proclaims Salkin, at the beginning bad vegan. It’s also a story about how reality has become unpopular.