Sarma Melngailis has been the patron saint of haute vegan cuisine for over a decade. Capitalizing on the rise of the wellness industry, the exclusivity of fine dining, business skills honed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Bear Stearns, and perhaps her good looks, the restaurateur built Manhattan’s Pure Food and Wine into both a trendy celebrity haunt and the standard bearer for a movement. It all went stale in the middle of 2010s like 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—led them straight to the Tennessee motel where they’d holed up. Called “the vegan Bernie Madoff” by tabloids, she eventually paid for her crimes with a stint at Rikers.
Melngailis’ downfall is the subject of Bad Vegan: The Fame. Fraud. Fraud.A four-part Netflix series called, from Chris Smith (director of such schadenfreude driven nonfiction hits like “The Good Doctor”). Tiger KingAnd FYRE. The story goes on even wilder, as you may be surprised. Melngailis says that Strangis not only convinced Melngailis she was an undercover soldier operative and they should get married to protect her, but also presented a weird, almost-spiritual tale about the way that the world functions. It is really worked. According to him, a mysterious, supernatural group known as “the family” had blessed him with eternal life and unlimited funds. Melngailis could join him—and even her beloved dog, Leon, could become immortal—if she passed a series of tests. These tests were convenient for Strangis because they required him to wire money amounts that eventually amounted to $1.7million.
The big question is: How could a woman smart enough to have studied at one of the nation’s top business schools and built a flourishing food empire (though one that wasn’t quite as remunerative as it might’ve looked) have fallen for such an absurd scam? And although it can be just as glib a spectacle as Smith’s previous Netflix projects, the answer Bad Vegan suggests says something profound about the wildfire spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts.” The same brand of anti-establishment skepticism that draws a person like Melngailis to wellness culture can also leave them vulnerable to false gurus and dangerously wacky ideas.
Melngailis and Strangis got into a complicated relationship. Melngailis was calling herself Shane Fox after she saw him appearing in tweets with Alec Baldwin. Slowly, they developed a friendship over Words with Friends. They finally met in person at the end 2011. He looked a bit rougher than the way he described himself, but Melngailis says she didn’t want to be superficial. Strangis then infiltrated himself into Melngailis’s work, giving orders to her staff and making unauthorized decisions regarding her business. This included packaged snacks and juice bars under the One Lucky Duck brand. Employees who’d affectionately nicknamed Melngailis “the Sarmama” were baffled.
As Strangis siphoned off money wherever he could, whether it was from Pure’s cash receipts, the already-indebted Melngailis’ personal funds, or her concerned mother, the relationship grew ever more bizarre. Although her lack of physical attraction to him had always been an issue, and acquaintances mention in the series that they rarely acted like a couple in the romantic sense, his eventual weight gain torpedoed any chemistry they might’ve had. He apparently defended the all-powerful image he’d crafted of himself by telling Melngailis that his new “meat suit” was yet another test of her devotion. She says he would blindfold her, instruct her to perform sexual acts on him, and then apologize, acting as though he’d had no choice in the matter.
There has to be a lot going on here, on a psychological level, despite Smith’s perennial emphasis on the “what” and “how” of his outré crime stories, rather than the “why.” For the most part, despite its clickbait title, Bad Vegan Melngailis is portrayed as sympathetic. But in the final episode, a few interviewees float the theory that she originally believed she was the one scamming Strangis—or at least using him for his ostensibly limitless wealth, in hopes of escaping the financial precarity endemic to the restaurant industry. Allen Salkin (a frequent visitor to the doc) likens Melngailis and Patty Hearst in a 2016 Vanity Fair Article, raising concern about the Stockholm syndrome.
To the extent that brainwashing was involved, her story also resembles that of cults like NXIVM, whose leader Keith Raniere—now serving a 120-year sentence following a conviction on charges that included sex trafficking—branded, controlled, and coerced women into sexual relationships. These echoes also remind me of horror-story romances. One partner, usually a male, creates a cult by forcing the other to accept his vision of reality. Such claims of “coercive control” were central to Elizabeth Holmes’ defense, as well as that of Melingalis.
None of these factors can explain why Strangis made her so susceptible. More likely, based on Smith’s interviews with Melngailis, her family, and others close to her, it came out of the same hostility toward conventional wisdom that made her a culinary trailblazer. Salkin points out that, in the circles that patronize raw-vegan restaurants, it’s common to encounter “people who believe in New Age mysticism, palm reading, crystals,” so Melngailis “is coming 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 in itself; plenty of adherents have solid environmental, health, and animal-rights reasons for choosing a plant-based diet. I don’t know that I would even place most of the blame on extreme wellness culture, as ridiculous as that world can be. According to a Pew poll, most Americans have faith in psychics or astrology.
If you believe in that stuff, why draw the line at a bespoke faith that incorporates shapeshifting and your husband’s love for Chris Hemsworth as Thor? (Really!) Especially when, like Melngailis, you self-identify as a nonconformist who’s down to question everything. “I’ve tended to be drawn towards Continue reading eccentric people,” she says, as Smith shows photos of her in high school, with punky pink and green hair, when she was friends with “misfits.” Outspoken atheism may be the stereotypical route for this kind of person, but in this paradoxical case, Melngailis’ skepticism might’ve actually made her a more credulous target for indoctrination.
However Bad Vegan only begins to say so, Melngailis’ ordeal, if you choose to believe her version of the events, speaks to the whole constellation of bizarre, fact-free ideologies currently flooding the public square. Anti-vax. QAnon. Pizzagate. Election fraud. The Illuminati is a classic example. For a restaurateur battling debt or a true believer whose candidate lost, it might be easier to embrace a hopeful set of alternative facts than to accept the frustrating truth—especially if you’ve lost faith in the so-called “reality-based community,” or never had any. If all 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’s shed his meat suit, Beauty and the Beast You both love your pup and you are proud of it. “This is a story More what’s real,” Salkin proclaims, early in Bad Vegan. It’s also a story about how unpopular reality has become.