For more than a decade, Sarma Melngailis was known as the patron saint of vegan haute cuisine. 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. 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—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: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, a four-part Netflix docuseries from Chris Smith, the director behind such schadenfreude-driven nonfiction hits as Tiger King and FYRE. And the story is even wilder than you might guess. As Melngailis tells it, Strangis had not only convinced her that he was an undercover military operative and that they needed to get married for her protection, but also ensnared her with a strange, quasi-spiritual narrative of how the world 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. Conveniently for Strangis, those tests entailed wiring him sums of money that ultimately added up to $1.7 million.
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.
There is nothing normal about the way Melngailis came to be entangled with Strangis, who was calling himself Shane Fox when she noticed him popping up frequently in Twitter conversations with her pal Alec Baldwin. They cultivated a relationship, slowly at first, over games of Words with Friends, finally meeting in person toward the end of 2011. He looked a bit rougher than the way he described himself, but Melngailis says she didn’t want to be superficial. So Strangis insinuated himself into her work; he would give orders to staff and make unauthorized decisions about her business, which also included juice bars and packaged snacks under the brand name One Lucky Duck. 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 comes off as sympathetic to Melngailis. 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. Journalist Allen Salkin, a frequent presence in the doc, who first reported many of its biggest revelations in a 2016 Vanity Fair article, likens Melngailis to Patty Hearst, raising the specter of 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. There are also echoes of the horror-story romances that the true-crime genre thrives on, in which one (usually male) partner essentially creates a cult of two by gaslighting the other (usually female) partner into accepting his warped vision of reality. Such claims of “coercive control” were central to Elizabeth Holmes’ defense, as well as that of Melingalis.
But none of this necessarily explains why she was susceptible to Strangis in the first place. 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. 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 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 more 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.
Although 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. A classic: the Illuminati. 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 style, and the pup you both adore. “This is a story about what’s real,” Salkin proclaims, early in Bad Vegan. It’s also a story about how unpopular reality has become.