Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives is a newly released Netflix docu-series that sheds light on the downfall — from successful restauranteur to convicted felon — of Sarma Melngailis
Documentaries released under Netflix’s true crime genre usually tend to be unnerving and surreal. Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives really leans into the bizarre surrealism and leaves viewers feeling a little uncomfortable.
Directed by Chris Smith, who was behind productions like Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Tiger King, the four-part series is just as weird as his previous work. The Fyre festival documentary spawned an unholy amount of memes and discussion on social media, coaxing ‘eat the rich’ sentiments amongst some disillusioned millennials. And if you did not watch Tiger King over the course of the global quarantine, were you even quarantining? It is only a matter of time before Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives takes social media by storm with memes on several platforms.
The series chronicles Sarma Melngailis’s fall from grace. Sarma was a vegan chef with her own upscale restaurant in Manhattan and author of two cookbooks. During her heyday, she was the blonde, sleek and fresh face of the “raw food” movement, and managed to turn Pure Food and Wine into the vegan place to be. Things appeared to be going well for her until she met someone who promised her the elixir of life.
In 2011, Sarma met Anthony Strangis online. Strangis went as Shane Fox on Twitter, claiming to be a special operations secret agent of sorts. Although he declined to participate in the series, Sarma’s interviews, text messages and phone recordings were more than enough to paint a disturbing picture of what was clearly an abusive relationship. As Sarma relates everything she went through with glassy-eyed dispassion, it becomes apparent that she has dealt with serious trauma, so much so that she has no memory altogether of certain events. The dissociative atmosphere coupled with her account of the cultish relationship she was in is enough to make viewers shift in their seats.
Strangis had a crippling gambling addiction, and he decided to fund his habit by convincing Sarma that he could give her, and her dog Leon, immortality. Like all shiny things in life that are too good to be true, his promise of immortality came at the low-low price of sexual degradation and nearly $6 million. According to Strangis, he was also a part of some secret organisation called The Family that would give her divine protection and immortality if she proved herself to be worthy by accommodating his every whim.
However, as was the case with victims of the Tinder Swindler Simon Leviev, social media holds little sympathy for Sarma. Posts featuring scorn, victim blaming and bringing her level of intelligence into question are rife. People seem to think that women who get scammed somehow had it coming.
Sarma was already in debt and worried about Pure Food and Wine when she met Strangis. He still managed to convince her that defrauding employees, banks and family members was all she needed to do to set herself free. In the face of promised immortality, few of us would worry about debt and fraud. You can do the crime - and the time - since you’ve got eternity to look forward to.
Forced to go on the lam due to mounting charges and suspicion, Sarma and Strangis were arrested in 2016 at a motel in Tennessee after being identified through a Domino’s Pizza order. Sarma served a four month sentence at Rikers Island after pleading guilty to tax fraud, grand larceny and defraud schemes. Strangis served a year and pleaded guilty to four counts of grand larceny.
At the time of these events, the scandal was heavily publicised due to Sarma’s high-profile status. The press mostly had one question: how did a good-looking Ivy League alumnus with a trendy restaurant bungle everything so terribly? The sensationalism and legal proceedings provided no opportunity for Sarma to set the record straight at the time. However, by giving access to a wealth of information in journals, texts, emails and recordings in Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives, she has been able to paint a clearer picture of her bizarre circumstances. Through these communication mediums, viewers begin to understand the depth of manipulation, coercion and abuse at play.
However, as was the case with victims of the Tinder Swindler Simon Leviev, social media holds little sympathy for Sarma. Posts featuring scorn, victim blaming and bringing her level of intelligence into question are rife. People seem to think that women who get scammed somehow have it coming, and fail to understand the disturbing nuances of an abusive relationship, and why it is hard for victims to just leave. However, despite the backlash, the series puts forth lessons such as the effect of coercion, manipulation, trauma and how there is usually a glaring gap between people’s personal and public lives.
With a total run-time of 3 hours and 29 minutes, split into four parts, Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives manages to avoid the bloat and filler material that usually plagues such documentaries. With decent pacing, interesting sequence of events and engaging story-telling, the series is easy to watch. However, the heavy subject matter coupled with the unnerving, dissociative atmosphere can leave you feeling emotionally drained. I would recommend Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives to those who enjoy true-crime. But make sure you have something lighthearted lined up to watch afterwards.
The author is a staff member.