Bad Vegan is a savage true crime story for an era of misinformation

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, her business skills honed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Bear Stearns, and perhaps her good looks, the restaurateur made Manhattan’s Pure Food and Wine a trendy hangout for celebrities and the standard-bearers of a movement . Then, in the mid-2010s, it all dissolved like cucumber foam. As Melngailis begged, borrowed, and stole millions (in the form of unpaid wages), she and then-husband Anthony Strangis were on the run for months before — of all things — a pizza delivery job took them straight to the Tennessee motel where they were staying holed up. Dubbed “the vegan Bernie Madoff” by tabloids, she eventually paid for her crimes with a stint at Rikers.
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The sinking of Melngailis is the subject Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. refugeesa four-part Netflix docuseries from Chris Smith, the director of such gloating nonfiction hits as King of the Tigers and FYRE. And the story is even wilder than you might think. As Melngailis recounts, Strangis had not only convinced her that he was an undercover military agent and that they needed to be married to protect her, but also ensnared her with a strange, quasi-spiritual narrative about the world Yes, 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 passes a series of tests. Practically for Strangis, these tests meant he was wired sums of money that ultimately totaled $1.7 million.

The big question is: how could a woman smart enough to have graduated from one of the best business schools in the country and built a thriving food empire (albeit one that wasn’t quite as lucrative as it looked) to be like this fall for something absurd scam? And while it can be as slick a spectacle 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 kind of anti-establishment skepticism that draws a person like Melngailis to wellness culture can also leave them vulnerable to fake gurus and dangerously insane ideas.

NetflixAnthony Strangis with the dog Leon in Bad Vegan

There’s nothing normal about the way Melngailis became involved with Strangis, who dubbed himself Shane Fox when she noticed he popped up frequently in Twitter conversations with her pal Alec Baldwin. They maintained a relationship, slowly at first, via puns with friends, and eventually met in person towards the end of 2011. He looked a bit rough when describing himself, but Melngailis says she didn’t want to be superficial. So Strangis wormed his way into her work; He gave orders to employees and made unauthorized decisions about their business, which included juice bars and packaged snacks under the One Lucky Duck brand name. Employees, who affectionately called Melngailis “the Sarmama,” were taken aback.

As Strangis siphoned money from wherever he could, whether it was from Pure’s box office, the Melngailis’ personal funds, already in debt, or their troubled mother, the relationship grew increasingly bizarre. Though her lack of physical attraction to him has always been a problem, and acquaintances on the show mention that they rarely acted like a couple in a romantic sense, his eventual weight gain thwarted any chemistry they might have had. Apparently he was defending the almighty image he’d created for himself by telling Melngailis his new “meat suit” was another test of her devotion. She says he would blindfold her, instruct her to perform sexual acts on him, and then apologize and act like he had no choice in the matter.

There must be a lot going on psychologically here, despite Smith’s constant emphasis on the “what” and “how” of his offbeat 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, some interviewees floated the theory that she originally thought she was the one cheating on Strangis — or at least using him for his supposedly limitless wealth, hoping to escape the financial precariousness endemic to the restaurant industry . A frequent contributor to the documentary, Allen Salkin, who first covered many of his biggest revelations in a 2016 Vanity Fair article, likens Melngailis to Patty Hearst and raises the specter of Stockholm Syndrome.

Insofar as brainwashing was involved, their history is also similar to that of cults like NXIVM, whose leader Keith Raniere – now serving a 120-year sentence after being charged with sex trafficking, among other things – has branded, controlled and coerced women into sexual relations . There are also echoes of the horror romances that fuel the true crime genre, in which one (usually male) partner essentially creates a cult of a couple by coaxing the other (usually female) partner to accept their warped vision of reality accept. Such claims of “enforced control” were central to Elizabeth Holmes’ defense, as were those of Melingalis.

NetflixSarma Melngailis’ mugshot in Bad Vegan

But none of that necessarily explains why she was susceptible to Strangis in the first place. Based on Smith’s interviews with Melngailis, her family, and others close to her, it was more likely that it came from the same hostility to conventional wisdom that made her a culinary pioneer. Salkin points out that in the circles patronizing raw vegan restaurants, it’s common to encounter “people who believe in New Age mysticism, palmistry and crystals,” Melngailis says, “comes from this fermentation of things.” who 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 followers have sound environmental, health, and animal rights reasons for choosing a plant-based diet. I don’t know if I would even blame extreme wellness culture the most, ridiculous as that world may be. Finally, a 2018 Pew poll found that most Americans of a variety of religious affiliations believe in psychics, astrology, reincarnation, or more than one of the above.

If you believe in this stuff, why would you draw the line with a bespoke belief that involves shapeshifting and your husband’s love of Chris Hemsworth as Thor? (Really!) Especially when, like Melngailis, you identify as a non-conformist willing to question everything. “I’m more attracted to more eccentric people,” she says when Smith shows photos of her in high school, with punky pink and green hair, when she was friends with “outsiders.” Open atheism may be the stereotypical path for this type of person, but in this paradoxical case, Melngailis’ skepticism may actually have made them one more gullible target for indoctrination.

Even though Bad vegan only beginning to say so, if her version of events is to be believed, Melngailis’ ordeal speaks to the whole constellation of bizarre, factless ideologies currently flooding the public square. Anti Vax. QAnon. pizza gate. voter fraud. A classic: the Illuminati. For a restaurateur struggling with debt, or a true believer whose candidate has lost, it may be easier to accept a set of hopeful alternative facts than accepting the frustrating truth — especially if you have faith in the so-called “reality-based community.” ” have lost. “ or never had any. If you think all the information is misinformation, then it makes sense to inhabit the grand story that ends with you becoming a billionaire queen who will live forever surrounded by a king who has shed his flesh suit. Beauty and the Beast Style and the pup you both love. “It’s a story About what is real,” Salkin proclaims right at the beginning Bad vegan. It’s also a story about how unpopular reality has become. Bad Vegan is a savage true crime story for an era of misinformation

Justin Scacco

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