‘Everything is shades of gray’: inside the bizarre world of the Netflix hit Bad Vegan | Documentary

Efriend of Netflix true crime standards, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Refugees appear bizarre and disturbing. The four-part series from Guys: The Greatest Party That Never Happened director Chris Smith, released last week, describes the confusing doom of vegan chef Sarma Melngailis and her restaurant Pure Food and Wine, a busy Manhattan hotspot that was once at the forefront of the “raw food” movement and a celebrity magnet. Blonde and sylph, Melngailis was the enviable face of a slender, clean lifestyle; her two cookbooks from 2005 and 2009, which announced raw food recipes to “get the glow”, featured a picture of her on the cover, where she looked chaotic and content, the embodiment of the energy, clarity and health that was the vegan way.

But in 2011, Melngailis met a man online who, as the series outlines, threw a svengali-like spell at her and manipulated her into stealing money from investors and stiff employees. In 2015, Melngailis disappeared from New York with her then-husband, Anthony Strangis, an incarnated gambler and respondent to Alec Baldwin’s tweets that had convinced Melngailis that if she passed a series of exhausting emotional tests, including sexual degradation and giving him money, she would he be able to make her and her beloved pitbull, Leon, immortal. According to the series, Melngailis’ debt amounted to about $ 6 million, including $ 400,000 that Strangis had paid from her mother. The couple was arrested in May 2016 at a motel outside Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Melngailis pleads guilty to aggravated theft, criminal tax fraud and a plan of fraud, and Strangis in four cases of 4th degree aggravated theft. Melngailis served a total of four months on Rikers Island, Strangis one year.

The bare facts of the case really do not do the strange thing of that justice, but it did provide instant tabloid fodder. An Ivy-educated, attractive vegan poster woman accused of stealing from employees, found on the run via a Domino’s Pizza order? The gossip press, which called her “the vegan Bernie Madoff”, ate it up. Bad Vegan, to whom Melngailis provided an in-depth interview and access to her large archive of journals, text messages, emails and other communications with Strangis, is trying to correct the sometimes inaccurate record and paint a more complete picture of Melngailis’ delusion and Strangis’ coercive effort. control.

“I certainly do not think so [Melngailis] would have been in this situation where she was convicted of fraud on her own, ”Smith, also an executive producer on Tiger King, another Netflix true crime smash, told the Guardian about the project. “If Anthony Strangis had not entered her life, I certainly could not have seen her go down this road.

Within four hours, Bad Vegan dives into Strangis’ distorted and, in recorded phone conversations, threatening manipulation of Melngailis, to increasingly confusing and unreadable conclusions. (Strangis refused to participate in the series.) In time, Strangis, who first met Melngailis under the Twitter pseudonym Shane Fox, convinced her that he was a special ops officer who was constantly under surveillance; that she should give him access to her digital accounts for her own safety; that the money she gave him from her profitable business – eventually millions of dollars – would eventually be returned; that a misty, semi-divine group called the “Family” would give her special powers and protection if she simply proved worthy. The last point is important considering that, as Melngailis explains in her interview, filmed during eight hours in 2019, she was under a large amount of personal debt at the time she met Strangis and worried about maintaining her restaurant .

Although the series features interviews with several former employees and friends of Melngailis – “and” is common, as many former Pure Food and Wine employees tell of an admired chef known in her kitchen as “Sarmama” – the bulk of the series is built up around Melngailis’ interview, which becomes more enigmatic and slanted the deeper she goes into the alternative reality. Melngailis often speaks passionately, as in trance; she passes on what can be deduced are traumatic experiences in passive time, ie. “no matter what physical relationship we had, it was not one I wanted.” There’s a lot about her months on the run with Strangis that she either can not discuss or can not remember. According to her only post-Bad Vegan interview – with Vanity Fair’s Allen Salkin reporting on the saga in 2016 and offering comments in the series – Melngailis’ experience of dissociation and memory loss feels like a survivor of a cult.

One’s unfolding of emotions should, of course, not be the barometer of credibility. But exactly how Strangis brainwashed Melngailis, if he did, is still unclear and the internet is unforgivable. On Twitter, the general response to Bad Vegan has been a lack of sympathy for Melngailis, sometimes apologetic and often outright victim blame. On the heels of the Tinder scam, another massive Netflix true crime, hit by a scammer who demanded women for hundreds of thousands of dollars, there is a general disbelief and mockery of women – in these cases white women – who have given their money to a male. “It’s been hard to see people react the way they have,” said Ryann Fraser, an executive producer at Bad Vegan. “And I feel like more empathy would be a good thing.”

Bad Vegan: Fame.  Fraud.  Refugees.  Sarma Melngailis and Bad Vegan: Fame.  Fraud.  Refugees.  Cr.  Netflix © 2022
Photo: Netflix

Melngailis, both in the series and now outside of it, seems wary of criticism. In a blog post the day after the premiere, she wrote that there is “a lot” that Bad Vegan “gets right”, but “it’s hard not to get stuck in the things that is it not right or leave an inaccurate impression. “She called the portrayal of her marriage to Strangis in 2012” inaccurately condensed “- the series opens up the possibility that she married him for his (perceived) money, but Melngailis wrote that she” did not want to marry him. “She further expanded in Vanity Fair:” The impression in the doctor is that I deliberately married Anthony so he could transfer money to me. That is completely not the case. At one point, Anthony did something mentally insane and made me marry him. “

Asked about her comments, Smith stood by the series. “I think it is very clear in the series that there was a real connection between the two, in their communication online, in that she really fell in love with him. As for their actual marriage, what she was telling us was that she asked the accountant how he could transfer this money to her and he said ‘why are you not getting married,’ and she said 24 hours later we went and got the certificate. That was what we had to assume based on the interview. ”

Melngailis also took issue with the series’ final scene, which plays an excerpt from a phone call with Strangis sounding friendly in tone; she called the ending “disturbingly misleading” as she “was not in touch with Anthony Strangis.” Smith said he was “confused” about this characteristic because the phone call took place in August 2019, shortly before her master interview with the filmmakers. “I’m unclear as to why that phone call is ‘disturbingly misleading,'” he said.

Was the production fair? “Look, everything is shades of gray,” he said. “We tried to represent it as accurately as we could, based on the information we had through the documentation presented to us and through the interview.”

From Bad Vegan to Tinder Swindler and Smith’s own Guys documentary, to screenwriting series about scammers like Elizabeth Holmes (Hulu’s The Dropout) and Anna Delvey (Netflix’s Inventing Anna, another global hit), it seems the level of scam content has reached high tide – for now. “There’s something about seeing how these things are committed, and watching it unfold is fascinating,” Smith said of our evergreen fascination with stories of grief and deception. “Part of it is trying to assess how you would react in a similar situation,” he added. “You hope people learn from these stories and can avoid similar situations for themselves.”

There is at least one thing that everyone seems to agree on – that somewhere in this confusing, messy, bizarre story there is a lesson to be learned: about coercion or dissociation, or the gaping gap between public image and private unrest, or the risk of Twitter response guys. “I would be happy if my situation becomes a case study in every possible way,” Melngailis told Vanity Fair. “I want these things to be useful, not just food for people’s creepy entertainment.”

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