I went into Netflix’s docuseries, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives expecting to hate its subject, Sarma Melngailis, right off the bat with her cutesy-poo pigtails, Barbie-doll good looks, and her enviable life in the New York City food scene. In the beginning, the series manages to paint a sympathetic picture of a big-hearted young woman who wanted to feed and take care of the world and ended up falling victim to a scam artist. But, as more facts are presented through interviews with Sarma, her former staff, family, and restaurant investors, pity begins to wear thin. There were a lot of lies that she knew she was telling to people who showed nothing but loyalty to her throughout the entire ordeal. In the end, all she can think about is how she’s stuck in a place where she wants to start a new restaurant but doesn’t have anyone she can ask for help. That doesn’t scream remorse to me. None of the employees interviewed have anything to say about her apologizing either. And, in 2019 she was still communicating with con artist Anthony Strangis via phone. She didn’t learn much from all of this.
Sarma’s first restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, was A Big Deal when it opened in New York’s hoity-toity Gramercy Park neighborhood in 2004. Veganism and the Raw Food lifestyle had been slowly gaining traction over the years, and the restaurant became a hangout for some of NY’s most famous health-conscious citizens. Folks like Anne Hathaway, Rooney Mara, and Owen Wilson were regulars. Let’s not forget Alec Baldwin, who met his wife, Hilaria, there and also played a surprising role in all of the drama detailed in the series. Let’s just say Sarma has egregiously bad taste in men.
Running a restaurant is hard. Most of them fail. Melngailis found herself in a monetary hole she couldn’t easily get out of. Enter “Shane Fox,” the mysterious internet acquaintance of Alec Baldwin who offered Sarma friendship and protection at a time when she was feeling most vulnerable. Only his name wasn’t Shane Fox, it was Anthony Strangis. And instead of calling his bluff when she found out he was lying about his name, Melngailis let him keep rolling. The name was all part of a larger lie that suggested Strangis was a former member of “Black Ops” who had all sorts of cover aliases and tight security around his online identity. I get it. Secretive military records are hard to verify. How do you disprove it if someone feeds you a tall tale about military service? I don’t know. But I do know that Melngailis ignored every single red flag that was raised about Shane/Anthony. No one on her staff liked or trusted him, her investors didn’t like or trust him, the fake name, the requests for large sums of cash without explanation, disappearing for long stretches at a time. Smarter women have probably fallen for less elaborate schemes. But then Strangis’ story took a nose dive into Completely Incredible And Probably Crazy when he started talking about the magical powers he and his associates had that could make Sarma and her beloved dog immortal. That’s where I would have completely noped out of this entire situation … if I hadn’t already. I would have because, listen, I don’t have any money to give anyone let alone some dude I met online who won’t tell me where he’s spending it.
*A note on the dog. Yes, there is a dog. His name is Leon and he’s magnificent. And he comes out OK at the end of the whole affair.
I’m not going to dive too deeply into the bizarre details. It’s only four episodes and Netflix did a nice job of keeping the narrative tight and engaging. The amount of bullsh*t Sarma Melngailis fell for is astounding. Or, her ability to hide her own level of involvement in this long con is astounding. I haven’t made up my mind which way to go on that. It sounds like a lot of her former associates are in the same boat. I don’t really believe a woman who graduated from Wharton and led a restaurant to the level of success that Pure achieved is stupid enough to not only have fallen for Anthony Strangis’ shtick but then also found herself trapped in the situation. We’re talking about millions of dollars that were defrauded by this pair from both personal acquaintances and the government.
The team behind the documentary goes a long way in allowing Sarma to infantilize herself in the telling of this saga. But even her long-time employees don’t believe her to be blameless. While I understand how easy it is for predators, like Strangis, to find and take advantage of people who are at low points in their lives, Melngailis doesn’t sound like a helpless, taken-advantage-of woman in her recorded phone calls with Strangis, where she curses him out and questions every weird thing he asks her to do. All of the lies she told her employees about late and non-existent paychecks also belies the fact that she didn’t know what was going on, or didn’t know how to put a stop to it. At any point she could have told any member of her trusted, long-time staff, “Listen, this guy has completely screwed all of us and I need help getting him out of our business” and they absolutely would have helped her! Everyone involved here professes their love and admiration for Sarma over and over again. This is not a woman alone in the world without a support system. She had plenty of folks (including generous parents!) she could have turned to for help; she chose not to. Instead, she gave this guy the keys to her kingdom and basically let him flush it all down the toilet.
After watching all four hours and thinking about how crazy it all was my biggest takeaway was how incredible it is that Melngailis and Strangis owed over $6 million dollars and he served a little over a year and she only served four months in prison. That’s it. That’s all. Meanwhile, last year Mississippi upheld the life sentence of a Black man convicted of marijuana possession. That’s the world we live in. The show closes out its final episode fittingly with Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” And it is. It’s wild that Melngailis went from uber-successful vegan lifestyle goddess to on-the-lam in Pidgeon Forge, TN. It’s wild that Anthony Strangis created this elaborate, multi-layer scheme that sucked her in all by himself. And it’s wild that we let them get away with it.