Less than three months into 2022, it’s apparent that Netflix has shifted its true-crime focus from tales about serial killers and the wrongly convicted to deceptive and dastardly con men. Following in the footsteps of the platform’s recent The Tinder Swindler, The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman and Worst Roommate Ever, director Chris Smith’s Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. tells the wacko story of Sarma Melngailis, a superstar vegan raw-food chef who married a shady hustler, bought his insane lies, and ultimately went on the run to escape the numerous investors and employees that she’d betrayed. Melngailis’ misdeeds resulted in a collateral-damage tally of $6.1 million, and much to the delight of the internet and tabloids (who dubbed her “The Vegan Bernie Madoff”), she was eventually busted after ordering a Domino’s pizza.
Smith’s non-fiction investigation, however, uncovers something far grosser—and crazier—than that headline-ready irony: a saga of brainwashing, coercion and demented fantasies about aliens, demons and immortality for Melngailis’ beloved pit bull Leon.
Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. (March 16) begins with Melngailis speaking to her husband Anthony Strangis on the phone, during which she intimates that a TV series about their lives might be in the works via unknown producers (a mischaracterization, since she’s deliberately participating in that very effort). In response, he fumes, “Some fucking Netflix documentary now, Jesus fucking Christ.” Strangis will definitely not enjoy the finished product, as Smith’s compelling endeavor will forever plaster the internet with reports about his villainy. Thus, it automatically has a real-world role to play, and that’s echoed by Vanity Fair reporter Allen Salkin—whose 2016 feature “The Runaway Vegan” is the basis for the show—who states that Strangis should be emblazoned with a warning label: “Don’t give him any money.”
Had Melngailis spoken with—or even known about—Strangis’ first wife Stacy, she might have been more reticent to do just that. Alas, as she lays out in the prolonged new interview that forms the backbone of this venture, Melngailis was clueless about Strangis when she first began communicating with him online. Their chats were sparked by the fact that Strangis regularly posted Twitter replies to Alec Baldwin, who was a fan of both Melngailis and her NYC hot spot Pure Food and Wine (and its retail store, One Lucky Duck), which Melngailis had first opened with—and then taken over from—partner and boyfriend Matthew Kenney. Still nursing a broken heart, Melngailis found in Strangis a funny, smart and seemingly successful new beau, not to mention a manly man who seemed capable of, and interested in, protecting and nurturing her. That he also claimed to be a vague sort of special-ops badass who was always jetting around the world on secret missions struck Melngailis as not a red flag, but as something intriguing—if not outright exciting.
Like The Puppet Master’s Robert Hendy-Freegard, Strangis’ 007 persona was bullshit, but for a time, he sold it well to Melngailis, flaunting cash, fancy watches, and big-spender bona fides. If that alone had convinced Melngailis to embark upon her subsequent route, she might have come off as simply an innocent victim of a wily charlatan. Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives., though, soon reveals that Strangis didn’t just peddle an international-man-of-mystery identity; he additionally said he was an inhuman being who had been made supernatural (replete with limitless money and power, and everlasting life) by some kind of alien-god elder council known as “The Family,” and that he could transform Melngailis into a similar creature, as well as make sure that her pooch lived forever. To bring about this rebirth, Melngailis had to prove her faith and resolve by following his every command—which primarily meant wiring him tens of thousands of dollars at a time, most of which he said he was storing away (because these demands were simply a test).
On the basis of Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives., there’s no doubt that Strangis was a perverse and controlling liar, and that Melngailis succumbed to his mind games. Also clear, however, is that in order to fall for this particularly bonkers ruse, Melngailis had to be a serious sucker. Salkin details both Melngailis’ lifelong belief in her own holier-than-thou specialness, and the way in which that attitude—along with New Age-y mysticism—was encouraged in her chosen vegan community. Moreover, director Smith employs cleverly arranged archival material, legal evidence and first-hand accounts from Melngailis and others, including original investor and friend Jeffrey Chodorow, to paint an unflattering picture of Melngailis’ own active involvement in Strangis’ financial fraud. In short, she used aliases, and promoted Strangis’ untruths, to deceive investors as well as loyal colleagues who, in in-depth interviews, express a mixture of sadness, shock and disgust at what became of their once-respected benefactor and leader.
Melngailis is as candid as her ego will allow in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives., but unsurprisingly, she has a vested interest in making herself look as good as possible—which is to say, she admits to most things, but then tellingly avoids addressing any facts that don’t completely jibe with her woe-is-me routine. By its conclusion, Melngailis’ father and sister, as well as Strangis’ shifty acquaintance Nazim Seliakhov, are all stating that Melngailis never truly loved Strangis; instead, she reportedly married him because she thought that he might be the financial savior she and her struggling restaurant needed at that moment. What emerges, then, is a concept of Melngailis as a woman who wasn’t just painfully gullible, and therefore susceptible to Strangis’ cult guru-like charms, but a self-interested huckster and dreamer who was constantly angling to keep herself afloat by any means necessary.
Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. can’t definitively reconcile the contradictions at the heart of Melngailis’ sordid downfall. Yet in a final audio recording of a phone call, it does suggest the powerful spell that certain people hold over others, even when reasonable evidence to the contrary is smacking them right in the face. One thing is for certain: Melngailis’ tattered reputation won’t be rehabilitated by this stinging portrait.