If you had a bunch of afterthoughts after watching Netflix’s Tinder Swindler, you’re probably going to be hooked on their brand-new docu-series Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.
The four-part series follows Sarma Melngailis, a New York-based chef and the former restaurateur who ran and owned Pure Food and Wine — one of the city’s most prominent high-end vegan restaurants often frequented by celebrities — and another eatery called One Lucky Duck.
In 2015, Melngailis’s employees walked out and protested the non-payment of their salaries and she was arrested with her partner — in romance and in crime — Anthony Strangis.
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Strangis was a previously divorced conman who, with cult leader-esque charisma, manipulated Melngailis into transferring millions of dollars to his account. He claimed he was rich and had powerful influences, and he promised Melngailis a better life — one that included her dog, Leon, somehow becoming immortal.
He introduced himself to her under the false name Shane Fox.
The docu-series shows the ways in which Strangis victimized Melngailis, draining her and her mother’s bank accounts, leading to the chef begging for loans from her high-profile friends to pay her staff’s wages.
Melngailis and Strangis made a run for it and were fugitives for a period of time. She covered up a highly identifiable tattoo on her arm, changed her name, and travelled across the country with Strangis, but claims she had no idea this was fugitive behaviour.
She served four months in jail in 2017, and Strangis was imprisoned for a year. Both went to Rikers Prison in New York.
At the end of the documentary, after Melngailis is done speaking about the abuse she faced at Strangis’s hands that led to his conviction, viewers can hear a phone call between the two where both appear to be all too friendly for the way the case panned out.
People are talking about the leniency afforded to Melgnailis, a good-looking white woman, who didn’t seem to be getting called into question as aggressively as someone else in her position typically would.
If you haven’t watched Bad Vegan yet, prepare yourself for four episodes of this…
Because the story of a raw food restauranteur defrauding investors and staff for a man who promised to make her dog immortal was a new height of peak whiteness for me #badvegannetflix #BadVegan pic.twitter.com/iNKHMuBz1V
— Dr. Kehaulani Watson (@hehawaiiau) March 20, 2022
My main takeaway from shows like #BadVegan, #TinderSwindler, and #InventingAnna is that whiteness allows perceived innocence and access, resources, and entry in ways that would never be true for Black and brown people. Because this is honestly absurd.
— Preston Mitchum, he/him (@PrestonMitchum) March 22, 2022
But after the phone call, many are doubting Melgailis’s victimhood and believe that she was involved in Strangis’s conspiracy to steal millions, as her peers seemed to hand out hefty loans to her with ease and without an explanation.
Sarma saying she wasn’t aware they were fugitives even though she had to cover her tattoo, change her name and not talk to anyone whilst they traveled across America and stayed in hotels is sending me…😭😒🤦🏾♀️ Ma’am if you don’t 😓 #BadVegan #badvegannetflix pic.twitter.com/H089bG4gcK
— Art Becomes You (@artbecomesyou) March 19, 2022
Have any of you watched #BadVegan? What a ridiculous foray into white lady privilege. I have zero compassion for the supposed victim. What an unlikeable cast of characters. 🥴
— Eliann, THEE Angry Flower (@MissAngryFlower) March 28, 2022
Some people also brought up the several wire transfer records shown in the documentary that reveal Melngailis wired thousands of investor dollars to Strangis while stashing away very little of the amount to pay her workers’ missing wages.
Sarma could have paid off her restaurant with that 1.7 million dollars. She was wiring $35k every now and then to Shane but paying installments of 10k for the restaurant once in a blue moon. Make it make sense 😭😭#BadVegan pic.twitter.com/LX4RyMb0eG
— Nairobi💰 (@mambano_) March 21, 2022
On March 16, the day the docu-series officially came out on Netflix, Melngailis wrote a post on her blog talking about the suspicious phone call at the end of Bad Vegan.
“The ending of Bad Vegan is disturbingly misleading,” she wrote. “I am not in touch with Anthony Strangis and I made those recordings at a much earlier time, deliberately, for a specific reason.”
On Sunday, a more detailed post titled “Dear Mr. Fox” was published on her blog.
“The main point is that the call at the end was a staged call, recorded for the documentary, a small slice of which was misused to represent something that’s the opposite of true,” she said. “I provide more detail in what I’ve written, which I will share soon, I hope.”
She also responded to the public’s commentary about how her privilege as a white woman played a role in the case. “This wasn’t a privilege thing,” Melngailis said. “It’s just that I naively thought one needed to have intent to commit crimes.”