Netflix’s Bad Vegan is the latest documentary to get everyone talking, but aside from the drama, fraud and deception, the series teaches us a lot about the depths of coercive relationships.
The four-part docuseries tells the bizarre true story of runaway fugitive Sarma Melngailis, aka the ‘queen of vegan cuisine’. The documentary goes beneath the surface of the scandal surrounding her restaurant Pure Food And Wine, which was once one of New York’s most popular vegan restaurants.
As well as being a popular restaurateur who amassed a cult-like following – which boasted the likes of Alec Baldwin and Owen Wilson – Melngailis was soon wrapped up in a relationship that would ultimately change her life forever.
Yes, this is a documentary that is all about the juicy drama around a once well-known restaurant and the investment fraud that surrounded it. But more importantly, this show will leave you more informed about the many faces a coercive relationship can have.
While we know what became of the couple – including their separate charges, plea deals and where they are now – the last episode of the documentary in particular lifts the lid on the relationship. Anthony Strangis first came into Melngailis’s life via Twitter and then courted her on Words With Friends, giving online dating a whole new meaning.
Soon, Melngailis uncovered the truth around Strangis, who had first introduced himself to her as Shane Fox. He knew Alec Baldwin, seemed to have lots of money and appeared the all-round charmer. But actually, he had tallied up a small list of prior convictions, left a child and former girlfriend and continued his controlling rampage with Melngailis as his latest victim.
In the fourth and final episode of Bad Vegan, we come to learn of the many ‘tests’ Strangis would put Sarma through. They ranged from mental to sexual coercion and they were all carried out in the belief that Strangis would make Melngailis and her dog, Leon, immortal.
It does sound completely bizarre and unbelievable but once you move past the incredulity, the story highlights the worrying depths of a coercive relationship. These kinds of relationships may not always take the form of physical violence and more generally involve a continued emotional form of violence that is pervasive, intrusive and can leave victims scared, helpless and belittled.
Melngailis refers to them as “humiliating” in the documentary and Strangis’ mental hold on her didn’t stop there – it even extended to her mother. Over the course of their five-year relationship, Strangis had convinced Melngailis’s mother to send him approximately $400,000 – a fact that leaves Melngailis visibly shaken in the documentary and is something Strangis was never charged with.
In the trial, Strangis’s attorney denied any kind of coercive behaviour, gaslighting and also denied any promises that he allegedly made about making sure Leon would “live forever”. It’s a form of abuse that Melngailis doesn’t believe the courts fully understood at the time and with the general tabloid frenzy around the case, it was easy to label her as the “blonde femme fatale” that outsmarted big investors.
Her role as victim versus perpetrator is a clearly contentious point within the documentary with her long-standing friends and former employees divided as to what to think.
The biggest mistake was letting Shane/Anthony into her life, her former manager tells the camera but another ex-employee of Pure Food And Wine simply states: “She’s too smart not to know what was going on, or you know, what she was doing.
“In some little way, she knew what she was doing.”
In the week before she went to Rikers Island prison, she began filming, and in an honest clip, she says: “Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t I call the police? That’s the big question. Nobody talks about issues related to somebody manipulating your mind.
“You know, I believed that these things were, in a sense, reality.”
The stories of shape-shifting and meat suits are incredibly bizarre to listen to but as Melngailis says to one of her fellow Rikers Island inmates: “You do some weird things when you think you love somebody.”
The documentary also underlines the similar case of Patty Hearst: a girl from a privileged background who was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was found and arrested after 19 months, but in that time she’d committed multiple serious crimes and had been caught on camera undertaking a bank robbery in San Francisco.
Her case gained notoriety not least because of her background but also because it brought forward the question of whether she could be held responsible for the crimes committed when she was being coerced by the cult around her.
It’s a similar vein that runs through this latest Netflix documentary, and one journalist in Bad Vegan states: “If Sarma was brainwashed, should she be found guilty of those things that she did or shouldn’t she? I’m still not sure.”
Although the collateral damage of the entire affair totalled over $6 million (£4.6m), Melngailis doesn’t quite know what’s next in store for her but she remains hopeful.
“I can’t ever ask anybody for anything ever again,” she says. “I think I’ve deliberately trained myself to be optimistic because I have to.”
It’s a sentiment that leaves her visibly upset and is one that the documentary ends on – along with a rather chilling phone call shared by Melngailis and Strangis.
While these kinds of true crime series are usually a rollercoaster ride of emotions, Bad Vegan does underline how misunderstood and all-consuming certain relationships can be. It does go to dizzying heights of confusion, but if anything, the tale only highlights how far someone can go to manipulate someone into doing what they want.
Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. is available to stream on Netflix now.