If there’s anything to be said about society as a whole, it’s that all of the water in the world’s oceans wouldn’t be enough to quench our collective thirst for hot goss—it’s simply insatiable. Case in point: The Kardashians. Should they have graced television screens for 20 seasons? No. Did I watch every episode with an eager ear, an unwavering gaze, and an eclectic assortment of yummy snacks? You betcha.
If you need another example, one needs look no further than the colossal mess that was Tiger King. Netflix’s 2020 true-crime series had it all: big cats, deranged zoo operators, a beyond wild plot, and Carole Baskin. It was pure headache in TV form—and I happily devoured every. single. episode.
Netflix is undoubtedly a machine for churning out the latest gossip-heavy conversation starter. And with an incendiary title like Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, you know the streaming platform’s newest true-crime docuseries—out March 16—is sure not to disappoint. (That, and it was directed by filmmaker Chris Smith—the mastermind behind Tiger King, as well as 2019’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened—so you know it’s going to be juicy even before watching the trailer.)
The title is click-baity enough to entice vegan and non-vegan viewers alike. Granted, this style of filmmaking is all about shock and awe—of preying on viewers’ ravenous appetites for all things drama and scandal. But Bad Vegan sets the tone for one of the most common misconceptions about veganism: That people who abstain from consuming animal products are perfect. And it perpetuates the notion that vegans are smug and overly virtuous in their beliefs.
Sarma Melngailis: Vegan restaurateur turned fugitive
The four-part series follows the incredibly bizarre tale of Sarma Melngailis—the disgraced queen of vegan cuisine turned fugitive on the run. It features interviews with her former coworkers and investors, friends and family, and Melngailis, herself.
The blond bombshell seemed to have it all. Her cookbook was a best-seller. She owned popular establishments—a chain of juice bars called One Lucky Duck and Pure Food and Wine. The latter, an upscale, raw plant-based restaurant in New York City, was frequented by the likes of wellness elites and top A-listers, including Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. (Actor Alec Baldwin even met his wife, Hilaria, there.) Melngailis opened the restaurant in 2004 with her then boyfriend—famed plant-based chef Matthew Kenney—and fellow restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow.
She and Kenney broke up. And then, her life takes a turn for the worse. She meets a man named Shane Fox on Twitter. Only that’s not his real name; his real name is Anthony Strangis. He promises Melngailis dreams of happily ever after: A life of immortality for herself and her beloved dog, Leon. (Yes, you read that right.) The two marry, but Melngailis says the marriage was not a happy one. She alleges Strangis manipulated her, making her drain nearly $2 million from her restaurant—defrauding her employees and investors to fund his gambling addiction and extravagant lifestyle.
In May 2015, the pair went on the run for about a year. “My family was getting increasingly concerned. He knew that I had to be in contact with them in some way. So he occasionally would have me speak to somebody—my father, my mother—almost like a hostage would put me on the phone. Like ‘I’m alive; I’m okay,’” Melngailis explains. “It was like some sort of colossal, somewhat self-imposed, state of denial.”
They ended up in a small town in Tennessee. “Not only was all of her money gone, but kind of her perspective on life, her reality, nothing made sense, so why not be there. But ultimately where they were was the end of the road,” Allen Salkin, a Vanity Fair journalist who covered the scandal back in 2016, says in the film.
Investors ultimately contact authorities, charges are filed, and warrants are issued for their arrest. They were tracked down to their hotel in Tennessee, all thanks to a Domino’s order of pizza and chicken wings.
Melngailis later pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges in 2017, negotiating a deal to spend four months in Rikers Island, a New York City jail, followed by five months on probation.
What Bad Vegan gets wrong about vegans
The story was sensational. A vegan ordering non-vegan food?! The media ate that one up. (And for the record: The meal was, apparently, for her husband.) “NYC’s hottest vegan felled by pizza order,” one headline read. “‘She’s the vegan Bernie Madoff’: stole $2 million from investors and was busted for ordering pizza,” read another. And my favorite: “Crazy, hypocritical vegans are driving me insane.”
As we know, headlines don’t tell the whole story—but they sure do make for good soundbites. Unfortunately, the spammy, attention-grabbing titles are often misleading, as is the case with the docuseries. Bad Vegan’s provocative title and the media’s incessant headlines merrily add fuel to the fire of preconceived notions—such as those about veganism—instead of accomplishing what they’re intended to do: accurately summarize the story.
Who cares if Melngailis ordered a pizza from Domino’s? Who cares if she ate it? (Although, according to Kevin Bush, an officer for the Sevier County Police Department who was involved in her arrest, she did not.) What’s important about this story is that, somehow, millions of dollars went missing. As Pure Food and Wine’s former beverage director Joey Repice probes in the documentary, “What happened to the money?”
“There is this sense of hypocrisy that really adds to the story,” explained Salkin about the media’s fixation. “Somehow vegans present themselves to us as being better than the rest of us. They don’t eat meat. They don’t kill animals. They don’t hurt the environment as much as the rest of us. So the fact that she would become involved in a criminal scheme like this sort of belies who she’s presenting to the world.”
But that’s a common misconception about veganism: That vegans are self-righteous and overtly virtue signaling in their abstention of consuming animals. Ok, some certainly are, but there are extremes in every belief system, and they often do not represent the majority. Need one example? How about politics. Need another? Try religion.
And that’s what the greater media gets wrong about being vegan: It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about avoiding things that promote animal exploitation as much as possible. Why purchase makeup tested on animals if there are cruelty-free alternatives? Why support animal cruelty by going to a zoo when there are sanctuaries that actually foster animal conservation? Why drink a glass of cow’s milk when there are countless plant-based options? Being vegan is about doing one’s best to not support brutal industries that exploit, torture, and kill innocent animals. Was Melngailis a bad vegan? Well, that’s debatable. But I think the better question is: Who’s asking?
Bad Vegan is now available to stream on Netflix.