- The stars of “Bad Vegan” and “The Tinder Swindler” feel they were misrepresented by Netflix.
- Cecilie Fjellhøy said her Tinder fraudster was a “dangerous man” but wasn’t presented that way.
- Sarma Melngailis of “Bad Vegan” said Netflix “made a mockery” of her abuse.
“‘Bad Vegan: Fame: Fraud: Fugitives” and “The Tinder Swindler” were huge hits for Netflix in 2022. But for the women whose experiences at the hands of manipulative men were revealed to millions in the compelling scammer documentaries, the exposure has been a mixed blessing — a source of regret but also a cause for hope.
Cecilie Fjellhøy was the victim of a high-profile romantic scam by Simon Leviev (whose real name is Shimon Hayut), the so-called Tinder Swindler.
Leviev is a “dangerous man,” whom she fell in love with and lost all her money to after months of financial and emotional abuse, Fjellhøy said.
Once she realized what was happening — that her lover was behind a Ponzi scheme designed to scam women out of tens of thousands of dollars — she went to the police, who just laughed at her, she told Insider.
She turned to the media in her home country of Norway, and her story went viral. Raw Films, an award-winning production company in London, picked it up and turned it into the hit docuseries “The Tinder Swindler,” distributed by Netflix.
‘It’s just another telling of how stupidly in love we were’
Fjellhøy wanted a factual documentary, she told Insider.
“I wanted to know why it is so difficult to catch this guy. To know why the police aren’t doing enough, why it was so simple for him to commit this fraud? Those were the big questions I wanted the film to answer.”
“So when we were told it was not going to be that, I was really disappointed. It’s just another telling of how stupidly in love we were,” she said.
“Even calling it the ‘Tinder Swindler,’ it just was branded from the start,” she said. “It just made it seem not as serious.”
Netflix focused on the ways the women fell for the fraud rather than the cruel crimes committed by Leviev, Fjellhøy said.
“A lot of people don’t even understand that it’s a documentary,” Fjellhøy told Insider. “We have people come up to us as though we’re actresses and asking if we’re real. Sometimes documentaries can be too well-made. People aren’t even looking at you as a real person.
“And this is hard when you’re airing your most personal stories. You have to show how you went from being very much in love, you know, to have to talk about how you almost killed yourself.”
Fjellhøy said she cried the first time she saw it. “I just felt stupid because I was the one picked to be the symbol of love,” she said. “I had to be honest about how many matches I had on Tinder, how long I’d been on there, and how I viewed love. I had to say that I slept with him on the first date. I had to say stuff that I didn’t want to say. So you’re being used.”
In describing the negative feedback she got after the show aired, she said that a man approached her in Los Angeles to tell her she was “so embarrassing,” instead of the victim of a complex crime.
When asked if Netflix portrayed the abuse correctly, Fjellhøy said, “No, that’s why I wanted it to be more investigative and maybe have a psychologist. Someone to explain what the abuse actually was.”
Breaking bad vegan
Another documentary star, Sarma Melngailis of “Bad Vegan,” also criticized Netflix for its portrayal of her.
Melngailis put raw vegan food on the map. Her New York restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, opened in 2004 and helped plant-based eating move away from a minority niche to being favored by the rich and famous.
Celebrities flocked to her restaurant to sample such dishes as mango and Thai basil salad, which a New York Magazine review described as offering “as much exotic sunniness as one bowl can contain.”
Her business venture was a success, and Melngailis was feted. And then she met her abuser.
Netflix documented the rise and public fall of Melngailis in “Bad Vegan,” directed by Chris Smith of “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” fame.
Melngailis’ businesses collapsed in 2015 after her unpaid staff walked out, and she was nowhere to be found.
There was confusion and anger from her employees, friends, and associates — how did this woman crash everything she’d worked so hard to build?
Behind closed doors, she was being sexually, mentally, and financially abused, Melngailis told Insider.
Her partner, Anthony Strangis, was manipulating her into eventually stealing $2 million from her investors and employees.
The pair went missing and were found ordering pizza in a hotel room in Tennessee in 2016. In 2017, Melngailis took a plea deal and pleaded guilty to criminal tax fraud, grand larceny, and premeditated fraud, and served four months at Rikers Island in the summer of 2017.
She spent four months in prison, and Strangis spent nearly a year behind bars.
Melngailis felt Netflix was mocking her
Netflix “made a joke” of the trauma she endured at the hands of Strangis, Melngailis said. “Bad Vegan” included many inaccuracies, she claimed, and did a “great disservice to all the people that have been through something like this.”
The most mind-blowing part of Melngailis’ abuse may be the immortal-dog storyline: Strangis was able to convince the successful restaurant entrepreneur that her beloved Staffy, Leon, could become immortal.
For people who haven’t experienced abusive control, this might sound inconceivable, but the docudrama establishes that it was part of the way Strangis managed to control Melgnalis and convince her that he had superhuman powers that she, too, could access if she just did what he said.
One day, as Melngailis was scrolling through Twitter, she came across a post from a spoof account called Perpetual Pup, run by Netflix.
“You wanted to make your dog immortal. You’re not alone,” read the tweet, which had a video attached called “Not All Dogs Have to Go to Heaven.”
Confused, Melngailis watched the video of dogs chasing Frisbees, while a narrator said you can “say goodbye to saying goodbye.”
“Side effects may include confusion, sudden changes in behavior, and/or loss of money. Excessive wire transfers may occur. If you have a history of questionable romantic relationships, Perpetual may be right for you,” the ad riffed, before cutting to a picture of Melgnailis’ face, revealing itself as an ad for “Bad Vegan.”
“I would genuinely be curious, just as a study of human nature, to ask all those people to explain what they were thinking,” said Melngailis. “Because you know what, would they have made a promo like that for a documentary about Harvey Weinstein?
“I’ve been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused — and they made a mockery of the whole thing. They were basically mocking psychological abuse.”
Melngailis said that even she doesn’t fully understand how Strangis did what he did. “It’s not so much that he had me fully convinced of these things, it’s more that he was able to get my consciousness to grab on to these concepts as possibilities, and the more I imagined them, the more detached from reality I got.”
“What I do know,” she continued, “is that this kind of manipulation — abuse, really — is so much more common than we think, and so for Netflix to have made that campaign was a kick in the face to a lot of people who have endured such abuse. It was reinforcing the idea that he couldn’t be legitimate, that we are the crazy ones.”
Netflix has not responded to Insider’s request for comment.
Previously asked by The Guardian if the show was fair to Melngailis, director Chris Smith said “Look, everything is shades of grey.”
“We tried to represent it as accurately as we could from the information we had through the documentation that was presented to us and through the interview.”
The profits go to Netflix
Romantic scams, and scammer documentaries in general, have proven incredibly lucrative for Netlflix.
“Bad Vegan” and “The Tinder Swindler” were both in the top-10 most-viewed shows the week they aired, according to Netflix data.
But the stars said that having their story platformed doesn’t fix their financial losses. The payment for the rights to their stories didn’t cover their debts, they said.
Melngailis said that it wasn’t worth it for all the backlash and abuse she faced after the documentary aired — which she blames on the show’s framing. “They made my life more difficult and put me through more shit,” she said.
Fjellhøy told Insider that after being a part of a popular and influential Netflix documentary, “everyone is thinking that we’re millionaires now,” she said.
“The people at the bottom that get the least give it all. I don’t see anything of this success. We’re still struggling with debt, and we’re in courts and everything. But it was amazing for Netflix,” Fjellhøy said.
Netflix did not reply to Insider’s requests for comment on Fjellhøy and Melngailis’ complaints.
In response to Melngailis’ criticism of “Bad Vegan,” director Chris Smith told The Guardian: “Look, everything is shades of gray. We tried to represent it as accurately as we could from the information we had through the documentation that was presented to us and through the interview.”
From scam victims to heroines
In terms of impact on the lives of scam victims everywhere, Melngailis, Fjellhøy, and Ayleen Charlotte, another one of Simon Leviev’s victims, told Insider they were grateful for the opportunity to help people.
Despite the hardships that have come from both the scam itself and the aftermath of the documentary, Fjellhøy said it was “worth it” for the love she has also received.
“I’ve gotten so many messages saying I’m inspiring and I’m brave, and they really admire the courage that’s taken, which has made it much more worth it,” she said, adding that people tell her she’d helped them overcome their embarrassment over being the victim of a scam.
Charlotte — the “bad bitch” victim of “The Tinder Swindler,” as she put it — had a positive experience with the documentary, she told Insider.
“I wanted to put his face out there because nothing had been done with my case. Second, I want to help people. And that’s what I did. I mean, I got so many amazing messages from all over the world, and that I gave a lot of people a lot of courage for doing what I did, as well,” Charlotte told Insider.
Melngailis, while remaining critical of Netflix, agreed that “one of the things that I’ve heard over and over again — it is usually women but occasionally men — but people who have been manipulated in some kind of similar way feel less alone.”
“I’ve also heard from loads of people telling me that watching it has inspired them to try going or shifting towards vegan. So that’s nice, at least! A few animals saved, perhaps,” she said, ending our email communication with a winking emoji.