“Bad Vegan'”s Sarma Melngailis Reveals Autism Diagnosis at 51: 'Helps Me Understand That Missing Piece' (Exclusive)

The restaurateur spoke with PEOPLE about being diagnosed with autism later in life and opened up about her mental health struggles

<p>Chris Dempsey</p> Sarma Melngailis

Chris Dempsey

Sarma Melngailis

Sarma Melngailis says she's always felt different from other people.

Even before the Netflix docuseries Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives — which followed her rise and downfall from celebrated restaurateur to fugitive on the run with ex-husband Anthony Strangis after swiping nearly $2 million from investors and employees — she saw herself as an outsider.

The sights, sounds, smells and textures of everyday life overwhelmed her. She was uncomfortable in social situations and avoided emotional closeness. Her expressions didn't match her thoughts or feelings. She suffered bouts of sadness and depression.

At the height of her fame, Melngailis owned and operated New York's Pure Food and Wine, which won acclaim as "the top raw vegan restaurant in the world." But after pleading guilty to tax fraud, grand larceny and conspiracy to defraud in 2017, she served 4 months in jail. The documentary told her story — including her claims of being manipulated and coerced by Strangis. (Strangis has long denied these claims.) She says she suffered severe backlash when it aired.

"I had people yelling at me, calling me a criminal, telling me I should be rotting in jail, that I should be ashamed of myself, and that I'm a horrible, disgusting and stupid person," Melngailis says.

<p>Chris Dempsey</p> Sarma Melngailis

Chris Dempsey

Sarma Melngailis

Related: 'Bad Vegan' Trailer Explores the Bizarre Downfall of the 'Vegan Queen' Sarma Melngailis — Watch

Many viewers blamed Melngailis for her actions, or believed she was in on the financial scheme. After all, the Wharton-educated chef was known for her intellect — few people believed she could be so gullible. But there was another strange theme that kept popping up in the barrage of differing opinions: "Everyone wanted to know if I was autistic," she recalls.

With enough people wondering, especially those claiming to be on the spectrum themselves, she couldn't ignore it anymore. She went to a neuropsychologist for extensive testing.

In November 2023, at the age of 51, she was diagnosed with Autism Level 1 (formerly known as Asperger's syndrome), depression and sensory processing disorder by Dr. Zonya Mitchell, who has spent 20 years working with individuals on the spectrum. She says it's possible that Melngailis' undiagnosed condition had something to do with her behavior toward Strangis.

"At the core of an autism diagnosis is not always getting social cues, or misreading social cues and not always having the understanding of the intent of the other person," she says, adding that even before Strangis was in the picture, Melngailis seemed to have difficulty developing and maintaining social relationships. Dr. Mitchell adds that autism, manipulation and vulnerability often go hand in hand. "It is common," she says. "It's something I see a lot."

It certainly made sense to Melngailis. "I was never insulted when people asked about being diagnosed with autism — they saw something of themselves in me," says Melngailis. "When I got my report, I sort of laughed out loud. I think it explains not just what happened with [Strangis] but my whole life. It helps me understand that missing piece of how I did not see what was happening to me."

Melngailis claims that throughout their contentious relationship, she was controlled, manipulated and mentally and physically tortured by Strangis, whom she secretly married in December 2012. She says that before they divorced in 2018, he convinced her that he was an ex-Navy Seal and special black ops assassin who had access to a great fortune and could pay off her debts if she trusted him and passed his "cosmic tests." She eventually believed he could immortalize her beloved pit bull Leon — but it all came at the price of wiring him over $1.6 million, which she did from January 2014 to 2015. According to the District Attorney's office, Strangis gambled $1.2 million of it at two casinos in Connecticut.

Over time, Melngailis says she felt helpless, even fearful, as her ex would often revert to cult-like tactics, including sleep deprivation, disorientation and sexual humiliation. Eventually, this led to Melngailis being "repeatedly raped," according to a 2016 court document. "It morphed into this diabolical situation to the point where I was afraid of him," Melngailis recalls. "He would get me to drink alcohol or pressure me. But it got worse. Then he started forcing me to have sex with him."

Strangis eventually pled guilty to four counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree and spent one year in prison and was sentenced to five years on probation. Attorney Sam Karliner has previously denied the allegations against Strangis to Vanity Fair and said his client could not be reached for comment.

<p>Sarma Melngailis/Instagram</p> Sarma Melngailis with her beloved dog Leon

Sarma Melngailis/Instagram

Sarma Melngailis with her beloved dog Leon

Related: The True Story Behind Netflix's New Docuseries 'Bad Vegan'

Since the fallout, Melngailis has wondered if the tidal wave of trauma and shame she's endured could have potentially been avoided had she known about her diagnosis. She notes that friends and employees didn't seem to like Strangis, but she dismissed their concerns.

"How did I not see what others would've seen?" she asks. "How did this happen again and again in various contexts, either a personal relationship or a business context? And in some cases, what others saw, and were telling me they saw, and I didn't see it. It's almost like I can't read intentions, or I can't wrap my brain around people being sh---. It just doesn't make sense to me."

Dr. Mitchell says it lines up with what she sees in other patients.

"The pattern that I've seen from what Sarma's reported, in terms of being taken advantage of and not necessarily learning from the experience, and then going into another, is what stood out to me because of her superior intelligence," she says, explaining that a person with a high IQ is unlikely to be manipulated unless other factors are at play.

"To be manipulated over and over — in terms of social and emotional skills and abilities — Sarma is just looking at things very differently. Almost like a blindness to the social." That, she says, is common in people on the spectrum.

<p>Sarma Melngailis/Instagram</p> Sarma Melngailis at age 13

Sarma Melngailis/Instagram

Sarma Melngailis at age 13

Melngailis tells PEOPLE she was not entirely surprised by the diagnosis. As a teenager, she was shy and didn't want to participate in social activities or sports like other kids. She says she would "freak out" if anyone was watching her. She didn't have many friends and often drew detailed art that required repetitive motions or tearing tissue paper into strips and humming simultaneously. She rarely showed emotion when others were angry or upset and preferred being alone and controlling her routine.

"For whatever reason, with this diagnosis, I fall into the gullible category too," she says. "It certainly makes sense in the context of my life."

Dr. Mitchell agrees. "When you're in the throes of being manipulated and directed about, you're not in control of anything, and you're depending on someone else who's saying, 'this is going to happen and that's going to happen, and you're going to do it,'" Dr. Mitchell says.

"A lot of people on the spectrum tell me that it's easier when someone else is directing because it's harder for them to navigate the social things in life, and some of the emotional. And someone's telling you what to do and ordering things around. It's easy to fall into it."

<p>Sarma Melngailis/Instagram</p> Sarma Melngailis as a child

Sarma Melngailis/Instagram

Sarma Melngailis as a child

Melngailis says part of her coping journey is opening up about her struggles. "If there are other people with these diagnoses, even if they haven't been formally diagnosed, if they feel like they might be like this, I think it's useful for them," she says. "The thing about having this diagnosis is the understanding that suddenly I'm not putting energy into feeling like something is wrong with me. Now I can just move forward."

She believes the correlation between her diagnosis and being more vulnerable to manipulation is significant for people to understand what happened to her. "There's something about my wiring that I don't see when people take advantage of me," she contends. "I think because I can't understand it, I just never think that it might be happening."

As for the late diagnosis, says Mitchell, masking likely contributed. "The fact that Sarma is so intelligent has gotten her further. It has allowed her to mask certain traits and appear more neurotypical," says Dr. Mitchell.

Melngailis also revealed that she has struggled with depression since childhood, which she says was later exacerbated by her time with Strangis. "There were certainly times when I was with Anthony that I would've wanted that option [of suicide] if it were easy to do. I guess I'm grateful it's not. But it was more suicidal ideation. It's something you think about when you are feeling bad," she says.

"I thought about going off the grid, just disappearing for the rest of time. Killing yourself is gruesome, but I was in this completely compromised mental state. I thought about working at a truck stop, living in a trailer and vanishing until I die. I thought that was the way to get out of it," she continues.

"Depression has been a lifelong thing that comes and goes for me, and I think, at least in recent years, it's mostly situational, so it tends to be reactive. I'm functional because I have to be — I have no choice. I've always just powered through it."

<p>Sarma Melngailis/Instagram</p> Sarma Melngailis and dog Leon

Sarma Melngailis/Instagram

Sarma Melngailis and dog Leon

Also discussed in her 17-page medical evaluation are her strange fixations, such as her attachment to her dog or her obsession with her weight. At one point, she lost 30 lbs. due to overexercising and diet. "I had an eating disorder when I was younger and had bulimia at the end of high school and into college, but now I'm all about eating clean and healthy and nourishing my body and taking care of it," she continues. "When I shift my mind to understanding and focusing on the nutritional content of food, it becomes very different and helps me to address some kind of disordered eating." 

Melngailis admits she's not vegan and never was — she says other people labeled her that way. "I never claimed that I was a strict vegan. That wasn't my intention. I definitely don't refer to myself as that now. I also don't even identify as a chef; I was always more a curator," she explains. 

To stay as mentally and physically healthy as possible, her current goals are to eat clean, exercise, meditate, and use tapping techniques, a combination of acupressure and affirmations, which allow her to address issues like stress or pain by tapping her body and bringing them to the forefront of her mind, then releasing them.

<p>Chris Dempsey</p> Sarma Melngailis

Chris Dempsey

Sarma Melngailis

Related: 'Bad Vegan' 's Sarma Melngailis Has 'a Little Bit of a Regret' That She Didn't Date Alec Baldwin

As she continues to heal, Melngailis is attempting to relaunch her restaurant while editing her soon-to-be self-published memoir The Girl With the Duck Tattoo and filming a new documentary about her life. Melngailis feels like she's suffered enough pain — reiterating her claim that she wasn't in on the scheme with Strangis and didn't intend to do anything wrong.

"When people say I was in on it, I mean, in on what? Having someone terrorize and destroy my life? All these people lost money, but I lost so much more," says Melngailis, who says she used the earnings from Netflix's documentary to pay back her wronged employees, whom she owed more than $40,000 in unpaid wages.

"For the people who reached out to me, those who have been in prison, or who feel completely broken, shamed and alone, feel like they'll never recover and still feel like nobody understands, I hope it makes them feel better and helps family members understand mind-bending manipulation and pain," she says. "I just hope it all helps."

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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