The stars of Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan say Netflix docs downplayed abuse

Insider has an article with interviews with women featured in two popular Netflix documentary series, Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan. Cecilie Fjellhøy was fleeced by notorious con artist Simon Leviev after a whirlwind romance that started on Tinder. Sarma Melngalis lost her New York City restaurant and failed to meet payroll after falling for an manipulative liar named Anthony Strangis. Both women tell Insider that their documentaries, directed by different men, failed to show the extent of the manipulation and abuse they endured and made them into jokes.

‘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.

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.

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…”

Another documentary star, Sarma Melngailis of “Bad Vegan,” also criticized Netflix for its portrayal of her…

Behind closed doors, she was being sexually, mentally, and financially abused, Melngailis told Insider.

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.”

[From Insider]

I agree with Cecile and Sarma’s criticism of these shows and have mentioned in my coverage that they didn’t cover coercive control at all. Sarma’s abuse was completely glossed over in Bad Vegan in favor of sensationalism. The women in Tinder Swindler were shown as gullible, although the show did go further than most in showing how they were threatened. I’m thinking of the scene where Cecile had Simon on the phone and he was threatening and yelling at her.

Ignorance of abuse is endemic in these true crime documentaries. I’ve talked about the Dirty John podcast, and how the victim, Debra Newell, went on a publicity tour with a psychologist to try to educate the public about coercive control and what she was going through. None of these shows included commentary from mental health experts about abuse as Cecile mentioned. They portray victims as dumb, naive and complicit. You’re not supposed to identify with them for the most part. That’s not to take away their agency, Sarma in particular didn’t seem to grasp how she had affected her employees, but the abuse she went through was ignored. I only remember a brief scene referencing blood spatter in her apartment. In these cases, the victims are alive to tell their stories, and that also means that they have to deal with the backlash from the way their experiences are portrayed. I haven’t been watching as many true crime documentaries for this reason. Plus they can be hard to take.

photos credit: Netflix and via Instagram

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