Over the past decade the word "vegan" has gone from an obscure cultural curiosity to a word that's showing up everywhere. Just over the past year this seems to have accelerated, with more attention to the concept as a lifestyle option and more famous people, apparently, adopting it.
Case in point: A year ago few, if any, of us would have connected Bill Clinton with the word "vegan." The former Big Mac aficionado, a man with a "healthy appetite" for many unhealthy things, dramatically overhauled his diet. One of America's premier animal-advocacy groups named Clinton "Person of the Year" amid widespread reports calling him "vegan."
As we go to press, this moniker is not yet accurate, despite the reports. But Clinton is certainly not the only high-profile personage to have moved toward veganism this past year. Mike Tyson is reportedly considering opening a vegan restaurant; Robin Quivers has a vegan-cooking reality show and has even Howard Stern musing about following in her dietary footsteps; "Biggest Loser" trainer Bob Harper went from vegetarian to vegan last summer; and Vegas impresario Steve Wynn has not only changed his own diet but introduced vegan options at all his casinos' eateries.
These recent initiates join more established celebrity vegans, such as Russell Simmons, Dennis Kucinich, k.d. lang, John Mackey, Nellie McKay and Alicia Silverstone. The recent growth in the "high-profile vegan" sector even spurred an article in Business Week - "The Rise of the Power Vegans." It's all good, right? The more the word "vegan," and its basic meaning gets out, the better for mainstream acceptance. But this can be a double-edged sword: When celebrities embrace the concept - or at least the word "vegan" - they can reach a lot of people, but we sometimes find the message doesn't get delivered in the most accurate way.
For example, an ESPN profile of baseball star Ron Artest noted that Artest had a vegan lunch. "But Ron is not entirely vegan. 'About 80 percent,' he says. 'I like pork chops.'" Eighty? Sounds more like zero percent. And another celebrity, ostensibly vegan, talked casually about eating cheese cubes now and then. The words "cheating" and "diet" were used, reinforcing the existing distortion of veganism as a mere plant-based eating pattern, ignoring the moral/ethical background that gives it significance - and that gives vegans the will to be vegan.
Calling Clinton vegan seems pretty benign, unless of course he has another heart episode; then the mainstream line will be, "See? Going vegan didn't help after all!" But even in less extreme scenarios, it can be tricky to pull apart the positives and negatives of high-profile endorsements of veganism.
A signal example of this occurred in February when Oprah Winfrey held a "One-Week Vegan Challenge" in which her entire staff at Harpo productions was invited to participate (378 of them did), all of which culminated in an episode of her recapping the process and discussing meat-eating with guests.
The show sparked its share of endorsements and detractors. Some celebrated the time spent on consciousness-raising in the area around veganism and the number of people who would be exposed to the concept, while others felt the kowtowing to the meat industry was way out of hand in a show supposedly devoted to all things "Vegan."
Kathy Freston, the author of Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, was a key guest and a part of the process from the beginning:
"I had been on the show once to talk about relationships and once to do the vegan cleanse [in June of 2008]. They were interested in doing something around the book, Veganist, and their staff came up with the idea of a one-week vegan challenge - making good vegan food available, offering that to anyone on the whole Harpo staff who wanted to sign up to do it for the week."
In an early segment of the show, Freston brings in some snacks for Oprah to try and the host approves vocally. "They also wanted to present a balanced show," Freston explains, "so they invited [meat-processing giant] Cargill and Michael Pollan [best selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma]."
This is one of the main points of contention: Many vegan commentators and bloggers found Pollan's presence on the show to be anywhere from off-key to offensive, given his relentless reminders that viewers should keep on eating meat.
So I brought up the Pollan issue. Freston replied by first pointing out that "it wasn't a show to promote veganism as such. Their intention was to open a conversation about meat, make the process more transparent for people and help people to be more conscious about what they're eating and where it came from." But she also was at pains to delineate her differences of opinion with Pollan.
"He and I agree on many things, but obviously I don't go for the whole family farm thing. Yes it's better than a factory farm, but animals get slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses, and we all know with the amount of meat Americans consume there's not enough land to raise animals that way. That's why we have CAFOs [confined animal feeding operations or "factory farms"]. And it's still bad for the environment. And on a health note, the meat is still loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol, so it still has a problem for animal cruelty, a problem for the environment and a problem for your health."
Still, to some of us the "humane myth" that Pollan was pushing was a matter of more than just his own stubbornness: Its emphasis in the show represented a failure to convey an important message. It may reach a great many people, but will they think of veganism as a moral philosophy or a trendy weight-loss diet?
Freston noted again that the point of the show was to encourage people to be conscious of their food's origins. "Would I have loved to have that whole hour devoted to veganism? Absolutely. But what they did do was still very valuable. On Oprah's Web site, they have more clips, there's a vegan starter kit, meal plans, recipes, all kinds of helpful resources. They really went out of their way to provide info for people. So, was it exactly what I would've wanted? No, I would want a whole show about nothing but veganism. But I'm happy we got what we did."
One thing they did get was real-life examples of people enjoying eating vegan food. That's because the cafeteria had "a line out the door like they'd never seen, and the line stayed, every day it was like that. These were people who were paying to come in and eat vegan food - they weren't getting it for free - and still they were lining up every day like that." Certainly a case was made for many of those people that "vegan" food isn't some foreign, hard-to-eat substance. When the line out the door was shown on the TV show, hopefully the case was made for many more.
"That's why I advocate for meat alternatives," she said. "People work long hours and come home and they need convenience foods, and they may need to have food for their family. These work. And I don't necessarily believe they're unhealthy - it's infinitely healthier than the foods they're replacing. I'm surprised by vegan people who are outspoken on processed foods. They may be processed but they're low in fat, they have zero cholesterol, they're high in protein, many of them are actually made from whole grains."
"You can always get healthier. You can add more salads, incorporate more raw foods, but that's why I always say 'progress, not perfection.' To expect perfection from ourselves and people around us is just not realistic. Animal foods are processed, too. Just look at all the crap that goes into making cheese."
All true, but Freston didn't get much screen time to convey much of that message or others about animal sentience and cruelty. Scenes in a sparkling hand-picked Cargill slaughterhouse are disturbing but quickly papered over afterward by Pollan and a Cargill representative. While I'm trying to find a tactful way to ask if this might be the case, Freston offers: "I think because Oprah was sued those years ago, they were taking pains to show both sides."
That's fair for Oprah, but we should be on the side of the animals. How to help them best is one point of discussion. Even Freston said she'll ditch a little bit of principle for good veganism PR. "When I'm at a restaurant I'm not, You know, 'was this grilled on the same grill that had meat on it?' I don't do that. As a vegan out in public I would rather come across as likable, approachable rather than picky and finicky."
Although they're on a bigger stage, celebrities who espouse veganism are facing these same presentation issues - only their presentations sometimes reach 65 million people. And those such as Freston who are on top of their vegan facts sometimes have to make split-second judgment calls.
As this issue was going to press, Martha Stewart also did a vegan episode, including Freston, Biz Stone (vegan co-founder of Twitter) and Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. With no "balance" from Michael Pollan or Cargill, the episode was a smashing success for vegan messaging - except when Martha put honey into a "vegan" granola bar recipe she was making with Freston.
Not surprisingly, many vegans on Twitter and blogs were outraged that Freston did not take the opportunity to set Martha and her viewers straight. After catching some flak, Freston responded with this tweet: "Tx 4 all the feedback re Martha! All u concerned w honey, weigh the pros & cons of sounding so hardcore that v bcomes unapprchble... think!"
Clearly, that double-edged sword of celebrity promotion of veganism isn't going to get integrated into one message that will please everyone, mostly because celebrities are complicated and imperfect people, much as we might wish them to be exacting (to whose standard?) mouthpieces.
So when it comes to famous people adopting veganism - or something like it - what's the best way for those of us on the street, in the "trenches," to maximize its potential given these factors arrayed against us? A simple answer would be to ignore celebrities entirely and go about our own business. But again, it's not quite that simple.
There are indeed celebrities in the entertainment world who have demonstrated a commitment to using their position to get the word out about helping animals, whose actions have gone beyond the adoption of a "diet." People like James Cromwell, Ellen DeGeneres, Moby, Bob Barker and Paul McCartney have a track record of advocating for animals in various ways and these initiatives are worth recognizing. And even among the newly vegan it's noteworthy that Robin Quivers made her public splash by running a marathon - an activity that brings abstract health claims into an impressive real-world feat - before going the more common route of launching a reality show.
Whatever the initiatives, though, it might be best to focus on them rather than the celebrity "endorsers" themselves (i.e., when Paul McCartney puts out a Meatless Monday song or Ellen DeGeneres puts up a page on her show's Web site about how to do a vegan Thanksgiving work like hell to get those to a wider audience, and publicly credit whoever was behind them). All support for veganism, from whatever quarter, should be thanked and applauded. Let's keep an eye on what a given celebrity does with his or her celebrity to advance the cause while we're thanking them. Famous people eating vegan is a good thing, but celebrity is a double-edged sword.
That's because both the celebrity's behavior and the media's take on it are phenomena outside the control of the vegan movement - or, often, logic. While a louder voice can reach more people, any misstep is also magnified in influence.
So when veganism is misrepresented in the mainstream media, challenge it politely, but get the record corrected. This keeps spokespeople accountable and helps provide better info for these same, and other, celebrities. It's true that most people now conjure up a concept when they hear the word "vegan," but work still needs to be done to assure that the concept they imagine is true. While famous people get a grip on what veganism really is, give them a little room; maybe hold off on the Person of the Year for, say, a year.
Above all let's keep things in perspective. You don't have to be an Ellen, a Steve Wynn or a Robin Quivers to change the world. Anyone who is making vegan ideas accessible and compelling for others is doing important work. It's up to each of us to do it.
VANCE LEHMKUHL is a vegan writer, cartoonist and musician. In addition to Vegetarian Voice, his writing has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Z Magazine. He's known for penning a collection of vegetarian cartoons, The Joy of Soy, for his long-running strip "Edgy Veggies" in Veg News, and for his live improv cartooning on veggie themes. He's also the founder of the eco-pop band Green Beings and the host of Vegcast, a well-known vegetarian podcast.
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