Article Updated on May 12, 2011
2010 was a great year for veganism in the mainstream media, from Chloe Coscarelli winning Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and Bill Clinton experimenting with veganism to a vegan bakery opening in Disney World and several vegan books landing on the New York Times bestseller list.
2011 got off to a flying vegan start with none other than Oprah Winfrey and her 378 staffers going vegan for a week, for an episode dedicated to discussing food and the benefits of veganism. This episode, which featured bestselling authors, Michael Pollan and Kathy Freston as special guests set websites like Huffington Post ablaze with discussions and debates about animal farming, ethics and health. Then, the Martha Stewart Show dedicated an entire episode to veganism, featuring Kathy Freston again, along with Biz Stone of Twitter and Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary. All this mainstream media attention has obviously gotten a lot of people thinking and talking about veganism and vegans and animal rights activists have a lot of reasons to get excited about this. However, there seems to be a lot of skepticism bubbling underneath the tepid enthusiasm. Why should there be any reason to not greet all this attention and celebrities promoting veganism with open arms? Let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly that can unfold when celebrities go vegan, or often, ‘veganish’ (as coined by Oprah on the show)!
The Good: Whether you like it or not, no one can deny that our culture is obsessed with celebrities. People adore them, want to be like them and cannot get through a day without updates on what their favorite famous people are up to. This explains why magazine articles, TV and radio shows, as well as the Internet is flooded with celebrity-focused content. Big brands pay celebrities millions to endorse their products across the world and billions of people spend their time and money every day, reading, watching and listening to celebrity gossip. Celebrities are influencers and have the ability to define what is socially acceptable and desirable and therefore change people’s minds on issues. For example, Ellen DeGeneres has used her network television talk show as a great platform to showcase vegan food and discuss issues related to the consumption and use of animals. Vegan musicians like Moby, as well as bands from the straight edge/hardcore punk movement have used their fame to help educate millions of fans that eating and using animals is anything but cool. Joaquin Phoenix lent his famous voice to Earthlings, the outstanding documentary about animal use and treatment and Alicia Silverstone has used her celebrity status to spread information about her positive experiences with veganism via mainstream media platforms, her blog and by authoring her own vegan cookbook.
The Bad: To understand why celebrities going vegan can actually be a bad thing, you have to get to the roots of what made them go vegan in the first place. More often than not, you will find that most celebrities turn to veganism as a “diet” or a “cleanse” that is driven purely by vanity and/or health reasons. While this in itself may be a compelling reason to go vegan, it firstly sends an inaccurate message that veganism is only a diet and that it is fine to wear wool and leather while touting the health and spiritual benefits of eliminating animal products from your diet. Secondly, a “diet” or a “cleanse” is often not enough motivation to keep people away from eating and using animal products consistently, so they end up slipping up or giving up on veganism completely (like Natalie Portman and Ginnifer Goodwin did recently). This leads people to believe that veganism is incredibly difficult and requires tremendous self-sacrifice, because if rich celebrities, who have enough money to hire personal assistants, chefs, the best doctors, nutritionists and stylists find being vegan a challenge, how can an average person possibly go and stay vegan? Veganism is a lifestyle that rejects all forms of animal use as a moral basis. In addition, it has tremendous health and environmental benefits. Till famous vegans don’t embrace this clear message, there’s always a risk of things turning out bad when they talk about veganism.
The Ugly: Probably the biggest risk of having celebrities embrace and endorse veganism is that they may not understand what it is and consequently not do it right and end up publicly blaming veganism for their health (or other) problems. As several scientific studies and most recently, the US government has pointed out, a well-balanced plant based diet has been shown to not only be healthy for people of all ages, but also beneficial at preventing and reversing several chronic diseases that are killing millions of Americans every year. In 2010, Angelina Jolie announced that a vegan diet “nearly killed her” because she was not getting enough nutrition. In 2003, Julia Stiles (another former vegan celebrity) disappointed vegans because she not only gave up on veganism, but also went on a few talk shows and criticized her vegan diet and joked about holding vegans down and forcing them to eat meat. Lastly, let’s not forget that Oprah herself (back in 2008) famously went on a 21-day vegan cleanse to explore the idea of ‘conscious eating’ and then less than a year later, in a controversial move gave away coupons for free Kentucky Fried Chicken meals. This again sends the message that veganism is just like another celebrity fad diet that is something to experiment with and not a real lifestyle change, with social justice implications and tremendous long-term ethical, environmental and health benefits.
In summary, mainstream media attention (especially from the likes of Oprah Winfrey) on how to go vegan and the use and treatment of animals is a good reason to make vegans smile. However, in spite of their larger than life personas, celebrities are just human beings at the end of the day and are prone to having their own personal biases and motivations cloud their thinking on certain issues. Let’s not misinterpret their opinions and access to mainstream media platforms for knowledge on all things that are good and bad for the public. Let them be the beacon that draws people into the vegan fold, and let the happy, knowledgeable and supportive vegan community be the reason they decide to stay!