Friday, October 16, 2009

Celebrity and (Non-)Veganism

Ecorazzi announced some of this years annual VegNews awards winners today, including that Ellen DeGeneres won for Favorite Celebrity readers' pick (you can read it here). Aside from the fact that it seems that you cannot be an American celebrity and not endorse and / or shed your clothes for PETA in recent years, I've always really wondered what the sense is in attributing any sort of significance to public figures who decide to flirt with animal advocacy while sending mixed messages about animal exploitation. Unapologetic meat-eater Oprah Winfrey, for instance, comes to mind, having won PETA's 2008 "Person of the Year" award.

Things become even more problematic (and often confusing) when veganism is thrown into the mix. For instance, DeGeneres, who was also honoured by HSUS earlier this year, may have won readers choice for "Favorite Celebrity", but she's a spokesperson and model for Cover Girl, a company owned by Proctor & Gamble that both uses animal products and engages in animal testing. So, DeGeneres, who is currently profiting from the exploitation of animals, somehow gets a few back pats from the odd welfarist organisation or two and suddenly vegetarians and vegans the world over assume that she's an exemplar of sorts. We're also left with the general public viewing her non-veganism as being vegan.

Ecorazzi's story on this also features a link to their own Top 5 Vegan Celebrities list from this past June. DeGeneres, the "vegan" who profits from animal exploitation, is on it. So is "vegan" actress Ginnifer Goodwin, who came under fire this year for wearing an assortment of animal products for a magazine photo shoot for a piece about (wait for it...) her veganism. Then there's NBA star and PETA supporter John Salley, a "vegan" who went vegan for health reasons and whose activism involves promoting vegetarianism. Then? Alicia Silverstone, another solid PETA supporter who is now making the rounds promoting her new book, The Kind Diet, in which she subcategorises veganism into three levels, one of which includes eating animal products. Then there's actress Emily Deschannel, yet another vocal PETA (and HSUS) supporter who, when interviewed, mostly focuses on the environmental reasons to be vegan. (Not that there's anything wrong with promoting all pluses of abstaining from eating animals, but is it too much to ask that these self-professed vegan celebs actually talk about the problem at hand -- animal exploitation?)

In short, these supposed vegan celebrities are touted as exemplars of veganism. Most of them are vocal and public supporters of welfarist animal organizations that don't promote veganism as any sort of necessary moral baseline in advocating for animals and some of them have otherwise additionally misinterpreted and misrepresented veganism. Is there any wonder that the general public is confused? At the end of the day, should vegans really be applauding these celebrities outing themselves as vegans (i.e. regardless of their confusing things) since "it brings veganism into the mainstream", or should we actually be concerned (or in my case, sort of irritated) that these folks are just further warping people's understanding of what it means to take the interests of nonhuman animals seriously?


Lucas said...

John Salley was recently on a Survivor style reality show where he ate scorpions and rats' tails in order to win non-vegan dinners for his team mates. Before he did this he was very outspoken about being "vegan" to the other contestants. Right before he was about to eat a rat's tail, one of the other non-vegan contestants yelled out, "it's from an animal, bro!" So here we have a non-vegan reminding a self described vegan what is from an animal or not, and calling the "vegan" out for not being vegan, on prime time basic cable TV! Fantastic!
This is not to mention all the other animal exploitation that occurred in other "contests" on the show that was condoned by Salley through his participation.

Daniel Wilson said...

Mylene, there are some activists who will say that if these flip-flopping celebrities convince other people to go vegan, then what's the harm?

I'm NOT one of those activists. I say it confuses people about an already misunderstood lifestyle. I think we worship these celebrities simply because we love to worship celebrities and throw their names around to non-vegans.

I just read Natalie Portman is back to being vegan after reading a kid's book. Good for her but I'm not going to use her as a role model.

Georges Larocque, the vegan hockey player, is getting a lot of media attention too and people are praising him and saying he's such a cool person, speaking out for animals and promoting veganism.

That's all well and good, but he's only been vegan for THREE MONTHS!

I'm not saying he'll go back to eating animals, but what if he does? Sting, Drew Barrymore, Josh Hartnet, Jennifer Connelly, and Christian Bale are just a few of the vegetarian/vegan celebrities I can think of off the top of my head who went back to eating animals.

And don't get me started on Gwyneth Paltrow, the vegetarian/vegan who eats animals and wears their skins.

We put these people on pedestals for being compassionate towards animals and then they go back to eating them. What's the public to think? They'll think that veganism is too hard or that it's just a passing fad.

I think it's a mistake to use these people as spokespersons for veganism. People need to know about animal exploitation; not what celebrity is vegan. It's kind of like Christianity, worshipping the messenger instead of the message.

I think we should concentrate on educating people about veganism, instead of concentrating on vegan celebrities.

x said...

I definitely agree in regards to Ellen. It's wrong to announce you're vegan and then put your name/face to products involving cruelty.

Celebrities who flip-flop send a bad message. They make vegans seem flippant and we're not.

But, I have a soft spot for Alicia Silverstone. She has been vegan for a long time and she comes across as positive, passionate and could be a good role model for people looking to go vegan.

Also, I'm pretty sure she hasn't divided veganism into categories, she just created stages so that people can try some vegan meals without committing if they're worried about failing or are a bit lost as to what they will be eating.

But, my copy hasn't arrived yet, so I'll double check when I get it.

Alej said...

Frankly Mylene I am going to stop reading your blog.
99% of your posts are just plain bitter and aggressive.
You are full of criticism regarding the image of veganism carried by celebrities but you on the other hand, show an image of vegans as bitter, dogmatic and intolerant.

Talking about creative non-violent vegan education...

By the way I sent you a nice email a while ago and you never bothered replying.

Well, I'd rather go and read G. Francione's blog who has a much more pleasant way to put things.

Lorraine Haines said...


I was sad to read that you find Mylene's blog bitter and aggressive.

Personally, I find her to be adept at pointing out inconsistency. We really need that, because it seems to me that just about anyone who wants to call themselves vegan does so, often without understanding the true meaning of the word - and should you challenge them at all, they insist that it is their right to use the term and accuse you of attacking them. This results in a lot of confusion...and surely a clear definition is important if people are to understand what veganism and the abolitionist approach is about.

I honestly feel that Mylene simply points out these situations well, and in a very articulate way.

From my viewpoint I can see neither bitterness nor aggression - just well presented points.

We are all individual in our perception, I suppose.

M said...

Lucas, thank you for that information. It just serves to cement my conviction that it's useless at best--and detrimental at worst--to attribute any sort of significance to celebrity "endorsements" of veganism.

Daniel: Well said. I agree completely.

Mandee, I look forward to hearing more about the book. Unfortunately, as an abolitionist vegan, I can't really feel right supporting, on any level, a celebrity who uses her name / image to promote a welfarist and sexist org like PETA that has done so much harm to the animal advocacy movement and doesn't view veganism as a moral baseline for animal advocacy.

Alejandra: I'm sorry that you've chosen to interpret this post in that manner. It wasn't written out of bitterness, but was written because we need to send consistent messages out to the public and not getting behind people or causes who, in fact, co-opt the term 'vegan' and then go out and continue to exploit animals. Your timing is a bit odd, since I've actually had a few emails sent my way recently telling me that my two previous posts left me seeming like a big old softy.

I am glad that you intend to keep reading Prof. Francione's blog. I'd very much rather have anyone read his writing than mine. All I do is comment upon things I see around me and filter them through my understanding of abolitionist animal rights. Reading Prof. Francione's work will help you think critically and filter things yourself, as well as act accordingly.

As for your having sent me an email: I will admit that I don't check my email often, mostly because I get so few messages through the blog. I do try to respond when I get them, though, and am sorry if you've felt slighted in case I accidentally overlooked one you'd sent me. Take care!

Lorraine: Thank you for the kind words.

Rachel said...

I think you have some fair points. Though when I think of a particular celeb that exemplifies this problem it is Oprah, not Ellen or the others you mentioned. Oprah made a very public mockery of the moral importance of veganism, plain and simple. The others are examples of people who, for the most part, really have dedicated their lives to helping animals. I don't agree with all their choices, but I'm also aware that humans make bad choices sometimes, and I'm not going to crucify them for it. These are individuals, not HSUS, and I think there is an important difference.

I personally think that Ellen in particular has done a lot to accurately promote veganism, including doing cooking demonstrations on her show that clearly explain what vegan food is. If you watch her show you know she mentions how important it is to protect animals almost as much as she mentions her partner Portia. I'm thrilled about this, and would just love to be a fly on the wall to see the massive fit her commercial sponsors are throwing about it.

To address the cover girl issue, she was under contract with them before she went vegan, and I'm willing to bet there isn't an escape clause for vegans. Her continued promotion of the company is undoubtedly required by contract, and I don't think it's fair to pass judgment when we don't know anymore than that.

I am an artist and am under contract with several companies. After signing with one of them I found out that their shirts had leather tags in them. There was nothing I could do about this once I signed the contract, except maybe write them and ask that they change. But thankfully I did't have to because they are in the process of transitioning to the non-tag method of printing directly on the shirt.

Maybe some vegans in my or Ellen's place would have violated their contracts in protest and run the risk of being sued. I guess that's the individuals choice. But I personally think that more positive change can come from within. I know it's a long shot, but perhaps Ellen's obligatory involvement with cover girl could lead to good things in the future.

Unknown said...

Yesterday at work someone asked me whether I was "the kind of vegan who doesn't wear fur or leather," as if there is a kind of veganism that allows that! The next words out of her mouth were, "Well, there are a lot of different kinds of vegetarian." I politely set her straight and tried to untangle her confusion. I can't really blame her for not knowing or understanding given all of the confusion created by celebrities and bogus recognition of animal users by "animal rights" groups. Thanks for your blog posts!

Vera said...

Thanks for the enlightening blog. I thought I had been unfair when I did not want to use celebrities names to open an article about veganism. I guess people should go vegan by their own understanding of the cause and not be convinced to do it just because famous people are "vegan".

Vanilla Rose said...

I thought "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" was just a PeTA gimmick, and all the time, it was advice to Ginnifer Goodwin!