Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Oh, Those Celebrities!

Just last month, The Biggest Loser's weight loss trainer Bob Harper lost an opportunity to promote not using animals. Harper went public in June of 2010 to self-identify as vegan and in doing so, has joined a handful of other celebrities who've spent the past few years sending one confusing message after another out to the public about what veganism actually is.

Last November, Harper was interviewed by Fitness magazine to talk to them "about his vegan lifestyle" and when asked for "healthy eating tips" he'd give to "readers who may or may not be interested in veganism ", Harper included trendy Greek yogurt with his vegan options. I don't know about the rest of you, but if given an opportunity as a vegan to educate the public about what to eat, my go-to place certainly wouldn't be to promote animal products. If I were a vegan who was also deemed an authority on personal health and fitness, I'd certainly jump at every opportunity to talk to others about not eating animals or their products.

But what do I know?
Even celebrity-beloved Farm Sanctuary seems a bit confused about whether or not humans -- even those who engage in animal advocacy -- should be using animals or promoting animal use. Some of their supporters questioned them on their Facebook page this past October 1 about whether Harper was a suitable spokesperson for their Farm Sanctuary Walk for Animals Campaign. At the time, Harper was also plugging Jennie-O Turkey, a company which sells turkey meat and is a major sponsor of Harper's Biggest Loser TV show. Farm Sanctuary's response to this reasonable question?

When working with celebrities, we understand that they are under immense pressure to maintain their public platform, and at times, and for a variety of reasons, their personal values may not always be reflected within their public persona. When we focus our energies on who is the purest amongst us, we do a disservice to animals.
So actually going vegan or(gasp!) expecting other self-described vegans to not promote animal use, according to Farm Sanctuary, does a "disservice to animals"? I guess, then, that they've found their ideal spokesperson -- although they at least didn't go so far as to select him as the celebrity face for the Adopt-a-Turkey Project they were in the middle of promoting. (I'm guessing that the suits at Jennie-O would have disapproved at such a blatant contradiction?)

Harper's spent a lot of time since outing himself as a vegan talking about the personal health benefits of veganism. During a Star interview this past May, which ended up discussed by many animal advocates online, Harper focused on veganism being about "feeling good" oneself. However, he also stressed that it's not altogether necessary to go vegan to attain this feeling of well-being:
I tell people all the time that you don't have to be a vegetarian or vegan to feel good, but I want people to rely more on plant-based foods. [...] For animal-eaters it's important that you get grass-fed meats and all organic produce. If you make sure you are eating in that way, you may pay more now-but you will save a lot on medical costs later.
Furthermore, although he did call himself a vegan in the interview, when asked whether he "miss
[es] meat", Harper responded with an emphatic "definitely" and proceeded to elaborate that he's a vegan who indulges his cravings for animal products because he doesn't feel that he should impose rules upon his consumption:
Look, nobody is perfect and I definitely have cheated but I don't beat myself up for it. I don't want life to be so regimented. If I want some cheese or something I definitely let myself.
In fact, when prodded further and asked if he allows himself "a cheat a day", Harper responded:
I don't necessarily have a cheat day, but I do allow myself to indulge once in a while without beating myself up. The other day I broke down and had some pizza-and it was so good!
Not to "beat" Bob Harper up, or anything -- since he seems quite concerned with not getting himself down over his self-identifying as vegan while continuing to indulge in consuming animals or their products because they're "so good!" -- but surely he's an intelligent enough fellow to understand basic definitions? Surely?

Not only does Harper call himself vegan while admitting to eating animal products in interviews, but (according to the non-vegan site This Dish is Veg) as recently as yesterday, he tweeted that he gave in to a craving for egg whites. To promote veganism? To promote Farm Sanctuary? It seems that the only thing Harper ended up promoting is his self-indulgent use of non-human animals. When asked by another tweeter if it was the first time since going vegan he'd consumed animal products, Harper (in flat-out contradiction to to the responses he gave in the interviews to which I've linked above) replied with an emphatic "YES!!!!!". When another tweeter asked him if he thinks that egg whites are vegan, Harper gave some indication that he does, in fact, understand the definition of "vegan" when he responded "NO".

Harper seemed surprised that some of the people who may have nonetheless thought he was the real deal have responded to his gushing over egg whites. His stating that he'd gotten "really HORRIBLE messages" was a little over dramatic, though; with the exception of one nasty pro-violence tweeter, most of what he received by that point were earnest questions from other animal advocates asking "why" he'd eaten eggs. Still, he chose to limit his response to that one nasty tweeter earlier. Judging by the hundreds of supportive responses he's gotten so far from non-vegans (and former "vegans") asserting that there's nothing wrong with consuming eggs, that what he eats is his personal choice, that there's such a thing as "happy eggs", I'd say that so-called "vegan" Harper's done a solid job delivering a clear message to the public that there's nothing wrong with consuming animal products. And no thanks to that one nasty tweeter, Harper's also helped facilitate the public perception of vegans as being hateful and deranged, as well as to hold himself up as a bit of a martyr.

Was he ever vegan? Probably not. But what concerns me isn't whether he was or wasn't; what actually concerns me is the fall-out from yet another celebrity's having presented himself as such and caused more damage than good. Sadly, it looks like the biggest losers today will be the non-human animals.


Unknown said...

As a Walk for Farm Animals Coordinator for several years, I was so disappointed in the choice of Bob as the WFFA Spokesperson last year, and I was very vocal about it. This resulted in two Farm Sanctuary employees calling me and spending an hour trying to convince me that his endorsement really was a good idea. Unfortunately, they spent the entire conversation making sure I didn't really get a word in as well, so I was more annoyed than I started by the time we hung up. Those two employees no longer work there thankfully.

Unknown said...

If he used the 'I occasionally cheat' line about his marriage people wouldn't take it so lightly!

Abby Bean said...

Last year I heard Ed Begley Jr. speak and during the Q & A I asked him to talk a little about how veganism is linked to environmentalism (he had a captive audience!). He paused, then stated that he doesn't like to discuss "diet" because what people eat is a very personal choice.

As you say, they have the platform & then they waste it; I was extremely disappointed.

Adrian Veidt said...

Spot on. I call these folks Judas Iscariot vegans. I think they're muddying the waters more than helping.

Seriously, something else that bugs me is when "vegans" get asked if they think everyone should become vegan they beat around the bush and end up saying no.

I think everyone should become vegan. End of story. Simples.

Vegan Valor

LadyAshley said...

So tired of these pseudo-vegans. You can't go halfway. You either are a vegan or you aren't. Cheating is unacceptable in my books.

M said...

Sara, it's a real shame that Farm Sanctuary isn't on board with being unequivocal about promoting veganism. It might be less profitable to do so, but considering that the group concerns itself with taking in the casualties of the public's speciesism, it would make sense -- and it would be the right thing to do.

LiseyDuck, I agree. ;-)

Abby Bean, Adrien and QuothTheRaven: It is indeed a shame when someone who chooses to self-identify publicly as vegan really makes a mess out of it by publicly continuing to treat animals as things. The thing is that celebrities cultivate their popularity to ensure their livelihood. If anything, "cheating" has only made Harper more beloved by his non-vegan fans and since the overwhelming majority of his fans are non-vegan, it's a "win" for him. I saw this reflected in the hundreds of tweets he received in response to his egg white tweet from (mostly) non-vegans, telling him that he should eat what he wants, that it's not a big deal to eat eggs, that egg whites are healthy, that he should "listen to (his) body", to ignore the animal rights nuts, and so on. And instead of replying to any of the vegans who asked him quite sincerely why he did what he did, whether he intends to stop using animals or if he'll at least stop calling himself vegan, Harper gushed over the high fives he received from his non-vegan fans, thanking them for "hav(ing his) back". The funny thing about all of this is that mainstream media will continue to describe him as vegan and judging by his previous interviews, he'll do so as well. As a result, his non-vegan fans will view using animals as optional for vegans.

Worse is that the vegan community gets caught up in lauding people like Harper once they out themselves as "vegan", and are then disappointed when (like so many others about whom I've written) their new exemplars end up doing more damage than good. We really need to stop relying on celebrities to educate the public about veganism because the truth is that they won't as long as doing so doesn't involve following the money. Harper is no different.


Brian said...

Thanks for such insightful posts. I'm right there with you on spreading the ethics of living a kind life.

Whitney Sanchez said...

I agree completely with what LiseyDuck said. My fiancé has told me multiple times that if I stopped being vegan he would question our relationship. He knows how highly connected my morals and ethics are with my diet and if I wasn't true to them what why would I be true to him?