"I am a committed vegan because I believe that we all need to tread as lightly as we can on the earth and to cause the least amount of pain and suffering to others while we're here. Veganism is the best thing that I can do and the best way I know how to lead by example to stand against ALL injustices and exploitation that exist." ~ Leigh-Chantelle, founder of Viva la Vegan!
For over 10 years Viva la Vegan! has been one of the go-to places to find out about anything vegan in Australia. In this interview, founder Leigh-Chantelle shares her vegan story and the history of Viva la Vegan!.
How did you became vegan and how did you begin to advocate for other animals?
I became vegan almost 20 years ago - it's my anniversary in January! - after being vegetarian before that for two years. When I was younger, my family and I used to eat a leg of lamb for Saturday night dinners. I knew that it was someone's leg because that was what it was called. There was a piece of the leg my sister and I used to like to eat, and I asked my Mum one night what part of the leg it was. She said it was the Achilles tendon. I looked down at my leg knowing that I had the same tendon as the roasted lamb's leg on the kitchen bench.
That was when I first made the connection between the life that once was and the death I was about to consume. I was in year 10 at high school and this was the beginning of 1994. I stopped eating "red meat" then but was still consuming chicken flesh and calamari. When I went on a month-long school camp in mid-1994, we looked after chickens and I never have eaten any chickens since. I didn't want to eat others that I knew had to be killed for me to eat. At this stage I didn't know too much about what a vegan was and also didn't know about the dairy and egg industries.
I found out about veganism through the Vegan Society of New South Wales here in Australia who sent me the information for Animal Liberation Queensland and the Vegetarian and Vegan Society of Queensland - my home State. Through these three groups I found out about the horrors of the egg and dairy industries. I didn't want to contribute to killing animals, that's why I became a vegetarian. I also didn't want to contribute to the other industries that use and abuse animals. So at the beginning of 1997 I became vegan.
I believe in speaking up whenever I see or hear of any injustices as well as not supporting companies that profit from exploitation. From social justice and human rights, to third world and poverty issues; to racial slurs and "jokes", to feminist and gender equality issues; to fair trade and labour, to useable land and clean water for all of the earth; to overconsumption and waste, to anti-corporations and multinationals. All of these are as important to me as much as anti-speciesism. Veganism is the best way for me to live a compassionate lifestyle in line with all of my ethics of anti-exploitation.
I am a committed vegan because I believe that we all need to tread as lightly as we can on the earth and to cause the least amount of pain and suffering to others while we're here. Veganism is the best thing that I can do and the best way I know how to lead by example to stand against ALL injustices and exploitation that exist.
I graduated from studying Naturopathy, Nutrition and Western Herbal Medicine 10 years ago, and decided to release a vegan recipe calendar for 2006. This soon became my website vivalavegan.net - celebrating our 10th anniversary at the end of the year! It really was just started to promote my recipe calendars (2006-2008) but as there wasn't any websites like this - other than the Animal Liberation and Vegan/Veg societies - I had a lot of requests and great feedback from others on things to add. The website has had blogs, articles, interviews, a forum, videos, recipes, members section, mentors, and so much more over the past 10 years. I'm just about to re-launch the new and improved website.
I spoke out and wrote about about veganism, feminism and animal rights and was interviewed by a variety of people and publications. When I first became vegan, I joined in with all that Animal Liberation Queensland and the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland needed help with - from stalls in shopping centres, folding and posting newsletters, answering phones, handing out leaflets and more. I've also been on a variety of animal rights, environmental, and arts committees over the years, and even founded and ran my own not-for-profit Green Earth Group (2009-2013) to put on Brisbane's first all-vegan environmental festival. I learned so much about people, volunteers, consumers, the mainstream and myself from this experience and you can read all about it in my free eBook.
I enjoy and am good at communication in all of its forms so I use my skills in various ways to get the message of compassionate and anti-exploitation out. Writing and creating content for my vivalavegan.net website including articles, blogs, videos, books, podcasts, interviews etc. As with pretty much everything to do with Viva la Vegan!, someone would have asked me to give a talk on veganism at a vegan event and I would have said yes. Communication in all its forms is my forte, so I enjoy speaking, writing and interviewing people. Over the years, speaking, training and consulting has become my job - not just for veganism and the vegan lifestyle, but also for Understanding Social Media and Staging Effective Events.
What was your motivation to start the vivalavegan.net site 10 years ago?
In September 2005, I graduated from college with Advanced Diploma in Naturopathy, Advanced Diploma in Nutrition and Advanced Diploma in Western Herbal Medicine qualifications. When I got to the end of my three years studying I didn't want to open my own business and didn't want to work in a health food store, so I ended up going back to my first love: music (retail.) I had always wanted to release a recipe book and I thought that would be a huge undertaking, so I decided to use my skills and release a recipe calendar first, as twelve recipes should be quite easy to compile.
The 2006 Viva la Vegan! recipe calendar was released at the end of 2005 and promoted on my leigh-chantelle.com website and at various interstate vegan events. After many requests, in 2006, I launched the vivalavegan.net website (created by Simon from Studio Lucid) to keep others educated on the fast-growing interest in the vegan lifestyle, and various requests from other vegans to share recipes, articles and more. I decided that the 2008 calendars would be my last due to the short shelf life of calendars, usually only October - January. My focus was instead on building up my website to create more of an interactive online space for vegans. We added an audio-visual section, forum, member's section, vegan merchandise and advertising.
I made a lot of friends and began my vegan networking during the course of the years since releasing my first vegan recipe calendar. My website was relaunched and re-designed in June 2010 by Sharon and Terry from Design Voodoo. It has grown in so many ways with many incarnations. It had regular (mostly daily) content including videos, articles from various authors, blogs, interviews, various eBooks, print books, coaching, more advertisers and even an affiliate section. People wanted recipes, so I added them. People wanted information on the vegan lifestyle, so I wrote it. My followers have requested many different things and I've then created and added them. From a search button to blogs, articles, interviews, a forum, videos, recipes, members section, mentors, and so much more. It's really been a pretty amazing ride. I can't wait for you all to see the new and improved version!
The end of 2015 saw the 10th anniversary of my oft-shared and much-loved Australian website, that has grown to be an interactive, multimedia community for vegans (and veg-curious), focusing on positive education, information and vegan outreach. Through the vivalavegan.net website, my focus has always been on educating people about ethical lifestyle choices, proving that through compassion we can heal ourselves and each other. The 10th anniversary has seen a complete overhaul of the website, with more focus on my passions: Speaking, Consulting, Training and Coaching.
What are the differences in the vegan community that you see now compared to 10, or 20 years ago?
I've been vegan for 20 years in January 2017, and there's been quite a difference over the past two decades. Originally when people were vegetarian they didn't eat any animal flesh - maybe eggs and dairy - but never flesh. Nowadays people are more flexitarian than vegetarian, and go where the wind takes them day in, day out! As for the vegan and animal rights movement, when I first became vegan there weren't really many young people who were vegan. It was quite hard to meet other vegans around my age in the Brisbane area in 1997. The majority of my vegan and animal rights advocate friends were interstate, so I would only see them a few times a year. It's a lot different now, there's so many vegans of all ages. I think this would be due to the Internet connecting us, as well as the fact there are just so many vegan places - or places that can cater to vegans - where you can always meet someone new!
I also feel that 20 years ago a lot more people who were vegan were concerned about animal rights and animal ethics. There's been ebbs and flows of relevant vegan information getting into the mainstream over that time. From no fur campaigns, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), various instances of animals being liberated from their prisons, and more media attention to the way animals are treated e.g. animal testing, live animal trade, wool, greyhounds etc. But one thing I've noticed in the past 5 years in particular is the plethora of vegan blogs, online posts on Social Media, events, talks and people who are primarily or only focused on food, and plant-based, health and aesthetic aspects of veganism - to the detriment of the ethics and animal rights issues. I see that a lot of vegans - especially the new ones - being really concerned about specific food within the vegan food staples. For example, I see a lot of people who are focused on high-carb, low-fat diets, or no oil diets, or raw diets. I do think that this dietary focus is diluting the ethical core of the vegan and animal rights movement. I understand that with the massive amount of not-so-healthy vegan foods nowadays, that we all need to be careful, and know that just because it's vegan and plant-based it's not necessarily healthy.
I see people online saying that they're vegan for the animals a lot more - 20 years ago that was just a given. You would meet another vegan and would feel instantly connected to them. Now when someone tells me they're vegan, I have to pause for a bit to work out what exactly that means to them - e.g. losing weight, looking hot and posting half-naked photos of themselves online, or something beyond themselves e.g. about the animals. Like everything nowadays, we've got to put a bit more energy into searching through the noise to find the gems. I personally think that the term "vegan" has been watered down - especially in mainstream media - with so many people not really knowing or caring about the whole vegan ethical lifestyle. Some vegans think that being vegan is where their compassion can stop. There are so many other issues and ethics that I hope I can raise people's awareness towards. In a lot of my talks I focus more on the intersectionality aspects of veganism, how we can all aim to do a bit better, and work at consciousness-raising going forward. I hope to see more people learning about these things, and doing something to change our movement going forward.
The scene is now quite fragmented - and not just with the activists vs welfarists, or the health-conscious vs the straight-edge vegans. Over the past 5 years in particular there's been a massive boom of vegan products and services as there's money to be made now. 20 years ago, a lot of us were flying the vegan flag because not many other people were, and we felt we needed to be the people doing this - not a lot of money was to be made then as there just wasn't much of a market. Now, there's a lot of information out there, a lot of vegan services and goods from businesses that may or may not be vegan, but also maybe not be that ethical in other ways. Veganism is the buzz word at the moment, but it will stay around a lot longer than the fad diets that are being promoted nowadays.
Probably the major thing that still takes me aback is that vegan food can be found in most places nowadays. 20 years ago, you were lucky to get soy milk at the supermarket, and dark chocolate or carob chocolate at the health food store. Everywhere I go now, I find more and more places with vegan options, and an excessive amount of vegan goods. I still find this hard to get used to - especially when I go to remote areas - as people who are vegan now really don't realise how hard it was to source vegan items! The scarcity elements of being vegan just don't exist in most areas now. It's incredibly easy now to be - and stay - vegan.
What are the things you have enjoyed the most during the past decade with VLV?
I'm a very sociable person, so I love the fact that I've met so many wonderful people over the years - whether here in Australia, or in the USA, or South East Asia. I know a lot of people who are no longer as active in the scene anymore - we all need a break - and I'm so glad that we were all around in the formative years of veganism. It's also so great to see my friends have really successful vegan businesses, and it's great to see a plethora of new vegan places being created all the time.
I've really enjoyed getting to know so many different types of people from all corners of the globe. Back 20 years ago, there was nothing better than finding someone who was vegan, who was interested in other social justice issues, and was just a great person to be around. I remember when I first made a friend at a Melbourne event, she said to me, "I love that you're a feminist vegan who also wears makeup!" and we were instant friends! I enjoyed making vegan friends who I met at various vegan events all over the world, on MySpace, Twitter and FaceBook, and from the animal liberation and vegan societies.
I made a conscious decision to surround myself with other vegans in my own area about 7 years ago, and hung out with so many amazing people. I'm a bit more selective now with the type of people I give time and energy to. They don't have to be vegan, but they have to be a kind, decent person who is open to learning new things. I have great friends now, and most of them are vegan. Just because someone is vegan doesn't mean they will automatically be a kind person, and just because someone is a kind person doesn't automatically mean they will be vegan. That took me awhile to really understand.
I'm grateful and humbled that for the past 10 years, vivalavegan.net and our social media channels are where a large majority of vegans and veg-curious get their regular positive vegan information. So many people have be inspired by mine and the Viva la Vegan! journey, which has been helped along by so many other people with their advice and input to my ventures and website since 2005. The Viva la Vegan! fans and our followers online remind me that the vegan community is alive, strong and healthy all over our world.
Do non-vegans come to your website for help?
Yes, a lot of veg curious people come to my website. When we had the mentoring programme, there were a lot of people who just wanted to hang out with someone in their area, or talk to someone about where to buy vegan goods. My site has always been focused on being a educational place about veganism - it didn't matter what the topic was as long as it was vegan or related to veganism. A lot of people just want to find out more information on a variety of topics, whether it's for them or a vegan person they know. When the website first started, mine was one of the only ones with recipes AND lifestyle information.
You have just released your latest book about vegan athletes. Can you tell us about it?
In 2012, I started an online interview series with vegan athletes, fitness fanatics and exercise enthusiasts from all over the world. I found the responses really fascinating, informative and inspiring and knew that many others would also. I made a pact to myself that if I was to gather at least 100 interviews, then I would create a print book with the interviews. Most of 2015 I spent finalising this, editing the interviews, sending out legal information to be signed, and then the arduous ready-for-print process. When I was doing my Australia vegan speaking tour in October, November and December in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and back to Brisbane, I took around my book to show people and to work on pre-orders.
Expert Tips from Vegan Athletes, Fitness Fanatics & Exercise Enthusiasts is a collection of interviews with over 100 inspiring vegans who are immersed in the fitness world. They share their fitness training, knowledge and advice, their favourite foods, and just what to say when someone asks where they get their protein from! There are Olympians, professional sports people, personal trainers, and those who simply live for working out and being fit. My good friend, Robert Cheeke wrote the foreword, and a great vegan artist Weronika illustrated the cover.
There's 430 pages to read, 111 interviews, a heap of quotes and inspirational messages throughout. Because it's in interview-style, it's quite an easy read, you can flick to wherever you want, and it's not necessary to read in succession. Every single person who has read the book is inspired by it, and I hope it reaches so many non-vegan people who really should know about plant-based protein in this day and age!
What's next for Viva La Vegan?
I had a party in February to celebrate the 10th anniversary and the book launch, plus the website has been re-launched. I will be focusing more on (my main business of) speaking, consulting, training and coaching - not just on Vegan Health & Lifestyle, but also on Understanding Social Media and Staging Effective Events. I have a few new programmes I'll be launching soon. I'm also always working on new books, and am at the beginning stages of a book about my vegan journey over the past 20 years. It's part how-to and part memoir, and will be out sometime in 2017 to celebrate my 20 years as a vegan! I"m always travelling and house sitting, so I have a few plans for that: Ubud in Bali, Indonesia in April, and the Gold Coast for most of the rest of the year. I've got a few speaking engagements coming up as well - my year is booked up! I also love networking, and always aim to meet new people and make some great friends!
Leigh-Chantelle's top tips for being vegan
Use your position of influence to promote positivity, inclusiveness and compassion in everything you do. Realise that you can educate more people with a soft tongue more than you will a sharp one. Be careful what you say to another online and in person. Remember that you may be the only vegan the person you are conversing with knows, so make it kind and respectful. Remember to use your time wisely. Remember to have a break from activism. Remember to do the things you love and love the things you do. Remember to be kind. Compassion is always the answer.
Being vegan is a great way to putting compassion into action, living in line with your beliefs, and leading by example to show others how you want our world to be. But it's just one step - an awesome and important step - but still just a step. Find out about other social justice issues, how they intersect with veganism, and how we can support their causes. Together we can really make some changes!