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The Weird World of Vegan YouTube Stars Is Imploding

Rawvana, Bonny Rebecca and Stella Rae are eating animal products, triggering outrage and an identity crisis.

Emily Shugerman3.23.19 9:43 PM ET

Last Sunday, a five-second video clip of vegan YouTuber Yovana Mendoza single-handedly brought down the luminous 28-year-old’s entire career. In it, you can see the raw food advocate, who goes by the name “Rawvana,” smiling at a restaurant in Bali as she prepares to tuck into her meal. But in an instant, the health guru’s face changes, as she realizes her friend’s camera is trained on her plate. She moves to cover it, but it’s too late. Internet sleuths watching the 10-minute vlog later would quickly deduce what Mendoza was trying to hide: a piece of fish.

Mendoza rushed to upload a video claiming she had only been eating fish for two months, as a remedy to the health complications she developed after six years as a vegan. But the damage was done. Former fans descended on her YouTube channel, Instagram and Twitter, posting emojis of fish and taunting her as “Fishvana.” Dozens of fellow vegan YouTubers posted horrified reactions to the scandal, unimaginatively dubbed “fishgate.”

“I felt like someone had died,” Mendoza told The Daily Beast. “It was one of the worst days of my life.”

In addition to showing how many ways you can repurpose the word “fish,” the incident brought another revelation to the surface: The vegan YouTube community is crumbling.

To the uninitiated, the popularity of vegan YouTube might come as a shock. Some channels attract hundreds of thousands of subscribers, even though there are only about 1 million vegans in the United States. And these channels aren’t run by vegan celebrities (though there are many of those, including Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande,) but by celebrity vegans—people whose entire online persona is based on the lack of animal products in their diets. Their social media feeds are filled with clips of them traveling, exercising, and meticulously documenting every plant-based thing that passes their lips—until now.

In recent months, several of the most prominent vegan YouTubers have announced they are eating animal products, setting off a torrent of online outrage and abuse, but also posing a philosophical question: What becomes of a vegan YouTuber who isn’t vegan?

The rise of the celebrity vegan YouTuber started with Freelee the Banana Girl (real name Leanne Ratcliffe,) an Australian woman who claimed to have conquered drug addiction and shed dozens of excess pounds by eating a diet of almost entirely carbohydrates—including up to 50 bananas a day. She garnered millions of views on videos of herself and her boyfriend, Durian Rider, “smashing in” pounds of fruit, rice and potatoes, then parading their flat stomachs in front of the camera.

Freelee’s wasn’t the first vegan channel on YouTube, but it was undoubtedly the biggest. It spawned dozens of copycat channels run by wealthy, thin twentysomethings who all seem to have met at something called a “Fruit Festival” in Thailand. Today, playing a Freelee video will quickly lead viewers down an algorithm-driven rabbit hole of vegan “influencers” who appear to spend their entire lives at the beach, talking up the benefits of their plant-based lifestyle.

Over time, however, Freelee and DurianRider’s star power waned. The mainstream media caught wind of—and thoroughly debunked—their extreme diets, and began to pick apart their more controversial statements. (The couple once claimed that more thin people would have survived 9/11 if fat people weren’t blocking the stairwells.) Freelee has retreated to what appears to be a South American jungle—where she can somehow still upload videos about her new “off the grid” lifestyle—while DurianRider has taken up with a different vegan girlfriend in Australia.

As Freelee and DurianRider faded from the foreground, their all-carb diet also fell out of vogue. Vegan YouTubers started proselytizing about the benefits of protein and healthy fats, and some even turned to the oxymoronic-sounding “vegan keto” diet. Others decided to abandon the lifestyle altogether.

In a Jan. 14 video titled “Why I’m No Longer Vegan,” YouTuber Bonny Rebecca set the tone for a mass of defections to come: rambling, half-hour-long videos in which the former herbivores apologize to their fans and breathlessly explain the health issues that caused them to start eating meat. In Bonny Rebecca’s case, it was the extreme digestive issues that the 26-year-old says led to bacterial imbalances in her gut and caused her boyfriend, fellow vegan YouTuber SlimLikeTim, to drop more than 30 pounds.

“I’ve been vegan for a long time and I think a part of me wanted to believe in this diet so much—because I had such a strong ethical connection to it—that I was turning a blind eye to my problems and to the severity of my health issues,” Bonny Rebecca said in the video. “This was a huge slap in the face for me.”

From there, the dominoes began to fall. Stella Rae, a former adherent of Freelee’s diet plan, announced she was quitting veganism due to bloating and digestive issues. Tim Shieff, a YouTube star and former vegan athlete, declared that he ejaculated for the first time in months after eating raw eggs and salmon. After her friend’s video was posted, Rawvana revealed that she had secretly been eating fish and eggs due to an overgrowth of bacteria in her small intestine—a disclosure that was picked up by outlets like BuzzFeed and The Washington Post.

Perhaps hoping to avoid a similarly dramatic outing, fellow raw food advocate RawAlignment announced the next day that she, too, had been eating fish since December.

“Without sharing our truth and living in our truth we have nothing,” the vlogger said in her 36-minute video. “Here’s to setting ourselves free.”

There is a certain schadenfreude in watching a self-proclaimed moral authority fall—especially one who looks like these YouTubers: young and lithe, with perfect skin and seemingly endless vacation time. It is akin to watching the Varsity Blues scandal unfold, but if those rich and beautiful people also posted chiding Instagram captions about “enslaving animals for the sake of our taste buds.”

There is also some satisfaction in catching a scammer in the act, of uncovering an influencer who ate meat while profiting off a #PlantPowered image. Many commenters have pointed out that Mendoza started selling her $69 “Raw Detox Challenge” in February—more than a month after she secretly started eating fish. Others noted that in March, she captioned a photo of herself at the gym, “VEGAN BOOTY GAINS.” Just one week ago, when a fan commented that her body was “proof that a vegan diet can work wonders,” Mendoza replied with a kissy face and heart emoji.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mendoza said she doesn’t regret promoting a plant-based diet these last few months. She still believes it is a healthy diet for someone without her medical issues, and said she may even return to it in the future. She also insisted that she’d always meant to tell her followers about the dietary switch—but in her own time, once she’d figured out the foods that worked best for her.

“Even if I said it from the beginning, I was going to get backlash,” she said. “It was going to be too much for me to deal with, dealing with people's comments and reactions and then at the same time trying to heal my body. I needed to focus on one thing.”

Whether one accepts Mendoza’s reasoning or not, the backlash she has experienced is objectively horrifying. Commenters have called her “disgusting,” a “fraud” and a “hypocrite,” and others have told her to kill herself. Her mother used to have a public Instagram account, but decided to go private after getting messages that said she should never have brought Mendoza into the world.

This kind of online abuse is typical for ex-vegan influencers. Bonny Rebecca heard from commenters calling her “pathetic” and an “idiot” when she ditched her plant-based diet, and others told her to get off YouTube because “nobody gives a shit about your superiority complex and lack of any personality.”

In an illustrative comment on Tim Shieff’s video about quitting veganism, one viewer wrote, “Oh, well... this explains why you're looking so wasted, old & bloated in your recent videos. That’s so sad.”

Some of the worst abuse comes from other vegan YouTubers. Many of these vloggers find their best material in responding to what other vegans do, so when someone defects, it’s not only a moral outrage—it’s good content.

That’s how we wind up with the avalanche of outraged response videos to people like Mendoza, including from former friend Freelee the Banana Girl. (She maintains they were never actually friends.) DurianRider made a response video, titled, “Why did Rawvana never get this skinny?” which is mainly just him showing off his new girlfriend’s body. And someone calling herself RawVeganGinger, who claims to know Mendoza personally, made a 60-pane Instagram story tearing the health guru to shreds before declaring that her “real intention is love.”

That isn’t the worst of it. When Bonny Rebecca announced she was eating fish and eggs, a pair of vegan twins named Nina and Randa made a full-length “diss track” that features them frolicking in fake furs and dressing up as the literal vegan police. The twins later filmed a follow-up video claiming the diss track wasn’t about Bonny Rebecca specifically, but repeatedly lapsed into her signature Australian accent when imitating the “anonymous” target of their shade.

“One of the things that I loved about going into the vegan lifestyle and diet is that I felt that it was very welcoming and very inclusive,” Mendoza said. “But as soon as you decide to make a change, they turn against you, which is really sad.”

“It doesn't make people want to go vegan when they see all this hate,” she added. “It’s scary. I hope that out of all of this, and all this press that my case has had, that people can see that.”

Even after all of the cruel comments and response videos die down, there is still the question of how a former vegan YouTuber can make a living eating meat. Or more pointedly: How can they convince people to follow their health advice, when they now claim the advice they were spewing for years made them sick?

Different stars have taken different tacks. Shieff, the founder of vegan clothing brand ETHCS, stepped down from the company after colleagues told Plant Based News they were “very shocked and upset” by his conduct. Bonny Rebecca has pulled sales of her vegan recipe e-books, though she continues to make “What I Eat In a Day” and “Get Healthy With Me” videos featuring fish and eggs. Her personal website reads simply, “something fresh coming soon.”

For Mendoza, it may still be too soon to tell. Her website is still up and selling products like her “21 Day Raw Challenge.” Vivo Life, the vegan protein powder company she endorses, did not respond to a request for comment, but still features her photo on their website. She told The Daily Beast she wanted to continue sharing her journey toward health and healing, but without such a strong focus on food.

In December, in what may have been a prescient move, the vlogger started a separate Instagram account based on “mindful living.” It features photos of her frolicking in the wilderness, showing off her outfits and dancing with her husband—but notably, none of her plate. It already has nearly 83,000 followers.

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