The Rise of the Power Vegans
Steve Wynn, Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton and a comparable cast of heavies are now using tempeh to assert their superiority. A look at what gives
By Joel Stein
It used to be easy for moguls to flaunt their power. All they had to do was renovate the chalet in St. Moritz, buy the latest Gulfstream (GD) jet, lay off 5,000 employees, or marry a much younger Asian woman. By now, though, they’ve used up all the easy ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of us—which may be why a growing number of America’s most powerful bosses have become vegan. Steve Wynn, Mort Zuckerman, Russell Simmons, and Bill Clinton are now using tempeh to assert their superiority. As are Ford Executive Chairman of the Board Bill Ford (F), Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, venture capitalist Joi Ito, Whole Foods Market (WFMI) Chief Executive Officer John Mackey, and Mike Tyson. Yes, Mike Tyson, a man who once chewed on human ear, is now vegan. His dietary habit isn’t nearly as impressive as that of Alec Baldwin, though, who has found a way to be both vegan and fat at the same time.
It shouldn’t be surprising that so many CEOs are shunning meat, dairy, and eggs: It’s an exclusive club. Only 1 percent of the U.S. population is vegan, partly because veganism isn’t cheap: The cost comes from the value of specialty products made by speciality companies with cloying names (tofurkey, anyone?). Vegans also have to be powerful enough to even know what veganism is.
“CEOs are smart. There just hadn’t been enough exposure for people to glom onto this trend,” says Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “The information is everywhere now. Instead of ‘Better buy this blue chip,’ it’s ‘Better eat vegan.’ ” When Newkirk learned Wynn had become a vegan, she didn’t think the news was crazy. “Having dolphins in a small tank outside a casino is crazy,” she says. “Ordering vegetables is not.”
Wynn agrees. The self-described “animal nut,” who included the Humane Society of the U.S. in his will, sold the Mirage Hotel—and its dolphin tank—in 2000, and gave up meat and dairy this June. Wynn was converted when his friend—telecom mogul and recent vegan Gulu Lalvani—made him watch Eating, a documentary in which director Mike Anderson explains his strict meat- and oil-free diet. “I watched it, and I changed the next morning,” says Wynn. “Bang! Just like that.” The transition was eased by the fact that Wynn happened to be on a yacht with a personal chef. As soon as he got home, he began spreading the gospel as only a mogul can—like buying 10,000 copies of Eating, one for each of his employees. “I’m providing the ass for the insurance. If they’re sick, we’re picking up the tab,” says Wynn. “If I can keep them healthier, I’m acting like a smart businessman.”
Though he swears it’s not a condition of employment, Wynn has persuaded most of his senior management to go vegan. And since the majority of Wynn’s lunch companions ask his assistant in advance what he likes to eat, he’s got the upper hand at lunch before even sitting down. He can also suggest one of his own joints—Wynn now offers vegan menus at his restaurants in Las Vegas and Macau, including the steakhouses. “Last night I had dinner with Terry Semel, and we were eating at Wing Lei, the Chinese restaurant,” Wynn says. “They couldn’t believe the stir fry wasn’t in oil. Everybody switched to my food.”
Wynn’s a convincing salesman, but a decade ago even he couldn’t have given away free seitan. Being a vegan then was so weird that pundits listed it as a reason Dennis Kucinich couldn’t be the Democratic Presidential nominee. “People weren’t sure if it was another political party or an ethnic group they’d never heard of,” Kucinich says. While the Ohio representative failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2004—and in 2008—Kucinich’s diet has become so accepted that he was able to persuade Representative Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), the head of the Committee on House Administration, to include vegan options in the congressional cafeteria. When Bill Clinton announced his dietary epiphany—”I got back to basically what I weighed in high school,” he told Wolf Blitzer this September—Kucinich decided to finally finish his own diet book, whose working title, The Cleveland Diet, will probably be changed by its publisher. Kucinich, however, did not go vegan for power, but rather for love. Fifteen years ago, he says, “I met someone who was vegan when I went to the state senate. This was someone I was very fond of. This was kind of a courtship strategy.”