Reflecting on more than twenty years that I have lived a vegan lifestyle is something I do throughout the year, especially around my December 8th vegan anniversary. I think about what the vegan movement and scene were like back in the mid-90s, what types of foods, restaurants, products, and levels of awareness there were when I first adopted the compassionate lifestyle. I think about who I was, who I’ve been, and who I’ve become, and I think about lives lost, lives saved, and lives influenced as a result of my role as a vegan member of society. When I look more specifically at the vegan bodybuilding movement, I have an entire career worth of experiences, observations, and lessons learned to reflect on.
I was one of the early adopters of the vegan bodybuilding lifestyle. I don’t claim to be the first, but I was certainly part of the original vegan bodybuilding crew. The late Robbie Hazeley from the UK, Kenneth Williams from California, and Alexander Dargatz from Germany were among the others who were competitive vegan bodybuilders during the same era as me in the early 2000s. Even in the mid 2000s the number of competitive vegan bodybuilders could be counted on one or two hands, though there were thousands of vegan athletes emerging among many sports disciplines. My website,
www.veganbodybuilding.com, had a very popular interactive forum before the days of Facebook, and there, thousands of vegan athletes were members, and hundreds posted questions, comments, photos, and training journal entries essentially every day. We had an amazing global community comprised of individuals driven to change the way vegans were perceived. No longer viewed exclusively as hippies, or weaklings, or other associations that were common back then, veganism had a makeover and vegan muscle and strength were commonplace in our community. Male and female vegan athletes alike were blossoming in the spotlight, becoming champions in their sports. Over the years, it has been an absolute honor to meet hundreds, if not thousands, of my original website members over the course of my ten-year national tour, and my latest 2-year international tour. We bonded online in more primitive settings than the noise of today’s social media platforms, and many of those friendships still remain today.
In the early 2000s we used our success in bodybuilding competitions to get featured in mainstream magazines and newspapers to spread awareness about the vegan fitness lifestyle. We were outliers, scoffing at the notion that vegan bodybuilding was an oxymoron, and determined to give veganism a new look – one of strength and compassion rolled into one. The few became many, and when social media platforms like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and more recently Instagram and Snapchat came along, vegans made a splash and vegan athletes came out of the woodwork in record fashion. When originally, only a few vegan fitness websites aside from my own existed in all the world, there are now more vegan athlete Instagram accounts than I could ever keep up with. When once it was a unique privilege to be a featured athlete on www.veganbodybuilding.com, social media provided a platform and an outlet for every person to have their voice heard, their vegan physique seen, and their reputation built through word of mouth, through clicks, likes, shares, favorites, and through hard work. I’m old school. I’ve been running my website for 15 years, yet I don’t even have a Snapchat account, and I don’t even remember how to post a YouTube video. I write books and articles, give lectures, and go on book tours, but I don’t reach as many people as the young vegan athlete who is more tech savvy and has twice as many Instagram followers even if only arriving on the scene a couple of years ago.
You could say I’m a bit stubborn, a little slow to keep up with the changing times, and possibly running the risk of becoming irrelevant if I don’t follow where the audiences are moving to and engage with people on those platforms, and I’d probably agree with you. I admit I am slow to adapt, I am getting left behind in some ways, and I am being surpassed by a new generation who gets in front of more eyeballs. I hope I don’t sound bitter, because that is not my intention. In fact, I am proud of those who found a way to make their mark on the vegan bodybuilding movement and have influenced a lot of positive change. I recently spent time with perhaps the top vegan bodybuilder today, Torre Washington. We attended the most prestigious bodybuilding competition in the world, the Olympia, in Las Vegas in September. We talked about the changing times and the passing of the torch. There was a time when I was the top vegan bodybuilder in the world as far as recognition, with an online presence that was likely greater than the other top vegan bodybuilders combined. But today I might not even be in the top five or ten anymore, and Torre is the new king of the vegan bodybuilding world as far as I am concerned at the time of this writing. We walked and talked, sat together, and discussed the changing landscape. He is a real star now, reaching heights I never reached, connecting with audiences I never got my message to, and building a physique that I was never able to sculpt. And along the way he has won 3 times the amount of competitions I ever won, and he’s just getting started.
It seems like every week I come across a new vegan bodybuilder with 100,000 subscribers on YouTube or 100,000 followers on Instagram (both well beyond my current reach), and those who have new books, products, programs, clothing lines, and online video channels that reach the masses. This is great for the vegan athlete movement, great for the animals, and great for the planet – make no mistake about it. I write not as someone who is envious, after all, I had my day in the sun that spanned a full decade before the emergence of the vegan bodybuilder of today, and I still get invited to the most prestigious vegan events in the world from Australia to Europe to Canada and around the US. But I write as someone who has seen this vegan bodybuilding movement grow from infancy to the powerful force that it is today. I write in awe of the amazing accomplishments today’s popular vegan bodybuilders have achieved, and as equally in awe of their physiques that I so greatly admire. I write as a proud father who pioneered the movement, who retired half a decade ago, and who passed the torch to Torre Washington, Giacomo Marchese, Fraser Bayley, Derek Tresize, Vanessa Espinoza, and the new generation of vegan muscle. I write with gratitude and sincere pride.
I don’t know what my role in the vegan bodybuilding community will be in the future. Right now, vegan bodybuilders like Will Tucker, Ed Bauer, Mindy Collette, and Stephen Coote, among others, refer to me as The Godfather of vegan bodybuilding. I’ll take it, and I’ll figure out where to go from here, deciding whether to try to keep up with the young vegan bodybuilder entrepreneurs in the changing technology landscape, or to keep on keeping on, writing more books and move from The Godfather to The Grandfather of the movement. As long as we are genuine, authentic, and save lives with our compassionate actions, I believe there is room for all types of vegan bodybuilding activism. I’ve seen enough to know that our best days are in front of us, and I look forward to opening up new chapters in my career and in the vegan bodybuilding movement, reflecting on them years down the road.
- Robert Cheeke, best-selling author of Shred It! and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, 2-time champion bodybuilder, and founder/president of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness – www.veganbodybuilding.com.