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Kathy Freston, a vegan on a jet-fuelled mission

"It was harder for me to give up my Manolo Blahniks than to give up steak," Kathy Freston says with a lilting laugh.

Her sentences waft through the telephone, breezy and warm. She's calling from her weekend home in Santa Barbara, Calif., a coffee cup in hand, a yappy dog in the background, a vegan transformation tale to tell.

She is the Vegan Queen who presents herself as Everywoman - in other words normal, not cultish - a gradual convert to the plant-based, no-animal-protein diet whose latest book, Veganist, Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, vaulted to No. 1 on Amazon last week, days after its release and a segment on Oprah.

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In Veganist, Mrs. Freston presents the latest science in a straightforward manner: According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the U.S., "you can reduce your chances of getting cancer by 40 per cent, heart disease by 50 per cent, and diabetes by 60 per cent simply by following a whole foods, vegetarian diet (the odds are even better when you cut out eggs and dairy)."

But she savvily suggests rather than instructs, like a girlfriend who wants you to think clearly for yourself about why your boyfriend might not be good enough.

As she tells it, she herself eased into the radical diet change like a yoga pose, gradually, gently, for physical and ethical reasons, working her way to the point where she now can't let a pat of butter or drop of milk pass her pretty lips without imagining the poor cow and her aching udder. It took three years.

Her timing could not be better. "There's a confluence of factors coming together," she enthuses to explain the explosion of interest in veganism. "In the age of the Internet, you can Google three words - 'factory farm' and 'video' - and you can see exactly what's going on behind closed doors. We're getting reports from scientists saying animal agriculture really affects the environment in a negative way. ... Ten years ago, being a vegan was considered fringe and radical and bad-tasting, but now there are so many great recipes and meat alternatives."

It's green in all the trendy ways. Mrs. Freston, who is 46, calls a vegan diet the new Prius. "The Environment Defence Fund, which is made up of very responsible scientists, says that if every American ate one plant-based meal per week for a year, it would be like removing five million cars from the road."

Once predominantly the preoccupation of Hollywood types, veganism has sprouted in the mainstream with several leaders (Bill Clinton, Biz Stone) and athletes (Mike Tyson, Ricky Williams) switching their eating habits in an aim to achieve optimum health.

Mrs. Freston hopes to have her own TV show about veganism, perhaps on the Oprah Winfrey Network. "We'll see. The network is so new. It's finding its programming voice."

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She would know. Her husband of almost 13 years, Tom Freston, former head of Viacom, who was responsible for the success of MTV and Nickelodeon, is now a consultant to Oprah Winfrey, who has reportedly called him her "business soulmate."

That's the thing about Mrs. Freston. There's lots to chew over, and some of it is ironic.

Her inclusion in the swishy media-entertainment world helps her influence the people who can catapult her to fame - her 2008 New York Times bestselling book, Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness, which includes her now-famous 21-day cleanse, got its boost from Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres - but it also serves to cast her as an elite, the very thing that works against her populist vegan message.

If she is Everywoman, she is the kind who eats at the best vegan restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, where the Frestons have homes; can afford to buy Stella McCartney pleather clothing; and will happily explain that she drives a BMW 335D because it's "clean diesel and gets better mileage than a Camry Hybrid."

Still, she is quick to emphasize her plebian struggles and the aha moments that brought her success. Born in Atlanta, she grew up in a meat-loving family and began modelling at the age of 16 - a career she hated.

"I felt like it was a huge fraud," she confesses. "I felt I was always hiding something, like I had maybe the basics of being tall [5-foot-10]and having certain features, but if they looked closely at me, they would see what a wreck I was."

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She was never very successful anyway, she says. A smoker and drawn to abusive relationships, she moved to Los Angeles at the end of her 20s, got New Age-y and reinvented herself as a therapist who led visualization and meditation exercises. She wrote two books about relationships to work out her own healing process. "I always wanted to evolve or push myself to a greater sense of being conscious. Then I realized that the one area I didn't consider was my food and yet that was the thing that I did, like everybody else, at least three times a day."

She started to look more closely at how her desire to be a kind, good person aligned (or not) with her food choices. "It didn't feel right in my soul," she says of her discovery of the cruelty in slaughterhouses. Seven years ago, her father died from melanoma at the age of 63 - an outcome that could have been prevented, she believes, if he had been a vegan.

"It's about progress, not perfection," she advises. Her husband, whom she met when "I was eating steak and wearing fur," has turned "veganish" because, at 65, he is concerned about health issues, she says. But she never tells him what to do.

And she's not a killjoy, she insists. "I love fashion! I love martinis! I love wine! I'm not anti-Botox, although I've resisted so far!" she exclaims with a laugh. "I'm not against any of those things. When I get to a place where I need a facelift, I would probably do that."

She isn't perfect, she explains. She wears wool. She doesn't concern herself with frequent air travel. "That's the way of the world," she responds a tad sharply. "I can have better reach if I'm part of life and show up."

She's a vegan on a jet-fuelled mission.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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