Vegan Life meets...
The UK and Ireland's Most Beautiful Vegan Over 50, Karl Fogg, believes in taking on any and every opportunity to create awareness of animal cruelty. Here, he tells Vegan Life how he used a beauty contest to spread the vegan message.
From dock worker to vegan beauty contest winner, Karl Fogg's journey has been a surprising one. In 2020, Karl Fogg won PETA's annual search to find the UK and Ireland's Most Beautiful Vegan Over 50 - although the competition is not what it sounds like.
PETA's contest isn't simply looking for exterior beauty - but about finding someone with an inert passion and kindness towards animals and the planet. Something that Karl epitomises. We talk to the activist and entrepreneur about his mission to save the Earth.
Tell us about your winning of PETA's Most Beautiful Vegan Over 50 title. How did it come about?
Ok, I realise this was an odd thing to do. Why would a 57-year-old man of average appearance with hardly any hair left, enter a national beauty contest?!
That was my first thought, too, when I read the email from PETA, entitled 'Could you be the UK and Ireland's most beautiful vegan over 50?'.
I'm only the third best looking vegan in my house, after my wife and dog. Then, I read the part that said the winner will be expected to talk to the media… I was in!
Of course, I didn't really expect to win anyway. What I did think was, this'll get the message out to a far wider audience than I can possibly reach on my own. I was thinking maybe a bit of local press as a contestant would give me a chance to talk about the unethical treatment of animals.
As my wife would tell you, I don't need asking twice (or even once) to talk about animal rights, so I'll take any opportunity, knock on any door, or if there aren't any, I'll make my own door.
It all got a bit out of control quite quickly. I hadn't told anyone I'd entered, and then a couple of days later, my wife was reading one of the national papers out to me and said, \"Have you seen this? You should enter."
I knew that as she read on, the next flick of her finger to scroll down the page would reveal my face as one of the contestants, so I quickly diverted her attention… Then the phone started ringing!
It turns out, a few people had seen the national papers, and the local and regional journalists wanted interviews, which was great. They sent photographers and I talked their ears off about veganism.
Then the BBC called… This is it, I thought. I'm going to get my crack at Piers Morgan or Philip Schofield. I've always wanted to tear their facile antivegan arguments apart.
Anyway, I'd obviously got ahead of myself. It was a journalist from North West Tonight.
He said: \"We'd like to get you on the TV tonight. I'll be at your house in 40 minutes with a film crew. Oh, and could you cook something on air?\". I sprinted to the fridge. I had some potatoes, a carrot, a parsnip, and an onion.
My wife went off to get some mushrooms whilst I got chopping. I always have dried lentils in jars, so I went for cottage pie. I'm not the fastest of cooks, but it's amazing what you can do with a surge of adrenaline.
We did the interview as I prepped, and it came out of the oven all bubbling and crispy, just in time for the closing shot. What a day.
Altogether, I talked for well over an hour, and they obviously must cut that down to a ten-minute segment. Talking to the journalist afterwards, he said a lot of what I told him wouldn't make it into the programme.
\"I'll take any opportunity, knock on any door, or if there aren't any, I'll make my own door\"
I had talked about the Yu Lin dog meat festival, and how everyone is appalled at the killing of 10,000 dogs there every July, but will happily support the brutal killing of 70 billion other animals a year, and use exactly the same arguments to justify that.
He said: "The BBC has to show balance, so if they go too far with the animal abuse thing, they then have to interview someone with the opposite point of view, for balance".
I asked him if, by their own logic, they'd apply that same rule if I'd been speaking on behalf of say the NSPCC, against child abuse, instead of PETA.
Would they then interview someone who supported child abuse, or profited from child abuse for balance? He accepted my point but said he didn't make the rules, which of course he didn't.
Having learnt that lesson, I took full advantage of the opportunity to get the uncensored version out there on a live radio interview.
I'd been told that the presenter of the breakfast show was a known anti-vegan, so I was determined not to get diverted. I was told that the interview would last four or five minutes.
I had notes all over the walls in my office at home, in case I needed them, and although he did attempt to keep the conversation to the PETA competition, asking me about the prize, and what the other contestants looked like.
I just talked about the dog meat trade, the slaughter process in the UK, and how terrified the animals on the breakfast plates of their listeners would have been before they were brutally killed for our taste preference.
I played it back afterwards, and I got nine and a half minutes. Interestingly, they didn't want me back when I won the title.
What has the title helped you to achieve as an activist?
As an activist, I'm always looking for a conversation starter, or a new platform. The title certainly gave me a conversation starter, but due to the pandemic, I haven't been able to do any of the things previous winners have done.
Obviously, there were no events for me to speak at, and I wasn't able to meet any influencers etc, so I could say it hasn't been very useful. It's a bit of a quirky headline though, and that's what gets you the exposure.
It seems that there's a game you have to play in order to get your message out there, and that's so much harder when it's a message that readers, listeners or viewers don't want to hear, as it challenges their morality.
What I've learnt is that if you call any mainstream media outlet and say, 'I'd like to talk about animal rights', the shutters will come down very quickly, so activists and organisations have to be creative. Headlines like '57-year-old former dock worker wins beauty contest' lift those shutters.
I might have to look a bit silly, and open myself up to ridicule, but this is nothing compared to the suffering of the animals I'm here to speak up for.
I've got quite a thick skin, so I'll put myself up for anything if it gives me a platform to stand up for animals, as I know most activists would. This was just my shot.
\"It seems that there's a game you have to play in order to get your message out there\"
Tell us more about your background and journey to veganism. How did it start?
I was a big meat eater for 51 years. My daughter converted me. As the family cook, when my three kids went off to uni, I'd make their favourite meals when they came home for the holidays.
When my eldest daughter called to say she was coming home for half term, I prepared to go to the butchers for ribs, her favourite. Then she hit me with it - "Dad, I'm a veggie now". Although I was unsure what to cook at first, I adapted my recipes, and did a week of veggie cooking.
We'd often have conversations over the kitchen table, and of course I asked her why she'd chosen not to eat meat anymore. Ephie explained that she'd seen what happens to animals when they go to slaughter, and I looked at some footage.
That was it for me. We had a rescue dog, Fraggle, and we all loved him. I imagined him in that situation and made the connection.
I'm embarrassed to say, as a middle-aged man, we have a tendency to assume we know things about how the world works, but actually, I'd just bought the 'humane' sales pitch, and never thought beyond that. Life's much easier that way, after all.
As time went on, I did more research, and the more I learnt, the more appalled I became. I still wasn't an activist at that point though, as I saw it very much as a 'personal choice' (I know).
Then I went to the cinema. I watched a film called 12 Years A Slave. That made me realise that I could make a difference.
The people who stood up against slavery were seen as extreme, they were laughed at or ridiculed but of course we all now agree how abhorrent slavery was.
I used to think I couldn't make a difference, but slavery was a huge industry, arguably larger than meat at the time, and people changed that without any of the resources we have at our disposal today. I then saw it as my duty to stand up for the victims of the meat and dairy industry from then on.
People often say that we shouldn't use the comparison with slavery, and anti-vegans like to jump all over it, as if to suggest a comparison between animals and the human victims of slavery. First of all, I'd be honoured to be compared to an animal, but that's not the argument.
The comparison is between one societally accepted, legally supported abuse that we now look back on as abhorrent and another societally accepted legally supported abuse that we will look back on in the same way one day. The victim is the difference, not the similarity.
Do you think there are any big stigmas associated with veganism? How can we disrupt these?
We often hear that vegans are middleclass, perhaps students or millennials who don't work for a living. I've been at various outreach events where people have shouted 'Get a job'. Well, I'm a northern man, from a working-class background.
I was brought up on a council estate in the 70s and probably have more in common in that respect with the people who shout at us. I've worked since I was 12, and had some success and some failures in business, but I've always worked, like most activists I know.
I respect people who give their lives to activism. I think names like 'angry', 'preachy' or 'extreme' are actually part of the anti-vegan narrative, designed to put us off speaking out for fear of playing to the stereotypes they've invented.
The activists I know are knowledgeable, courageous and often calm and courteous in the face of ignorance and aggression.
The conversations we have with people inevitably involve a little discomfort, as we're asking people to confront their own, probably previously unrealised hypocrisy. The truth can't be avoided, but it has to be communicated or we don't change anything.
As a salesperson for nearly 40 years, I've learnt that it's important to establish rapport or common ground. People 'buy' from people, so if you can connect wherever possible by being someone they identify with in some way, that's far more effective than being argumentative.
So, I often start with the abuse in the dog meat trade, as people identify with dogs, and then try to lead them to the conclusion that it's equally cruel to subject, say, a pig to the same suffering based on the values they agreed with previously.
We need activists from all walks of life, so that we can connect with people from all backgrounds. I think we all need to be an example too, so if we can look fit and healthy, be friendly, approachable and perhaps someone people respect, they're more likely to follow our lead.
The world's food system is geared towards the meat and dairy industries. How do you propose we instigate systematic, global change regarding how food is produced, and how people view animals?
One of the reasons I started my company PHYTON, was to fight systemic injustice. I realised that the effectiveness of activism and market forces can be significantly restricted by systemic support for the meat and dairy industries.
We're making huge progress in many areas, this can be seen in every supermarket, with vegan aisles where there'd be hardly any vegan products just a few years ago.
In countries that don't subsidise dairy, market forces can be truly affective, but in the UK, we don't have that level playing field.
It's frustrating to know that all our activism, and the reduction in demand doesn't force the industry to adapt to survive, as subsidies artificially prop up meat and dairy producers. We need to fund political activists to effectively lobby for change to the subsidy system.
\"If you could buy a better product for the same price and the profits supported animal sanctuaries, why wouldn't you?\"
Tell us more about your newest business venture, PHYTON. Why join the already crowded protein industry?
I was thinking about how I could make the biggest difference. I could see that as veganism was growing, sanctuaries were under increasing pressure to take more animals with reducing
Like most people, I had direct debits going out to quite a few, but it wasn't enough, so I decided to set up a business that would use its profits to help them.
As a fitness enthusiast for over 40 years, I had some knowledge of protein supplements. I knew this was a multi billion-pound business and that the market leaders were whey, a dairy derivative.
I talked to several industry experts, nutritionists and sports scientists with a view to formulating a product that would be nutritionally, ethically and environmentally superior to whey.
This would enable us to reduce demand by taking market share and provide profits to fund the sanctuaries.
The whey brand market leaders all have vegan brands now, as they recognise this growth, too.
This presents both a threat and an opportunity, to offer their customers a better product with true ethical credentials, making their gains go further.
If you could buy a better product for the same price and the profits supported animal sanctuaries, why wouldn't you?
How are you using the brand to support the vegan movement and why is this important?
It's my purpose in life, as I see it, to make a difference if I can, so I'm just using what I know to hopefully achieve that.
Once we're up and running, we plan to use our profits first of all to fund sanctuaries.
Going forward, we'd like to fund political lobbying to effect systemic change, and remove or reduce subsidies, and we'd like to help farmers to transition to more ethical revenue streams.