Stanford-educated Richie Kul is a former investment banking analyst and financial whiz who, when he found himself longing for the kind of fulfillment that staring at spreadsheets just couldn’t meet, swapped his career out for a new one: being a powerful voice for compassionate living through his work as an actor and model. Using his platforms on social media and with associations with groups like Compassion Over Killing and Animals Asia, Richie is helping to spread the message of veganism in thoughtful and compelling ways, helping to nudge society toward a new world order, where men can see that there is nothing to be ashamed of with having a big, kind heart. With his international portfolio boasting big campaigns and fashion editorials for Swatch, VAUTE, and Men’s Health to name a few, Richie manages his successful career without violating his vegan ethic. With the his beloved rescue pup Lily, a.k.a., Lily Miss Sunshine, a social media superstar in her own right, by his side, Richie and his sweet girl are getting the word out far and wide. We are honored and happy to feature Richie Kul as this week’s Vegan Rock Star.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
As a young child, I vividly recall watching movies like Babe and Charlotte’s Web and rooting for the protagonists to escape harm’s way. And promptly after the closing credits, I would summarily resume habits that were in direct contradiction to the empathy and concern I demonstrated mere minutes prior. Eventually, the more I watched and reflected on this glaring disconnect, the more I began associating the food on my plate with the innocent and intelligent animals that unwillingly lost their lives for said meal.
Not long after, I went vegetarian in my early teens, where I took extended refuge in the comforting illusion that animals used in the dairy, egg and wool industries were somehow compassionately cared for and free to live out a peaceful coexistence. In retrospect, I shake my head at this self-serving fantasyland I inhabited. Just as a car slated to be junked in six months wouldn’t warrant any meaningful care or attention, it makes no sense for commodities, living or otherwise, and with a predetermined shelf life, to be treated with any genuine compassion or respect. In many ways, their drawn-out suffering and the callous breaking of the sacred mother-child bond make the dairy industry even more pernicious than the meat and veal industries it fuels.
Sometimes it takes a sharp and decisive reality check to shake people out of such deeply ingrained complacency, and when I was subsequently asked to endorse vegan initiatives such as US Veg Week and MeatOut, I began to investigate why so many vegetarians were going vegan and eventually determined that exploitation of any shade or color didn’t sit well with me. Knowledge is power, and when we know better, we surely ought to do better.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
I’ve come to understand that the messenger can often be as salient as the message, and when someone I love, admire or respect takes the time to share something important to them, I tend to listen intently. Step one is to allow our lives to be a testament to our values such that trust and credibility are present when we speak. The pre-vegan Richie does wish he hadn’t been coddled for so long, and while the brutal truth of the animal agriculture industry can be hard to take, I would have liked for the cruelty and violence inherent in these practices to have been revealed to me in a firm but empathetic way.
I completely get that for some, change takes time, but the animals we routinely dismiss as food or fur sadly don’t have the luxury of waiting patiently as we come around to a logical and compassionate conclusion. That urgency does inform my own delivery, and when I encounter kind-hearted people who would never think to harm innocent and defenseless beings in their own daily actions, I feel it’s important to plant and nurture that seed of compassion and be there to offer advice and support as others embark on their own cruelty-free journeys.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
People want to make sure that the altruistic choices they make are also beneficial to their personal well-being and that of their loved ones, and that’s a perfectly fair consideration. As an actor and model, I’m expected to stay in peak physical condition for work, and I find that demonstrating that you can be strong, masculine and healthy while also being compassionate and thoughtful is an important message to impart to those who are considering vegan living. Show not tell, as they say.
At a very early age, many of us are indoctrinated with this widespread narrative of manhood being synonymous with aggression and control, but history and common sense have demonstrated that this primitive way of thinking often leads down a very dark and destructive path. In truth, being a real man entails making thoughtful, informed choices and putting the needs of others before our own selfish wants. Those that are truly strong are assured enough in their place in the world that they don’t need to bully or exploit others to solidify their standing. Instead, they commit themselves and their energy to caring for and protecting the most innocent and defenceless among us. That is the true measure of a man and that’s the message I try to impart when extolling the many virtues of veganism.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
You can never go wrong when you operate from a place of sincere compassion and empathy, and therein lies the greatest strength of the vegan movement. The most effective ambassadors for the vegan cause are generally rooted in a place of deep concern for others, and are very supportive and nurturing while also steadfast in their convictions. A vegan lifestyle is empirically and scientifically proven to to be beneficial to our health, the planet and our animal friends, and ultimately it’s very hard to argue against living kindly and thoughtfully.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Breaking free of deeply entrenched habits and the many myths and excuses we’ve erected to legitimize them can be challenging, especially when people are instinctively defensive and understandably loathe to recognising their complicity in animal use and abuse. Yes, it’s jarring and yes it’s uncomfortable, but that uneasiness doesn’t change the horrific reality for 50+ billion animals every year that are systematically bred and slaughtered because we directly fuel a demand for their flesh. I think people naturally balk at the idea of seeing themselves as anything other than good and kind. In so doing, they overlook the simple truth that one ought to regularly do good and kind things in order to deserve that designation. Some might say that life is about picking your areas of personal concern and I understand that for some, education, poverty alleviation, women’s rights or wildlife conservation are what drive and motivate them. And that’s very noble and admirable. But I also believe that it’s hard to speak credibly of peace, love and empathy if three+ times a day we engage in a practice that is inherently non-peaceful, non-loving and most profoundly lacking in empathy.
With that said, I think the key to getting the message out most effectively is being selective and focusing our attention and concern on the people who are receptive to the message and not the rabble rousers looking to provoke and antagonize. Don't let your peace be stolen so easily by overgrown bullies that are eager to pick their next pointless fight. Save your energy and effort for those that will appreciate your thoughtful advice and support.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
If we could choose to live with kindness, love and compassion for all living beings while also improving and restoring our own health and vitality, why wouldn’t we? Many of us profess to abhor violence and love animals, but just as it would be preposterous for a dog lover to confess to eating dog meat, it makes no sense to declare a love for animals while also eating them and regularly contributing to their harm. Hope as we may, no animal be them organic, free range or pasture raised, is gently cuddled into nuggets, filets or leather trim, and if we truly love animals and value peace and compassion, we ought to walk the talk and align our actions with our values.
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
My beloved 7 year old Lily always inspires me to be a better man and speak out for the innocent and defenseless. She is vegan as well, and seeing her thrive on a cruelty free diet reminds me that misinformation persists even within the animal welfare community about what is truly healthful and beneficial for our furry companions. Well-meaning folks will invariably invoke wolves and rail against an “unnatural” plant-based diet, all while ignoring the fact that wolves in the wild often only live 6 or 7 years, or that a life of leashes, monthly grooming session, doggy beds and food bowls are hardly natural. We all have room to grow and improve, and Lily reminds me to be present while working to minimize my own negative impact on the world and the beings I share it with.
I find the insightful observations of psychologist Melanie Joy really effective and compelling, and the heartfelt honesty of former pig farmer turned vegan activist Bob Comis always serves as a powerful reminder to me of man’s infinite capacity for change.
The work of my friend Lola Webber at Change for Animals Foundation also highlights for me the tremendous impact that good people can make when they passionately stand up for what they believe in.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
When I’m feeling discouraged, looking at pictures and videos of rescued farm animals at sanctuaries like Edgar’s Mission, Where Pigs Fly and Rancho Relaxo always helps restore my spirit and faith. We can choose to wallow in the depths of despair if we constantly expose ourselves to negativity and darkness, but I try whenever possible to focus on the light, and the positive and hopeful side of things.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
As a model, the rise of vegan brands is something that I am particularly excited about, and the growing public awareness of the brutality inherent in the leather, wool and down industries is something that gives me hope for a better and brighter tomorrow. Italy has long been at the cutting edge of the fashion industry, so seeing the emergence of successful cruelty-free brands like Miomojo that donate a portion of every sale to animal causes is particularly gratifying and fulfilling. The more vegan options we have for folks to choose from, the more lives will be spared, and as a conscious consumer, I will always support brands that align with my values.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
“… a daily opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to justice, compassion and healthy, mindful living.”