The Vestey family produced the Dewhurst chain of butchers shops… and two vegan heirs.
Author and Viva! supporter Julia Stephenson is one of them.
Juliet Gellatley meets the rebel with a cause.
Julia Stephenson doesn’t give out revolutionary vibes when you first meet her. She is petite and blonde, beautiful and extremely elegant – a well-brought-up product of boarding school and Lucy Clayton’s college for the well heeled and well connected. She is also heiress to a fortune so vast that thinking of it makes your eyes water.
But once the conversation begins to flow, you quickly realise that Julia has made a profession out of challenging people. From the age of 14, she has left no one in doubt that animals and the environment are of prime importance to her – and should be to them. The plots for her novels include themes based on these beliefs. As my own awareness began at around the same age, it’s something I empathise with. But our backgrounds couldn’t be more divergent.
Her cousin is Lady Vestey, godmother to Prince Harry. Another cousin is Lord Vestey, head of a family which once held the reins to a vast empire which dominated the world’s meat industry. It began in the stockyards of Chicago where meat trimmings were processed into corned beef. It grew to encompass ranches, slaughterhouses, meat packing sheds, shipping lines, cold storage, wholesale markets and high street butchers. The Vesteys were the biggest retailers of meat in the world.
Against this global family backdrop of incalculable pain and suffering, it is extraordinary that Julia has entirely rejected a philosophy of animal exploitation. She is the copper’s kid turned criminal, the vicar’s daughter turned heretic. But she has an important ally; her brother Mark Brown, a man the press love to call a ‘militant vegan’ – it saves them having to report what he says.
Mark became a vegan at the age of 14 and is now involved with Reclaim the Streets. It is almost painful trying to get your head around the simple fact that not one but two of the Vestey family have entirely rejected that which built their fortunes. If you were a bookmaker, what odds would you offer on it happening? I assume it must represent a revolt against the family’s values – some kind of karmic pay back for all the animal suffering.
Julia answers without any need for soul searching. She has obviously had plenty of time to consider the contradiction.
“I’ve always been aware of the irony – it’s something I’ve grown up with. But my beliefs aren’t a rebellion against my family – not at all. They’re very open to argument and are incredibly honest about people and issues. I think because we were brought up in this caring atmosphere, it made it much easier for my brother and I to take it a step further and extend it to animals.”
It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It seemed too simple, too stripped of emotion. We talked about other things in the comfortable surroundings of Julia’s flat, just a stone’s throw from Sloane Square underground station. Inevitably we came back to it. This time the passion showed.
“When I was growing up, there was no direct connection with the meat industry. All the money was in trust and everything was sanitised. I knew the family business had something to do with meat but I hadn’t made any connection with living animals.
“It was a very difficult, uneasy childhood with a lot of emotional chaos all around. I believe the distress I felt gave me an immediate connection with the suffering of other people and animals. When you have that experience as a child, you can’t give voice to it – you don’t have any power or influence to change things. When you feel like that you automatically have a connection with animals because they too have no voice.”
“Of course I’m aware that my economic freedom comes from the very thing I find so hard to stomach. I have both gratitude and respect for my forefathers but times have changed and the meat industry is one of unprecedented brutality, where compassion and health considerations are totally abandoned in favour of greed and profit.”
Even when speaking passionately, about a subject which is so important it has changed her life, Julia Stephenson remains totally calm. In fact, it is an integral part of her make up. I have never seen an aura but I could certainly sense one. It was of calmness and kindness and I had the distinct impression that it was the tranquillity that follows whirlwinds – in Julia’s case, long since abated. She is a woman at peace with herself and for that she thanks Buddhism, her other passion.
“I’ve been a Buddhist for eight years and it has been fundamental in me sorting myself out emotionally but it is also extremely eco-minded. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and for the planet’s life – for everything that happens. If I’m disturbed by the destruction of rain forests, my love life’s bad or I’m in financial difficulty, I can’t blame someone else, I can actually influence events.”
Although I’m not religious, the common sense in many ancient teachings is so fundamental and pertinent it is unarguable. I look at the arrogance and cynicism which now passes for leadership and wonder how we ever got here. Like the Pied Piper, they have us dancing to a tune of apathy and consumerism and will lead us all over the cliff if we let them. As Julia explained, Buddhism grasped this fundamental understanding centuries before I ever did.
“Everything is interconnected. We are simply an extension of our environment and our environment is an extension of us. Whatever our state of mind, it is reflected in the world around us.
“For example, the result of our appalling treatment of animals can be seen everywhere. I walk down the Kings Road every day and I see people who can barely move, they’re so stiff and arthritic.
“People are so angry now – hurrying and scurrying around, suffering from road rage and showing so much violence. I believe it’s because they’re consuming anger and suffering on such a scale that it must be feeding into their behaviour as human beings. But counterbalanced against this, we seem to be entering an era of global concern where people are discovering that they can exercise compassion and feel a responsibility for events which are taking place thousands of miles away.
“Some people in the world are asleep and some are awake. You can’t blame those who are still asleep but more and more people are starting to wake up – they want to be woken up.”
I don’t think the young Julia Stephenson was quite so philosophical. When she attended Lucy Clayton’s she was the token vegan in a class full of teenagers with no beliefs. She was angry at their apathy, angry at everyone, an odd ball, unpopular. Then she teamed up with another vegan – a glamorous Indian Princess called Delara.
They inundated the meat counters in supermarkets with leaflets, argued with the customers and the inevitable manhandling and ejections followed. Her family was not pleased.
After leaving college with no qualifications, Julia did a stint on the switchboard of her father’s factory. It didn’t last long. He sacked her for leafleting the workforce on factory farming and using her position as the boss’s daughter to make them sign petitions. It was followed by a session as a chalet girl. But she’s still prepared to use her position for the cause.
Society’s monthly bible is The Tatler magazine and I have to be honest, they’re not close friends of Viva! My first contact with Julia came in a letter in which she said she was writing a four-page article about herself for the magazine – and would donate the fee to our campaigns. When a copy of it arrived, I was delighted to see a powerful defence of animals and a fulsome mention of Viva! – alongside two-full page pictures of Julia naked. Here was a woman unafraid of publicity.
“To be honest, I quite enjoy it. What’s the point in having a background like mine if you don’t use it? That one article gave me more pleasure than all the fluff I’m paid well for writing. I could set out my beliefs without interference.
“I once went out with an Earl, which was great because it helped me get my first book published and opened new doors to new circles. It’s not a world I find particularly interesting any more but I’m prepared to use it.
Understandably, Julia’s novels also reflect her beliefs. A few years ago, they would probably been labelled ‘bonkbusters’ but she has reclassified them – first as ‘frothbusters’ and now as ‘eco-frothbusters’. I’m not sure what the froth symbolises.
In her second novel, Chalet Tiara (Headline £5.99), art quite clearly reflects life. The heroine is heiress to a global pork pie empire and bewilders her parents by becoming a vegetarian chalet girl. She writes a best-selling, eco-friendly cookery book but comes a cropper when she appears naked in a glossy magazine!
“Beneath all the frivolity in my book, I try to reflect the mood of the age. There is a new awareness and people are resigning from mega-buck city jobs in droves to follow their dreams. But in the midst of all this we still have the single thirty-somethings, whose fruitless search for men has the intensity of a quest for the holy grail. We have been brainwashed into thinking that only by finding the perfect mate do we become fulfilled. On the contrary, it is only when we start to do things for others, to follow more global dreams, that our personal lives fall into place."
I have to ask the question – why did Julia Stephenson single out Viva!?
“I think Viva!’s great because it’s young, energetic, lively. There’s no limitations on what you’re trying to do, there aren’t any boundaries and you want everyone to give up eating meat. You seem to be motivated by love of animals rather than hatred of people for eating them so it’s very pure motivation.
“The fact that you’ve got people up and down the country and you are prepared to get them out on the streets for things like Babe and ducks and pregnant cows is marvellous. You can put your finger on what you’re actually doing.”
I’m rather glad I asked! Julia Stephenson is obviously a complex character Of all the things in her life, what is the primary motivating force?
“It’s compassion, its a desire to end cruelty. I get images of factory farming and slaughter stuck in my head and they just keep rolling around. Some people used to laugh at those who protested against slavery, bear baiting, public hangings or cock fighting.
“I look forward to the time when people no longer avert their eyes from the horror of modern farming, like the large numbers of respectable Germans who protested that they didn’t know what was going on in World War II.
“It’s time to abandon our double standards. We view our pets with affection but allow other species to suffer agonies. I feel proud that I have been able to see the truth.”