Last fall I was holed up in a big empty house on Cape Cod. It was the off season, and I was trying to have a writing retreat, but I was wasting it on the couch in front of the tube. I was in a stupor, glued to VH1—did I mention I was in a stupor?—when I stumbled across “Surviving Nugent,” a reality show in which half-a-dozen hapless “contestants” are sequestered on Ted Nugent’s ranch in Michigan. Their trials are outdoorsy things like running around in swamps and letting the Nuge verbally abuse them while he pretends to do a William Tell thing with an apple and an arrow.
It would all be in good fun, except for the Nuge’s little personality flaw: he derives gleeful pleasure from killing. His bloodlust is a revolting combination of bravado and heedless excess, and in “Surviving Nugent,” it translated into a running theme of animal torture. So why was I still watching?
It was because of Sarah Sue Roberts. As a vegan and animal rights activist (she was Campaigns Manager at Last Chance for Animals in LA), she was taunted relentlessly by Nugent and the other contestants. She was forced to watch as animals were slaughtered and abused in the name of entertainment, and she was harassed to the point of tears over and over again for living her beliefs.
I couldn’t stop watching. It wasn’t about Nugent. It was about Sarah. She was living through vegan hell—an extreme version of the little trials that all of us go through every day. She came face to face with the Devil and looked him in the eye, and she came out of it stronger than ever. After she was booted from the show (she came in third), and Nugent’s boorish ranch hand bade her farewell with the words “Good riddance, tofu bitch,” I knew I had to talk to her.
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It’s indeed a marvelous world where we can go from living lives of compassion to sobbing on national TV because other people are such assholes. How did you wind up in the middle of that spectacle?
I was standing out on a street in LA with a big projector screen playing slaughterhouse footage and narrating it for passers-by when a guy came up to me and said I was really eloquent, informed, and passionate about the issues. He told me I should audition for this TV show. He pulled out the number and I thought it was fake. Turns out it wasn’t. I had no idea what show it was for, but I knew they wanted someone to talk about animal rights, which excited me. So I went into the audition very jazzed and nailed it.
But when I got to the airport in Michigan, I realized I was walking straight into the jaws of the enemy. I’ve surrounded myself with almost all vegan friends to escape the depression I felt in the meat eating world, but suddenly I could feel this alien hunters’ atmosphere descend around me. It was sickening. The other contestants were talking about bashing an animal’s brains into a cement sidewalk and killing for fun.
As they put it in the press release: “The seven [contestants] include a vegan, a gay man, a New Yorker and a sex kitten.” It sounds like the start of a bad joke. It’s interesting that only you were identified by your convictions. It was a rare case of substance being inserted into “reality” TV.
Well, the other characters didn’t seem to have any convictions. Plus it wouldn’t have been PC to pick on them for the stereotypes they were representing. Currently, it’s seen as OK and acceptable to torture, discriminate against, and make fun of vegetarians. But do that to a non-Caucasian ethnicity? No way.
I think it’s because the animal rights movement and culture is pretty new—it’s fairly recent that it’s gained large enough numbers to even be considered a movement or a culture. People don’t see it as something fundamental to the person’s identity. All social justice groups have gone through periods where it was considered ok to discriminate against them, but eventually they had to take a stand against that as a group.
What do you think about the fact that there is a vegan running for the presidential nomination with a major party?
Oh my favorite subject! Someday I am going to marry Kucinich. [laughs]. I am working around the clock to convince people to vote for him in the primaries. Kucinich is the most amazing example of a progressive vegan not just talking the talk, but actually pushing his way into the system to change it. His campaign alone is creating awareness of what a vegan is, and demanding respect for it. If I hear of any person who’s a vegan, any other type of progressive, or anyone who’s ever been to a WTO protest or whatever who doesn’t vote for Kucinich in the Primaries, I will have to kick some major butt.
I can just hear the hacks at VH1: “Let’s put a vegan in there with the Nuge! Imagine the drama!” As it happened, most of the people on the show—Nugent, his family, and the other contestants—came across as extremely hostile to you. How much of this was instigated by the direction and highlighted in the editing, and how much was genuine hostility?
I had lots of conflict with the other contestants. Jack [“the New Yorker”] acted like he hated me until he saw me naked—then it was just him trying to have sex with me while he talked about McDonalds—BLECH! So there was a lot of natural conflict, as well as the stuff they set up—like shooting down the geese or attacking my ethics as soon as I walked into the dining room. And then not feeding me, because Nuge put deer grease in my food. The lovely casting director had to sneak me some nuts and a half a bagel later.
But a lot of times, Nugent was pretty nice to me. When I left the house after the dinner scene where I cried he very respectfully and quietly said “Good night Ms Roberts.” He said it so respectfully that I was surprised and flattered—that kind of respect from the opposition felt like a compliment, so I just responded in kind. It felt kind of like being “proper” enemies, like the kind who don’t fight after dark.
I felt very warped and psychologically twisted when I left the show because Nugent had been so nice to me. I couldn’t reconcile it in my mind with his actions, which I didn’t think were nice or good at all. But I also know that Hitler was known to be charming, nice, and a lady killer. No matter how nice he was as a person, I’d still hate everything he did and stood for—and I’d have to fight him to my dying day. That’s how I eventually thought of Nugent.
Hitler was also a vegetarian [not true, I found out later]. That often comes up in mindless arguments from meateaters—as though it taints the very idea of vegetarianism. How can we, as vegans, deal with irrational and incoherent arguments—and you certainly got a lot of those on the show—as we try to make our point?
When people come up with really stupid arguments against vegetarianism they are just using anything they can to not look at themselves—because that’s the scary part. Diversion is a great way for people to keep themselves from thinking about what’s scaring them. They’ll throw anything at you, no matter how absurd, to keep you off topic. I tell vegans not to get frustrated or too bogged down in it—it’s not that the people really believe that crap, it’s that they are desperately trying to keep from thinking at all so they can keep their emotional disconnect up.
I thought that was hilarious when you were kicked off the show and Big Jim said “Good riddance tofu bitch!” It would make a great t-shirt.
Ha! I like that. I’ve been working hard to make myself sort of more bitchy. It’s always been an imperative for me to stick up for myself more: Tofu Bitch!
I should use it as the title of this interview.
Dude you totally should.
In the extreme world of television, the everyday gets magnified until it’s bizarre and grotesque, but it does still reflect the culture we live in. While most vegans aren’t forced to witness bloody and cruel pig slaughters, we do have to contend with carcasses at the festive family dinner and other such incongruities. Something that happens to me all the time is I’m at a wedding, and I get the special vegan meal, and invariably the conversation at the table turns to veganism.
URGH—I hate that! I’ve become the target of an uncomfortable-yet-restrained attack on my eating habits too many times at dinner tables. But I’ve learned through the years, even though I am not moderate, to appear moderate. That might come as a surprise to anyone who saw the way I appeared on the show, but it’s true.
I tell people that if they can at least reduce their animal consumption by fifty percent it would help animals and their health immeasurably, without sacrificing their beliefs in meat. When I say this, people feel less defensive. It dissolves every argument they have, from health on up to taste buds. If you think about it, if all Americans cut back meat by fifty percent in their diets, we’d have the equivalent of half the country going fully vegetarian.
Basically, I am approaching things as if I come from their viewpoint a lot more nowadays, and it’s effective. This is one reason I think it’s a shame when vegans slam each other for the smallest non-vegan thing anyone does. It does a huge disservice to us to pick on someone for eating sugar or for saying something “wrong” when you could be out teaching someone how to bake pastries without eggs.
Did you learn lessons about yourself in the process of surviving Nugent?
I did learn the amazing lesson that I have the ability to like people even when I oppose what they do. Before, I had a hard time liking people who do things that are so hideous to me. And that’s still hard for me, and I can’t always do it, nor do I want to. But if it happens, it doesn’t freak me out anymore. I have just recognized not to battle the people, but to battle their actions, which is honestly what I really dislike. But I have to admit that recently my mom said she was going to serve up a dead pig at a party when I visited her. I told her I was so sad I could barely speak with her. And I did feel some of my feelings for her shatter after all I have been through with her on this subject.
One thing I thought was particularly admirable is that you didn’t haul off and punch anyone on the show (other than Nugent’s good-for-nothing kid). Almost everyone richly deserved it. Did you find yourself constantly trying to keep a lid on it?
Everyone’s asked me how I didn’t punch Jack [“the New Yorker”] in the face when he came up on me like he’d fight me. I spread my hands instead and said something like “oh no—don’t even go there.”
With Rocco [the Nuge’s spawn] throwing eggs at me, I felt justified in fighting back because he had attacked me first. I was just going to throw eggs at him anyway, the ones he dropped.
Instead you chased the brat down and tackled him outside the barn—I think everyone was happy to see him get it.
Yeah, I felt like the others were wienies for not defending themselves—I wasn’t about to sit back and play my expected gender role of being a nice, wimpy girl.
But other than that you kept from lashing out under very intense pressure and harassment.
Honestly, you want to know how I did it? It’s because of all my activism experience, where you learn that whoever throws the first punch is the offender and goes to jail. Its just all about self-preservation. And remembering that my ultimate goal was to try to make veganism look as good as possible, I knew I’d be totally discredited if I punched someone out [sighs]. I’ve gotten really good at not punching first, especially being on probation.
What are you on probation for?
Conspiracy to commit a crime and wearing a mask with intent to commit a crime. But I was innocent. Really.
I got taken to a protest by a friend when I was just becoming an activist. I didn’t know anything about this protest but it ended up being a human rights and earth rights May Day Anarchist thing. The Long Beach cops were afraid it was going to get violent so they pre-emptively shot everyone with bean bags and rubber bullets.
They wanted to make sure the violence started on time?
I guess. They were using batons, and pain holds and all that kind of typical cop stuff.
Anyway, they never proved that I was an anarchist, they never proved what crime I was going to do—nothing. It really freaked me out. The cops were caught straight-out lying on the stand to the point where they were literally sweating. I thought there was no way I was going to be convicted, but I was. I got convicted because people decided I looked scary. I could not believe it.
How did you look?
Like a really thin girl wearing a black mask.
I was sentenced to six months, a thousand dollar fine and three years’ probation. The stenographers wiped out my fine. When I stood up they had tears in their eyes. They knew I shouldn’t have been convicted. I called later to pay the fine and they said there was no record of it. So I hung up right away.
I went in for ten days and starved. They wouldn’t give me any food I could eat. So much happened to me. The whole time I was trying to just forgive my jurors. But I haven’t forgiven them. I’m so upset at those people.
I was going through a real depression because my ideals about America were crashing down around me. Suddenly I didn’t see the America I was shown in high school; I saw 1984.
How old were you?
I was 26—it was two years ago.
They labeled me a problem inmate and then finally, even though I was on the psycho ward, they released me to house arrest.
You seem like a magnet for unjustified attacks. On VH1’s message boards commenting on the show, you get flack from other vegans complaining about how you handled yourself and what you said. Among other things, you were described as “a sniveling, poorly educated crybaby.” Did you expect that kind of abuse from your own people?
I knew I was going into hell, and a major part of the pressure and nerves I felt was a deep fear of the beatings I was sure to get from my fellow vegans if I made even one slight misstep. I knew I might be ridiculed and hated by the vegans faster than anyone else, and the pressure of trying to represent veganism in that environment with that much riding on my shoulders and possibly the whole world ready to hate me was almost unbearable.
Not only did the comments burn, but their utter lack of understanding of television and what will get something aired or not was frustrating. The only times I could get my statements across were in high-ratings moments—in other words, when I was crying or upset—the worst times for anything to get through.
But still, to me, the hardest postings to deal with—the most enraging—were the sexist ones. I just recently read one from a guy who thought he was defending me; he said “oh come on, Sarah’s just a girl. You can’t expect her to be as intelligent as someone like John Robbins or Howard Lyman.”
I was totally shocked that not even one feminist wrote me to say “hey, good job for being sensational enough to get any of these issues on TV without having to resort to putting naked, commercially perfectionized, de-intellectualized women up there for the attention and ratings.”
I did get a letter from the whole PETA staff though, supporting me and the spunk and personality they knew I had to have in order to get my activist vegan ass on TV in the first place. That made me feel so warm and understood.
Although PETA’s also been criticized for the way they use images of women.
I love PETA, and as I said they were very supportive, but I do think they cater too much to Hollywood. Guys who go to look at PETA’s images of women don’t care about the issues; it’s not helping them change. We’ve got to be careful not to get sucked into Hollywood and just do what they want, because they will control and use us.
Still, it seems like the most prominent progress for the acceptance of veganism has been made in the world of entertainment, which is usually thought of as vapid and empty. Why do you think this sector is leading the way?
There are actually a lot of progressives and liberals in entertainment and right now vegans are interesting and create ratings and controversy, something that entertainment thrives on. They are reaching ever more for anything out there that hasn’t been homogenized into commercialized boringness—and that’s us: vegans!
So you must have had some positive feedback too.
Definitely. The discussions on the message boards were not representative at all of the responses I got in real life. I had tons of fan mail sent to my e-mail at work, even one from a hunter who donated money to Last Chance for Animals in my name. One woman stopped me to ask how to cook vegan. Some grizzled biker dude now respects vegans. Some people have joined my yahoo activist group and are at least reading and interested in these issues now.
Having had such a harrowing personal experience with it, do you have any advice for other vegans who might find themselves representing like that through mainstream media?
Actually, they just re-cast a second show, which worried me. They’ve raised the stakes to $100,000 and I’m worried that Nugent is doing this in an attempt to make people do things they wouldn’t normally do or say—like getting a vegan to eat meat.
I worked hard with the casting directors to try to ensure that a kick ass vegan got cast. I helped the person they eventually picked get cast. I know she’s someone who won’t roll over to just take the money. It’s a big relief because I know what it’s like to get stuck on a big stick and flamed in the Nugent fire.