The evangelical vegan ballerina Sylvie Guillem has been caught in a porkie-pie in her fervour to promote radical action against the meat industry. The anti-animal products brigade Peta has just unveiled a new campaign headlining on a photograph of the dazzling, naked Guillem as a declaration of the strength and health of veganism. It’s been picked up everywhere on the net with the subheading: ‘Guillem shows off her new vegan physique.’ It neatly chimes with Guillem’s final performances as a dancer and her preparation to re-emerge on the world stage as an environmental activist.
Peta’s campaign coverline runs thus: ‘Sylvie Guillem, one of the greatest dancers of our time, is vegan. She recently teamed up with us to take the “ultimate selfie” for our latest vegan campaign.’ And the spectacular picture below:
However, this is untrue - not just once, but three times over. The photograph is not 'recent', it dates from 2001; it was not a Peta team-up but a French Vogue commission; and it certainly does not show a body raised on veganism - the superstar ballerina was one of the world’s most celebrated fans of Italian charcuterie for most of her performing career, and only became a vegetarian in 2009, according to her interview with me in the Speccie last November. (Nor, by the way, is the photo a selfie - her husband Gilles Tapie was the photographer.)
As an unbridled admirer of Guillem’s bold individuality as an artist, I’m naturally delighted to spot that the ballerina’s quotes in the Peta campaign copy about her new vitality have been drawn from my Spectator interview. The Spectator getting into bed with Peta must score gratifyingly high even in this magazine’s record of provocation.
Still, I couldn’t help wincing when I re-read what I wrote in the interview about Guillem’s attitude to her art: ‘I wish that a mission not to deceive the public was more common. I’m grateful that Guillem takes her public’s emotions so seriously…’ For the lamentable fact is that she and Peta are carrying out a deception, as they know perfectly well.
And worse still, Guillem tries to justify it on her Facebook page. She writes: ‘I have seen that some persons were complaining because we used a picture 10 years old [sic, actually 14] for the Peta campaign saying at this time I was still eating meat… fair enough.’ She goes on to say that after her final performance in Japan on December 31, her husband will ‘do the same picture with the body I will have and I will be 51. You know what… identical.’
She may turn out to be right, given what we’ve seen of her astounding strength and fastidiousness on the farewell tour, which has finally left British shores on its way east to its final destination in Japan. But that’s not the point. Guillem, the most famously principled of artists, so unwilling to fudge and fake her work that she gave up Swan Lake admitting defeat, who so refreshingly refused to pretend to Britishness by feigning interest in the weather, who used her independent-mindedness to fashion a career of awesome effectiveness, appears here to have taken a dreadful, callow misstep.
We can’t know how much in this deception is Peta’s fault, but surely eyes have been closed on all sides due to Guillem’s fame and her own fervid commitment to environmental radicalism.
Guillem is hoping that after she dances her last step on the stroke of midnight on December 31, she can exert her celebrity and influence to promote the righteousness of environmental and animal rights activism. Her championing of Sea Shepherd, the radical breakaway faction from Greenpeace, has already allied her to the guerrilla wing of lobbying. (She’s not the first superstar ballerina to be excited by guerrilla causes - Margot Fonteyn got caught smuggling guns to help her husband stage a coup against the Panamanian government in 1959. Maybe it’s something to do with the cloistered life.)
Given Peta’s fierce reputation, I hope it will allow me politely and angrily to say that this campaign is a fraud on the gullible and should be withdrawn. There’s no doubt that there are barbaric practices in the meat industry, and undoubtedly they should stoke visceral opposition to abolish them. But I know the arguments don’t need childish deceit - and so comically easily exposed, too! - to get them public attention.
And it’s doubly disillusioning, because we know not only that Sylvie’s eyewatering physical shape in the photo in Peta’s latest campaign is actually that of a 36-year-old carnivore, but that she is promoting its global misrepresentation as the body of a recently converted vegan of 50. She’s told a huge porkie-pie. How credible a fighter for right can she be now? Sylvie Guillem ends her peerless career with a maladroitness that I’d never, ever have thought possible.