Vegan Bodybuilder Kenneth G. Williams
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The natural olympia is one of the pharmaceutical-free-bodybuilding circuit's premier contests, and even without steroids, its competitors look less like men than ideas of men as imagined by comic book artists--with rough-hewn backs and abdomens like stamped iron panels.
Kenneth Williams sits in the audience, waiting for his turn to preen. The 41-year-old is irrepressibly handsome, with a mayoral smile, shaved head, and tiny triangular tattoo under his left eye. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, he's "still in the baby stage"; he hopes to gain another 25 pounds. After a four-year hiatus from bodybuilding, he's spent the last seven months resculpting his musculature--all on a diet of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, and lots of soy protein.
In a feat that he claims "shocked the world," Williams placed third in the novice division of the Natural Olympia in 2004, becoming a major figure in the exceedingly minor subculture of vegan bodybuilding. So far, just a few vegans have infiltrated the elite levels of professional sports, such as Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, the former Atlanta Hawks guard Salim Stoudamire, and Ultimate Fighting Championship bruiser Mac Danzig. Williams is on a mission to inflate his body into a bulging rejoinder to the myth that you can't build muscle on a plant-based diet. "If you think of a vegan," he says, "you think of someone who is skinny and frail, who has issues. A tree hugger. Smells funny. I'm putting the breath of life back into people. I'm out to save lives."
it was at 3 a.m. five years ago that, while fixing a middle-of-the-night meal, Williams "had the awakening." "I had two pieces of fried chicken, rice, and salad," he recalls. For some reason, he couldn't stop glaring at the chicken. "I was thinking about all the killing and the destruction going on in the world. And I looked down at that chicken and said, 'I'm eating death, and I don't even know why.'" He scraped the meat off his plate and went back to sleep a changed man.
He had never heard the word "vegan" before. All he knew was, "The spirit told me, 'Nothing from an animal. You don't eat nothing from an animal until you find out what's going on.'" He entered the 2004 Natural Olympia to prove a point to his meat-loving gym buddies, "not knowing," as he puts it, "that the stardom was just around the corner."
Elliot Katz, president of the Bay Area-based animal rights group In Defense of Animals (ida), heard about Williams' feat and started going to local gyms, asking if anyone knew the vegan bodybuilder. One gargantuan fellow, Katz remembers, told him, "There's no such thing." Katz eventually found Williams and made him the poster boy for a campaign with the catchphrase "Go Vegan and No Body Gets Hurt."
Pictures of Williams balancing a yellow chick on his deltoid or hoisting a massive wicker cornucopia of fruits and vegetables appeared on billboards and in vegetarian magazines. He went to animal rights conventions and hosted 52 episodes of Undercover TV, which featured footage of animal abuse inside factory farms, rodeos, and zoos. After a four-year break from competition, early last year, he realized the best way to continue his vegan evangelism. "The universe said, 'Ken, it's time to get back into bodybuilding.'"
Kenneth Williams pretty much has the division to himself.
If there were a division.
TEAMWORK: Kenneth Williams, a vegan bodybuilder who works for In Defense of Animals, trains with Jean Scutt at Gold's Gym in Corte Madera. Special to the IJ/Vivian Johnson.
Williams stops short of calling himself the world's only vegan bodybuilder É but not much short. "There's one other guy," says Williams, taking a break from his at workout at Gold's Gym in Larkspur. But the other guy, he says, is "just getting going."
Williams could easily call himself the world's pre-eminent vegan body builder, but the job description goes way beyond that. Williams is a charismatic spokesman for Marin-based In Defense of Animals. He hosts IDA's "Undercover TV" show (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Comcast Cable channel 26). He has a Web site for his particular wisdom, www.veganmusclepower.com.
And he does some modeling.
It's a rare combination. Just how rare IDA founder Elliot Katz found out two years ago when he went looking for the man behind the rumor. He'd heard about a vegan bodybuilder and saw it as a chance to break through the "little old ladies in tennis shoes" animal rights stereotype.
"I was going from gym to gym trying find him," Katz says, of his quest to find Williams. He recalls approaching one particularly muscular specimen in a gym parking lot inquiring if he knew anything about this "vegan bodybuilder." "He said, 'There is no such thing,'" Katz recalls.
But Katz found Williams, and Williams has found himself putting a new face on veganism.
"I found my calling," he says, "and I found it in a most unusual way."
Williams wasn't always a vegan. He'd played football in high school and college. He remembers a hearty appetite and heaps of meat. "My whole diet consisted of chicken, fish, steak and lots of dairy."
As an adult, and as a bodybuilder, he continued what he'd accepted as a muscle-building diet.
And then, three years ago, he had what he calls "a moment."
Like so many epiphanies, it came late at night. But this one came with rice. He'd woken up at 3 a.m. to eat "as bodybuilders tend to do," he says. And he'd put two chicken breasts and the rice on his plate. His mind wandered off the menu, Williams contemplating "all the death and destruction around the world.
"I happened to look down on my plate and I said 'I'll be damned, death and destruction, right here on my plate,'" he says. "I woke up two hours later and I was a vegan."
It wouldn't be a simple step for anybody, but it was especially complicated for Williams. He was a bodybuilder and there's not a lot of information out there on veganism for bodybuilder. There is no "Dummy's Guide to Vegan Bodybuilding."
At first, he struggled. "There is a big learning curve to it." And at first, he didn't exactly feel the energy coursing through his triceps and deltoids. "I was losing weight," he recalls. Luckily, and he would say, fatefully, he met his future wife two weeks after his middle-of-the-night menu change. Evelyn Molina-Williams is a nutritionist and she had some ideas.
But even Molina-Williams didn't have all the answers. There was no road map. "She didn't know either because no was has done this before."
He certainly didn't get any help from his buddies at the gym.
"They started laughing," Williams says. "All of them said 'You'll be skinny and frail.'
"I took that as a challenge," he adds.
JeffScutt took it as a challenge, too. Scutt, a champion bodybuilder himself, is Williams' trainer. He knew he was entering unexplored territory, but he had no hesitation about helping Williams. Trainers like to see genuine motivation. "He believes in his cause," Scutt says. "He told me 'You lead. I will follow.'"
Scutt was ready to lead. "Some of the workouts I put him through, he's crawling out of here." And he was ready to learn. "He's a genius with his own nutrition," Scutt says of Williams. "He's got it down to a science."
The meals and the message seem to be working. Williams discovered that he can get all the protein he needs without meat or dairy. "A cup of amaranth (grain) is 50 grams of protein!" he'll say.
And he discovered that people will listen.
He converted his whole family. "It didn't take a lot of convincing," says his mother, Jane Williams. And he started giving talks, speaking at animal rights events and preaching the message wherever he could.
Williams has an immediate charisma. Two of his uncles are pastors and he speaks the cadence of the pulpit. Katz says that charisma, and the muscles behind it, can get the kind of attention from the kind of people who might not hear the vegan message.
Katz says Williams is "somebody who represents manhood in many people's ideal." "People are faced with 'Wait a second, veganism is not some pony-tailed kid or freak,'" Katz says. "The meat industry, the dairy industry, they focus on that feeling that you eat meat and you are a man. That has to be countered."
The fact that Williams is African American might bring new demographics to the message, Katz adds. The animal rights movement is too often thought of as "a white, middle-class, woman-oriented support group," Katz says.
Williams puts a new face on veganism.
Williams approaches the role with ambition and a kind of spirituality. His beliefs are deeply held. He says he wants to spread the message by living the example. Just being healthy and being strong can change the perceptions, he believes.
He is the medium and the message.
He's taken home trophies in the Oakland Raiders' Silver and Black Muscle Classic and the World Natural Bodybuilding Championships. Next year, he will take his body and his message to the 2007 Mr. Natural Olympia competition.
He'll be competing with everybody else. Meat-eaters. Everybody.
But whatever happens, he'll be in his own division.
Whether there is one or not.
Rick Polito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.