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As Alicia Silverstone stands at the counter of the vegan Cafe Flourish in Los Angeles, she’s not immediately recognizable as the vixen in Aerosmith music videos or the girl who played the iconic Beverly Hills princess, Cher, in the movie “Clueless” (1995). On this day, her blonde hair is in a makeshift bun; her scruffy black jacket and pants hiding her lean frame in a manner her “Clueless” character might have dubbed “ensemble-y challenged.”
Yet this Alicia Silverstone, 33, is probably the opposite of clueless in adult terms. She has become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable conservationists, a reuse-recycling advocate and all-around vegan ambassador. Her latest accomplishment is “The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet” (Rodale), a book offering both encouragement and information for a plant-based diet. The goal, she says, is to enhance health, look good and protect resources — without feeling deprived of food she calls “yummy.” The book is filled with recipes, nutritional advice, how-tos (from getting enough iron to checking the Internet for a used blender before buying new), as well as stories about her own journey to living green.
In her mellifluous voice, which only occasionally bubbles up with a Cher-like perkiness, Silverstone appears, in person, as an eager ambassador for her causes. She drives a Prius; her black outfit was purchased from thrift shops — she said she always prefers to buy used items. She orders a raw salad, but encourages a reporter to try something rich to sample how vegan food can satisfy. “I’d really love you to have the grilled cheese, because then you can taste something that’s naughty,” she said.
“I’m not the person who ever stopped loving the taste of meat,” she added as she tucked into her salad. “I’m a foodie. But I knew I had to give meat up to be able to look at myself in the mirror, to know that I’m a good person and a good Jew. How could I continue seeing myself as a person who cares about the world and yet be responsible for suffering?”
Silverstone is one of the best-known among a growing circle of outspoken Hollywood vegetarians; Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman declared recently that after reading “Eating Animals” (Little, Brown), the latest book by the Jewish wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”), she may no longer keep silent when dinner hosts present her with a meat meal. She virtually equated eating meat to rape, prompting some scathing stories about her remarks on the Web.
Silverstone is aware of the effect of such rhetoric and so treads lightly when asked, in the course of discussing her Judaism, about Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s statement that factory animals live in “an eternal Treblinka.”
“I’m always hesitant to go there, because I don’t want to alienate people,” she said. “We all know that the Holocaust was devastating; one of my oldest, closest family friends was a survivor. But for me, it’s the truth. The production of animals is the greatest holocaust that is happening now, because it’s allowed.
“When I drive by a car on the road that has animals in it, it literally makes me crazy,” she continued. “I feel like I want to yell at the driver, flip him off — which, of course, would be ridiculous, and I just have a moment of absolute sadness. So then I just remember that I’m doing everything I can to change things, and the book is part of that.”
“The Kind Diet” points out that in the Bible, God gives humans dominion over the animals, which, the book suggests, means “stewardship,” not slaughter. “Spiritual people don’t want to cause suffering to any creature, which is why a lot of synagogues are going vegetarian, and there is a huge vegetarian movement in the Jewish community,” Silverstone said. She cites Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, who is vegetarian and encourages the lifestyle for others.
“If you believe you are just one small part of a big picture, and that something greater than you created the world, you’re not going to want to stomp on it,” Silverstone said.
Her father, Monty, is an English-born Jew whose forbears came from Eastern Europe; her mother, Didi, a former Pan Am flight attendant, is from Scotland and converted to Judaism before Alicia was born. Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City was like a second home to her as a child: “I loved it; it was a very special place for me,” she said. She attended Hebrew school three times a week; became bat mitzvah and enjoyed the congregation’s monthly Shabbat dinners. This was the pre-vegan Silverstone. “I freakin’ loved gefilte fish,” she said. “And charoset and matzah ball soup.”
Religious school was another matter. “I wasn’t very good at Hebrew; I never learned to speak it,” she said. “Maybe I was too artistic to be doing so much school. What I loved was the singing, the cantor with his guitar, and the debates and discussions. Even as a young girl I was always asking questions like, ‘If this is going on right now, what are we doing about it?’ And I wanted to know why we were talking about how bad it was for the Jews, and not looking at how bad it was for the rest of the world.”
Her venture into show business was somewhat unorthodox, as documented in flashy cover stories from Cosmopolitan to Redbook. When she was 6, her father, a former actor and property developer, distributed photographs of 6-year-old Alicia to agents. Modeling jobs ensued, and, in 1993, Silverstone was cast in “The Crush” as a teenager bent on destroying an older man who has spurned her. To work the requisite hours, the then-15-year-old Silverstone had to request “emancipation” from her parents. To this day she is annoyed when it is suggested that she “divorced” them.
“Clueless” made her a household name (she notes that her character, Cher Horowitz, was nominally Jewish) and led to a $10 million deal with Columbia-Tristar. But her three films under that agreement didn’t go anywhere, including her turn as Batgirl in “Batman & Robin,” which got scathing reviews.
It wasn’t easy for her.
“I was 18 when ‘Clueless’ came out,” she wrote in her book. “Going through adolescence is strange enough, but becoming famous at the same time is really weird. It felt good to be recognized as an actor, but after ‘Clueless’ it was like I was sucked up into a hurricane…. I actually became very isolated. I was no longer simply a girl with the freedom to make mistakes and have fun. There was enormous pressure, which put me in full survival mode.”
Silverstone already was self-conscious about her body, having been “hypnotized” by calorie counting and shlepped at 14 to a Weight Watchers meeting by her then-manager. “While preparing to play Batgirl in ‘Batman & Robin,’ the press was so cruel about my teenage curves that I was chased through the Los Angeles airport by paparazzi yelling, ‘Fatgirl!’” she recalled. “Of course, all the pressure made me rebel and eat even more.”
Silverstone believes that her love for animals kept her sane. Animal rights groups sought her help as a celebrity spokesperson for various campaigns: anti-dissection, anti-fur, spay and neuter. And then there was her own dedication to animal rescue, which began in childhood — when she would see a stray dog in the street, she’d get her mother to pull over and Alicia would run out of the car to catch the poor mutt, even on the freeway.
“In an otherwise chaotic life, these kinds of gestures were simple, and straightforward, and good,” she said.
At 21, she made the decision to go fully vegan. “I’m Jewish, but I crossed myself,” she said of her final meat meal. “I didn’t know how my health would be impacted. I didn’t know if I’d ever eat a good meal again.” A couple of weeks in, however, she noticed that her [chronic] acne had disappeared, her face glowed and her body slimmed down. She stopped getting allergy shots and taking her asthma medication and any kind of antibiotic. Most importantly, she said, “I felt connected with my truest self.”
Coming up after her book tour — and designing eco-friendly makeup brushes for Eco Tools — Silverstone will reprise her role as Mandy, a naïve young woman, in Donald Margulies’ Iraq war morality play, “Time Stands Still,” a role she originated and for which she received good reviews at the Geffen Playhouse earlier this year. The play will open in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club in late January, co-starring Laura Linney and Eric Bogosian.
And while Silverstone continues to identify as a cultural Jew, she said she currently finds spirituality outside the synagogue. “I have found my peace in living in the world as kindly as I can,” she said. “Going to yoga and meditation, and eating well — that’s how I feel my connection to God.”