Karyn Calabrese hasn't eaten any animal protein for five decades. | Nastasia Mora Photography

Karyn Calabrese has graced magazine covers, owned restaurants, taught cooking classes, and led wellness workshops. She credits her successes and even failures (the best learning experiences) to her dedication to a healthier life, particularly her raw, vegan diet.

The model, actress, and wellness coach was recently appointed to the advisory council of The Vegan Museum (formerly the National Vegetarian Museum), along with a list of influential plant-based leaders such as authors Dr. Michael Greger (How Not to Die​), Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease)​, and Chicago-based Dr. Kim A. Williams (Chief of the Division of Cardiology at Rush University Medical Center).

Calabrese sat down with LIVEKINDLY to talk about the trauma that inspired her lifelong journey to better health, the gifts that come from failure, and the example she hopes to set for the next generation

‘I Grew Up Eating a Typical Fat American Diet’

I grew up in a Black family, eating a typical fat American diet. My grandmother always cooked fresh—she cooked great food! So I grew up eating good food but not necessarily healthy food. So I had all kinds of challenges. I was constipated my whole life. I used to go to the bathroom once every two weeks, and the doctors told my mother that it was normal. I always had some kind of pain. And when I became a teen, I had terrible skin from it, and I battled with that.

My mother introduced me to carrot juice when I was about 19 or 20. Instead of just drinking a glass or two a day, I was drinking gallons of it. And because I was drinking gallons, of course, I started going to the bathroom. And then my skin cleared up. And I was like, “Oh my goodness, is this what life is really all about?” And that inspired my journey.

‘I Knew I Wasn’t Going to be Around Too Long If I Didn’t Make Some Changes’

My mother got very sick and died at 47. She had cancer. My grandmother died at 50. And my great grandmother died at 60. And they had all been tiny like me, ate unhealthy their whole lives, and they became overweight and died young. So that was my true inspiration for changing my lifestyle. I knew I wasn’t going to be around too long if I didn’t make some changes.

I was around 20 or 21 when I became vegetarian. And I probably became vegan, like, three or four years after that. And then I met Dr. Ann Wigmore and I went raw. That’s when everything really changed for me. That was 40 years ago.

I never started out to be a vegan or vegetarian, I was just drinking all that carrot juice. I think intuitively, when you get living foods, you just don’t want certain food anymore. There was this moment. I’d given up red meat, that was the first to go. And I was a good cook. I was making chicken soup at home. And I had thrown the chicken in the pot to cook and I think I forgot about it. And when I came back to the pot to put the vegetables in, the skin was floating on one side, bones were on another. And I looked in that pot and I thought, “What are you doing? You put an animal in there. You’re boiling it up and look at its parts and now you’re gonna suck it up?”

And I just got so turned off that I never ate chicken or red meat again. And then fish was just a natural to go. So I actually gave up dairy last.

Calabrese went vegan in her twenties.| Nastasia Mora Photography

‘Everybody Thought I Was Totally Insane and Crazy for Eating Vegan’

I’m a kitchen person. I started cooking with my great grandmother when I was like three and four years old. So I just started playing around the kitchen and making food, and then I just started making foods for other people and it was just a natural outcome for me to try to switch the foods I love to make into a healthier platform. Of course, everybody thought I was insane back then. You know, I was the relative you couldn’t invite to dinner.

Everybody thought I was totally insane and crazy for eating vegan. But it just evolved for me. I never set out or read a book to do this. My life just evolved. I believe everybody can do it that way, ultimately.

And as I started changing my diet and changing my life, of course my skin cleared up and all kinds of wonderful things happened.

I became a model and an actress. I did quite a few national commercials, Sears ads, and I worked as a model in New York and Chicago.

Then I was in a very bad car accident. That ruined my modeling career at the moment.

‘I Just Wanted to Feed the World and Teach Them’

Then I got married and had children. I found a greenhouse in Evanston where I rented a bench and I started growing wheatgrass. And I started a little wheatgrass farm. I bought a juicer, people could come in and put their $1.25 in the basket, and juice their own juice.

I started these meetings in my home and called them Learn to Live International. I would put up a notice in these three places saying “Health discussion in my home. Free! Bring a dish!” And we would gather, cook, and talk about healthy alternatives.

I started with six people and within about three or four months, I had 90. There was such a hunger for it. Eventually I opened up my first raw restaurant up on Lincoln Avenue called Karyn’s Fresh Corner. It was the second raw food restaurant opened up in this country.

I had no idea what I was doing. I had never even worked in a restaurant. It had nothing to do with making money. I just wanted to feed the world and teach them, that’s all I knew.

I ended up opening up a wellness center across the street from there that did really well. We had a fire, and after I spent all my money to build it up, my landlord threw me out.

The past four years have been like I lost everything and I’m starting all over again. But that’s the beauty because I get to start all over at 73. When most people are giving up, getting ready to die, I’m starting all over again.

So I restarted. I have a new wellness center now going on three years, and we’re building out a new restaurant soon.

‘If You Don’t Take Care of Your Body, Where You Gonna Live?’

We’ve come so far with accepting the vegan diet and healthier living. When I first started on this journey, people thought I was crazy. They would say to me, “Well, where do you get your protein?” I always turn around and say, “Well where do you get yours?” And then I remind people that everything has protein in it. Even potatoes have two grams of protein. It’s just you’ve been marketed into believing you can only get them from animals.

And then I remind people that I haven’t had animal protein in 50 years. I got thick hair. I’ve got great skin. I’ve never had Botox or plastic surgery. Yeah, I show off a little bit, but it’s to show young girls that there is another way. If you don’t take care of your body, the most magnificent machine you’ll ever be given, where you gonna live?