Follow Me is a weeklong series about personal brands, for better or for worse.
When popular vegan YouTuber Yovana Mendoza, then known as Rawvana, was caught on camera eating fish last March, the backlash was swift and harsh. Fans who had bought into her “raw, vegan, gluten-free, oil-free, soy-free” lifestyle — literally, by paying for her e-books, motivational videos, and $99 “detox” program — felt scammed. The vegan influencer community piled on, and hashtags #fakevana and #fishvana trended on Instagram and YouTube (where Mendoza had 1.3 million and half a million followers, respectively). Scrambling to do damage control, Mendoza posted two videos to explain that she’d been instructed by doctors to start incorporating animal protein back into her diet for health reasons. She apologized repeatedly for not telling her audience sooner. Then she went dark for four months.
Finally, in late July, Mendoza resurfaced in a video tited “GOODBYE, RAWVANA,” to announce that she had rebranded herself as “Yovana — my real name” and would be focusing more on self-acceptance. She overhauled her website, had her breast implants removed, and began sharing recipes that included eggs, fish, and other ingredients she’d previously reviled (labeled #notvegan). While she says her brand is still “in transition,” her posts continue to rack up thousands of views and likes, mixed in with a residual crowd of haters. So what’s it like to survive a total personal-branding meltdown? Here, Mendoza talks about the fish-video disaster, her post-Rawvana life, and the struggle of trying (and failing) to live up to her online persona.
You got a lot of criticism after that fish video came out in March. How did you cope?
That was not how I wanted things to go, obviously. The extent of the backlash really shocked me. For the first two weeks after it happened, I couldn’t process it. I deleted all social-media apps from my phone and stayed away from YouTube. People were making so many videos about me, just to get views because they knew it was a trending topic. I try not to look at it, even now. But I knew the most important thing was my health, and if my social-media career was over, then I would find something else to do. I had the support of my husband and my family and my friends — my real friends, at least. Some of my “friends” are no longer in my life because I don’t fit into their vegan ideology anymore. It was a confusing time.
You said you’d stopped being vegan because of health problems you were having. What made you keep this a secret at first?
It took me months to actually follow my doctor’s advice and eat an egg. Honestly, I was just really scared. Part of it was, of course, that I had built my whole brand and platform around the vegan diet, and I didn’t really know who I was without that. I had been vegan for six years, and I had internalized the stigma that eating animal protein was bad and unhealthy and harmful. And when I finally did try it, I wanted to test it out before I went public about it. I didn’t know if it was even going to work or if it was just a short-term thing I would do for a few months to heal my body before going back to eating vegan.
Did you tell anyone?
I told my husband. He was vegan at the time, but he was very supportive. He actually started eating eggs before I did. I kept putting it off, like, “Oh yeah, I’ll do it in a week, I’ll do it in a month.” The first thing I tried was a local, organic duck egg. I tried to not put any judgment on it; I just saw it as medicine.
How is your health these days?
Good. Really, really good. The main issue I had was SIBO, which is small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth. SIBO makes it difficult for your body to digest fiber, so I would get very bloated and wake up in the middle of the night with terrible stomachaches. I had also been dealing with anemia for about a year and a half, and I wasn’t getting my period. I tried eating plant-based sources of protein and iron, but it wasn’t working. Once I incorporated animal protein into my diet consistently, which took a few months, my anemia went away, and so did the SIBO. That motivated me to keep going, even though a big part of me didn’t want to.
For some people, a plant-based diet works, but for me, I’ve learned that it doesn’t. A lot of vegans don’t understand that because their main focus is on not harming animals. And I completely respect that. But I also care about my health.
Did it feel weird to take a social-media hiatus after it was such a big part of your identity for so long?
I took four months off of YouTube, and about three weeks off of Instagram. At first, it felt so strange. I was used to posting every single day and having people love it, and then suddenly I had a lot of self-doubt. Like, What are people going to say? Or, Is this going to offend someone? I was constantly thinking about how I was going to be perceived. It was paralyzing. For a little while, I didn’t even want to do anything — I didn’t want to work out, get up early, meditate, any of the things I normally do. But eventually, I got back into a routine, and that helped me focus again. My first post on Instagram was just a picture of myself at the beach wearing white. My intention was to make a statement that I was standing strong. I got a lot of criticism, but I had a lot of supporters, too.
How did you eventually get back on your feet and overhaul your whole brand?
My first video back on YouTube took months of planning. For a while, I didn’t even feel comfortable being on camera anymore. I spent two months filming myself every day, but I didn’t post anything — I would just talk about whatever came to mind. I had lost so much confidence that I had to rebuild it, almost like doing exercises. I also took a self-development course, which involved a lot of vision practices, like making vision boards. I had a few meetings with my team, and we decided to let go of the old name, Rawvana, and rebrand everything — the name, the logo, the colors, the new mission statement.
How did all of this affect your business? Were you worried, financially?
Luckily, my team wasn’t too affected. For a while, I did fall back on savings I had set aside. But it never got to the point where I had to fire someone because I couldn’t pay them. I have four people on my team: two film editors, a content campaign manager, and a social-media manager. Money was still coming in from some of my brand deals and my revenue from Google. The sales of my e-books did go down because I stopped promoting them; right now, I still don’t really feel comfortable promoting anything. I did take down one e-book about going vegan. But the rest of my products are still on my website because they’re great and I’m proud of them, and people are still buying them.
You also had your breast implants removed recently. Was that related to everything else you were going through?
Yes. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and as I read about implants and some of the symptoms I had been dealing with, especially hormonally, I decided to give it a go. After everything that’s happened this year, one of my intentions is to be more open and real and transparent. Not that I wasn’t honest before, but I’m trying to share more now and make my brand about things outside of just recipes and food.
A lot of people would say that focusing on a super-strict diet is just a more acceptable way to have a serious eating disorder. Now that you’ve had to change your eating habits, is that something you’ve become more aware of?
A lot of people who follow plant-based diets come from eating disorders. I had eating disorders when I was a teenager, and at that time I remember being very afraid of food. When I came into veganism, my relationship with food wasn’t perfect, but it helped me to not be afraid of food anymore. And I think that happens with a lot of people when they become vegan. They feel good about their bodies, and even if they gain some weight, they aren’t so scared of food because they feel strong and healthy. It can help them heal. But I do think my relationship with food is better now that I’m not restricting any type of food in my diet. Not that I had an eating disorder before, but I feel more liberated now.
Did the whole experience feel liberating in a larger way, because you aren’t so constrained by your online persona anymore?
Not at first. But eventually, I realized I had based so much of my identity on being vegan and how it made me feel different and special. Not having that label anymore was like, “Wait, I’m just a normal person?” But after a little bit of time, I started seeing the bigger picture, and that was freeing. It opened up a lot more possibilities. And now I’m realizing that my new lifestyle is better for me and my audience because it’s less extreme. It’s more balanced and more attainable. Looking back on everything, I think my big mistake was putting a label on myself: “I am raw vegan, I am vegan, I am this.” And now I try to stay away from anything that automatically separates me from other people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.