The story of the vegan social media star who was not really a vegan has now traveled across the globe and back.
Yovana Mendoza Ayres, 29, a professional social media influencer known as Rawvana, had made a name for herself on YouTube and Instagram by extolling the virtues of a raw and vegan lifestyle, now often referred to as “plant-based.” Her YouTube channels — she has about 2 million subscribers on her Spanish language channel and another 500,000 in English — are filled with videos of her sharing vegan recipes and skin care routines. On her personal website, she sells meal plans, including a 21-day “Raw Vegan Detox & Yoga Challenge,” to help people lose weight for $49.
On a recent trip, she posted a photo of Instagram. Ayres was on the beach in a red dress, the turquoise waters behind her an unmistakable sign she had landed in a tropical paradise.
"Can you guess where I’m at?” she wrote in the caption. “I’ll give you a hint: it’s a plant based paradise.”
She was in Bali. But a couple weeks after she landed, she appeared in another YouTube star’s video at a restaurant. The camera found her seated in front of a salad. Her arms dropping to cover the plate did not stop commenters from identifying a distinctly not plant-based item on her plate: fish.
Angry comments have poured into Ayres’s accounts since the disclosure. Thousands of commenters have called her names like “liar” and accused her of tarnishing the vegan lifestyle, which has growing legions of committed followers and is often underpinned with a sense of ethics or even politics. And other angry vegan vloggers have responded on their own YouTube accounts.
Ayres has been covered by news outlets around the world: from England, to Mexico to Poland and Mexico — the punchline of a joke to some, and to others, yet another example about the way in which the vast and largely unregulated world of social media presents such a ripe environment for scams.
But it also suggested a darker truth: the audience is not the only victim of the proliferation of false worlds online. Content creators suffer these algorithm-driven systems too, forcing them into a never-ending quest for viewers, ad money, sponsorships and engagement against dwindling attention spans.
In an emotional apology Ayres released on YouTube last week, she explained why she misled her fans. She changed her diet after years of significant health problems that culminated with doctors urging her to eat more food, including protein and eggs, she said.
The lifestyle of fitness, weight loss and wellness she had sold to her followers had apparently been making her ill.
“I know that so many of you trust me, you listen to me and you probably feel deceived and lied to — and you’re in your whole right to feel that,” she said. “I’m human, I made a mistake, and I was not planning on hiding this for you. I was planning on telling you but on my terms and my time.”
The video that showed Ayres eating fish was published by Paula Galindo, a Colombian YouTube star who has more than 10 million subscribers who follow her life of travel, style, beauty routines and products.
At the end of an approximately 10-minute-long video that showed Galindo touring Bali with Ayres and another YouTuber, Galindo turned the camera to Ayres at a restaurant.
Ayres looks at her plate and then lowers her arms over it, seemingly aware of what the camera was picking up. It was a just a few seconds of film, but dedicated followers spotted it.
In her apology, Ayres gave extensive and intimate details about the health problems she’s suffered in recent years.
She said she became a raw vegan six years ago — eating only uncooked plant-based foods — but started experiencing problems after a 25-day fast in 2014. She stopped getting her period, and doctors found after a series of tests that her “hormones were out of wack,” — comparable to a premenopausal woman, even though she was in her mid-20s, she said.
A doctor told her she needed to eat more fat, she said, and she added cooked food back into her diet. Her period returned, only to disappear again in 2017 — for five months this time. Again she was told that her hormones were not good.
Doctors told her she needed to gain weight; a nutritionist friend told her to eat more protein and fat. She said she gained six pounds and at some point, her period returned again.
But in 2018 she came down with a yeast infection and started to get what she described as serious digestive issues. She was no longer feeling good and was struggling to find a way to feel better, trying various cleanses or more fasting.
“I felt really good, because I wasn’t eating anything,” she said. “I got to the point that I just preferred not to eat because I was afraid anything I would eat, I’d get sick off it.”
She said the catalyst for her dietary shift came this past January, when she was diagnosed with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), an amount of excessive bacteria in the small intestine that can cause malnourishment.
So she decided to start eating eggs and fish, concerned that her health was deteriorating to the point where it would affect her ability to have children later on in life.
“This was really hard because of what I believed for so long, because of what I preached for so long,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you I’ve been eating eggs and fish and tell you everything is good. I’m saying that I’m trying to figure it out."
She tried eating vegan again but her stomach symptoms became even worse. Still she hasn’t given up on the vegan lifestyle, and hopes to go back to a completely vegan diet.
“My heart is with the vegan community and I want to reiterate that the plant-based diet is not what made me sick,” she said in a statement she sent to The Post. “Anyone can get SIBO. My passion for this lifestyle is so important to me."
In the meantime, she started new channels in November, on Instagram and YouTube, dedicated to mindful living, travel and fashion.