By Emily Price
An out of work drag queen has avoided plunging into depression during the pandemic by caring for a horse – but as a vegan, he refuses to ride it.
Keelan Williams had the world at his feet and big plans for his future after losing almost half his body weight by switching to a healthy vegan diet. In March this year, Keelan was saving hard with the aim of opening his own vegan café.
Keelan’s incredible weight loss had changed his life. He had once been insecure and shy, tipping the scales at over 24 stone. In 2018, Keelan swapped fatty foods and takeaways for a healthy plant-based diet and took up running to help shift the pounds. It not only left him 11 stone lighter but also gave him the confidence to perform on stage as drag act, Martha Tydfil.
Before the pandemic 23-year-old Keelan also worked as a sous chef at the Woodfired Restaurant in Merthyr Tydfil. But his passion for plant-based and vegan ingredients inspired him to start saving to open his own vegan café.
Keelan said: “Becoming vegan wasn’t just so I could lose weight. It was a lifestyle choice that made me feel better inside too. I wanted to do my bit in reducing the amount of suffering to animals and the environment.
“Back in March, I was securing business grants and looking for a Merthyr Tydfil town centre premises for a café with a vegan friendly menu. It was a dream I was working so hard for.”
As the impact of coronavirus took hold, Keelan’s plans for his future were dashed.
A few days before the first lockdown began in Wales, Keelan went on a lunch break with some colleagues. When he returned to work, he was told that the restaurant he worked for could not survive the pandemic and the business would have to declared itself bankrupt.
Keelan said: “We were paid what were owed and that was it. I didn’t know what to do. I had bills to pay, no income and the lockdown meant jobs were scarce.
“I was applying for anything, even a position sweeping up at Merthyr’s rubbish tip. I was desperate. I just knew my vegan café plans wouldn’t happen.”
With the UK locked down, Merthyr Tydfil became a ghost town. Keelan was unable to get a response from the economic development officer in charge of overseeing his café plans.
Keelan said: “With everything that was going on, my café was the last thing on the council’s mind. I couldn’t perform as Martha Tydfil anymore and I had lost my day job. Everything I had been working for was in tatters.”
As the lockdown was extended over a longer period, Keelan began to struggle financially. With no income, he had no choice but to live on his savings that were put aside for his café.
The restrictions left Keelan feeling lonely and he began to struggle with his mental health. He could no longer travel the pubs and clubs of Merthyr to perform and the lack of social interaction was taking its toll on him.
Keelan said: “I’ve always had so many friends. It was strange and upsetting having so little contact with loved ones. I was used to singing on stage in a beautiful dress and making punters laugh.
“All of sudden, I was stuck at home. I tried to stay in contact with people by video calling friends, but it wasn’t the same.”
Hope appeared from the most unexpected of places for Keelan. An elderly neighbour who was struggling to care for a horse named Spirit asked for help.
Grooming, feeding and mucking out helped Keelan to be focused on a new task. Although his once rigorous daily schedule has changed, a new routine stopped him from feeling adrift in a dark time. But as a vegan, Keelan has made the choice not to ride Spirit.
Keelan said: “To me, this is a hobby that brings me happiness. I don’t want to exploit Spirit by riding her. I feel better about myself just caring for her. She’s helped me through a tough time.
“Spirit has no horseshoes either. I just don’t agree with it. I know her feet are sensitive and need soft ground, so I go to the stable every day to make sure she has soft saw dust and straw to walk on.”
Veganism is becoming more popular, it’s a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals.
Samantha Calvert from The Vegan Society said: “As horses are ridden for the benefit of humans and not the horse, it is a use of animals that is contrary to veganism.
“Horses are broken in because it is not natural for them to carry people on their backs. The logical conclusion of veganism would be to care for horses without taking anything from them”
As coronavirus continues to weave its destructive path, Keelan has thankfully been able to find work as an acting head chef.
The Sgwd Gwladys restaurant in Merthyr Tydfil heard that Keelan had lost his job and tracked him down with an offer. He has been able to experiment with some of his recipes such as vegan curry and soup which have now been put on the menu there.
Keelan said: “It worked out well for me in the end. I haven’t got my own vegan café yet, but I’ve been able to share my love of vegan food at my new job.
“The way I see it, my own café dreams are just on pause right now. I still have my plans and when the pandemic is finally over, I will put everything I can into it.”
Keelan still makes time to tend to his horse every day and believes caring for Spirit without riding her is a hobby that has helped steer him through hardship and difficulty
Images courtesy of Keelan Williams