The outside of Annette Larkins's pastel-pink Kendall home looks like it belongs to a grown-up Barbie doll.
In a way, that's not far from the truth. Her curvaceous chest-to-waist-to-hip ratio must be close to that of America's favorite doll. One big difference, though, is there's no plastic on this all-natural 70-year-old beauty queen's face or body.
Larkins credits the plants, nuts, and seeds she's been living on for the past 27 years not only for her radiant, taut skin and foxy physique but also for the pristine bill of health she has enjoyed despite her chronic-disease-ridden family tree. (See a video of Annette after the jump.)
The raw vegan diet consists of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds that have not been brought to a temperature above 118 degrees. Raw vegans reason that the heating process kills enzymes and drastically reduces food's nutrient content.
Larkins grows much of her own food in her back yard, sprouts everything from broccoli to mung beans, and juices pineapples, sugarcane, homegrown wheatgrass, and almost anything else that grows out of the ground. Her collection of juicers -- from masticating to hydraulic press -- would put your local Jamba Juice to shame.
I found out about Larkins when a friend emailed me a viral video of her that aired on local South Florida WPTV station March 1. I had never seen a 70-year-old woman who looked as youthful and vibrant as she. I know that correlation doesn't prove causation. Still, the fact that the most youthful "elderly" woman I had ever come across happened to have adhered to a raw vegan diet for decades and a vegetarian diet for nearly half a century definitely provided yet more validation (beyond The China Study, Forks Over Knives, Eat to Live, Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, my own health, et al.) that I was on the right track with my own plant-rich vegan diet.
"She must just have good genes," many jaded friends said when I spoke excitedly of my upcoming meeting with Larkins. So I was curious to ask her whether her mother and grandmother had looked as youthful as she when they reached the ripe age of 70.
Turns out the question was not applicable. Both her mother and her grandmother died of breast cancer before their 50th birthdays. Besides that, diabetes runs rampant up and down her family line (as does a penchant for eating every part of a pig -- "even its squeal," according to Larkins). So much for good genes.
Of those aforementioned maladies, Larkins has experienced nothing. She doesn't even remember the last time she had a cold or took so much as an aspirin. But the diplomatic woman, who speaks three languages and sharpens her mind on her library of 5,000 books, acknowledges that genes are far from a nonissue when it comes to health and vitality.
"Your genes and your family disease history are like a loaded gun," she says. "Your lifestyle choices dictate whether you pull the trigger or not. Not everybody has to be where I am, but it is of the utmost importance that we make improvements, because hospitals are filled with people that are digging their graves with their forks."
Larkins grew up in Miami, and at 16, she married her high school sweetheart, Amos, to whom she's been wedded for 54 years. She gave birth to both her boys before she was 19 years old and became a lounge singer in Miami Beach in her late 20s, which (along with her stunning looks) helps to explain her remarkable ability to command a room. Not one to be tied down to a single calling, Larkins later worked in commercial food production, education, the airline industry, insurance sales, and writing; she has penned two booklets aimed at making her way of life accessible to others.
She also hosted Health Alternatives With Living Foods, a 12-part series on a local public television station where she demonstrated how to prepare tasty raw vegan meals. Her two-hour DVD, Annette's Raw Kitchen, is a followup to that show (it's available on her website alongside her writings). Among her favorite hobbies is building personal computers.
Larkins decided to go vegetarian in 1963, during a time when her husband owned and operated a butcher shop. Although she'd often felt a vague inkling that meat-eating was an unnatural choice for her, she recalls the exact moment she felt the wave of repulsion that started her on her journey into herbivorism. She saw a bloody ham hock hanging from the ceiling, and as she puts it, she was "done."
Two weeks later, she told her husband she hadn't eaten meat in a fortnight and planned never to do so again. He asked her whether he should take her to a doctor.
"I fell on the floor laughing," she says. "I told him: 'No, there's nothing wrong with me. I just don't want to eat dead animal flesh anymore.' I think he was watching me carefully for a little while after that, though."
Her husband was supportive and even attempted to follow her lead. He succeeded for six years before slipping back into his old habits. "He had the excuse that there weren't enough places around us to eat [with business clients]. So he started back with a little fish, and you know how that goes," Larkins says. (Their son is having better success -- he recently lost 40 pounds by eating a raw diet.)
Amos now eats a typical American diet and takes medications for his diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. He also looks his age. He's just nine years older than his wife, but people often mistake him for her father or even grandfather.
"There's a lot of love there, and he still treats me like a queen," Larkins says. "But we're two independent people; he can make his own choices. I don't try to force anyone to do anything."
Since the news video went viral, Larkins's phone has been ringing off the hook. She was filmed last week by The Doctors television show. "I'm hoping the surgeon on that show can dispel the myth once and for all that I've had surgery," Larkins laughs.
Plant-based diet champion Dr. Joel Fuhrman has invited her to participate in a video project, and she's been offered her own TV show on an undisclosed network (she turned it down). On top of that, orders for her booklets, words of praise, and cries for help are pouring in from Iceland, the UK, Hungary, Mongolia, Australia, Bulgaria, and Canada. Larkins dutifully responds to every order and every request -- even if sometimes her response has to be no.
"I had a girlfriend who would always tell me: 'You need to be the raw-food queen,'' and I would say, 'No, I don't want to be out front like that," Larkins says. "I did not want it to grow into anything huge. I was very comfortable doing my little stuff at home, printing out my little envelopes."
When people began reaching out in droves in response to her WPTV appearance, Larkins was reminded of her singing days in the '60s -- and the reason she eventually stepped out of the limelight.
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"I like starring, but only when I want to star, and then I want to be left alone," she says. "I didn't want to be a commodity; I didn't want anyone trying to control me and manipulate me. So when this came along, it was a very strange feeling. It was great in one way, and in another it made me say, 'Well, there goes my privacy.'"
But one particular letter confirmed for Larkins that embracing the attention was worth the strain -- at least for now.
"A 22-year-old girl wrote to me and she said, 'Now that I have seen you, I'm no longer afraid of growing older, because I know that if I take care of myself, if I eat well, I know that one day I can be like you,'" Larkins says. "And it so impacted me, I said to myself, It would be selfish of you to have lived this life and enjoyed it so fully and been so blessed, and people are coming to you asking you for it... It would be selfish of you not to help these people."