Broadway's Ben Vereen on Diabetes
Ben Vereen walks over to the low-slung coffee table and points to the untouched white-chocolate White House. "Want some? We're trying to get rid of it," he says. Clearly, the man takes healthy eating seriously; he has ever since his type 2 diabetes diagnosis in December 2007. That's the reason he's in Washington, D.C., today. Vereen, 63—the animated song-and-dance man who won a Tony award for his role in the Broadway musical Pippin, was memorable as Chicken George in the TV miniseries Roots, and nabbed an Emmy for the TV special Ben Vereen ... His Roots—is on a mission to raise awareness about diabetes.
Dressed in a charcoal suit, silky black tie dotted with colorful Chinese dragons, a beaded bracelet capped with a tassel, and chocolate-colored Converse sneakers, Vereen looks part businessman and part Broadway star. The fused personality is fitting: He's working with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis to spread the word about diabetes while on his "Vereen Sings the Music of Sammy Davis Junior" tour. I caught up with Vereen at his D.C. hotel.
What was your initial reaction to being diagnosed with diabetes?
At first it was very frightening. That's the first reaction because of all the fear factors around the stigma of diabetes—you know, the sleeping death. All these things go through your mind. And then the Spirit said to me inside, "No, this is a blessing. This is a blessing for your life. You can live with this." And it brought into my life all of these wonderful people. I said, "OK, now what do I do now that I know that I'm living with diabetes?" So I went to my doctor and told him about it and talked to him about it, and he says, "You can live with this." Right away I wanted to get the word out.
You started on insulin right away. Were you nervous about the injections at all?
Insulin was another big fear factor. It reminded me [of] when I did a TV show called Webster. On the show I played Emmanuel Lewis's uncle [with diabetes]. And the parents who were raising him, they didn't want me around. [The father] was really uptight when I showed up, and it finally got down to the point that he thought I was a drug user. He had seen my kit. Because back in the day it was a needle about the size of your arm; it was frightening. That was the image that was in my mind. When they said, "We're going to have to put you on insulin," that flashed through my mind. But you don't have to do that. With the advance of technology that we have today and the [insulin] pens we all use, it's not even noticeable.
You already exercised a lot for your job, but did you have to change many of your eating habits after your diagnosis?
There were foods that were not conducive to my body [or] my lifestyle. They were weighing me down. They were pulling energy from me instead of giving me energy. And if your body's not producing the right amount of insulin, then you've got to balance it out.
Did you know anyone else with diabetes whom you could learn from or talk to?
It's wonderful. I've met a whole community of people. When I was first diagnosed, I can remember I was working in Las Vegas at a place called the South Point. I had a gig, matter of fact that next day, and I was just out of the hospital. The crew found out about [my diabetes]. I was standing in the show room, looking at the stage, thinking about how my life is going to be different, what I've got to do, and how's it going to affect me on stage—all these things going through my mind. And one of the stagehands came over—this guy I've known for years—he says, "We'll get through this ... I have diabetes." So a whole family of people came out. See, people who live with diabetes are a special breed of people. We are a loving, caring family. And we're looking out for one another.
Does diabetes ever take a backseat to your busy touring schedule?
It's all part of it. I get up in the morning and check my sugar. Check whenever I have to. I do what I have to do medically. I do my exercises, and I watch what I eat. And I don't like extremes. The thing was making it part of your daily routine. I told people: Look at it as brushing your teeth every day. This is what you've got to do. It's getting into a routine for your cadence, for your lifestyle. I work at night. My shows usually are at night. So my lifestyle is different from someone who works 9 to 5.
How has the country received what's being called your Take the Stage for Diabetes tour?
They're thankful that someone's talking about it. First thing we've got to do: We've got to change the dialogue around diabetes so people don't look at it as a threat, as a death sentence. First of all, we're not suffering with diabetes. We're living with diabetes. We don't have a challenge; we have an opportunity. We've got to turn our verbiage around.
What do you hope to get out of this tour?
We've got a big job ahead of us. And we can't keep pushing it under the rug. There's a white elephant standing in the room and nobody's talking about it. We need to break the back of that, and that's my thrust. If adding my name to this campaign and putting a face to it can help one person stand up and say, "I too have diabetes and I'm living with it in a positive way," then this has not been in vain.
What's up next for you?
We're continuing this Take the Stage for Diabetes tour, which is going to last through May. And then we're going to start it up again. We're trying to reach all the cities and everybody. I'm going to reach everybody! I'm working on a book. And my concert tour. Also some TV things, so I haven't lost a step. I have a DVD coming out. It's a documentary on the "summer of love," 1967.