An Interview With Crystal Bowersox
The "American Idol" star talks about her new album and life with diabetes
Crystal Bowersox doesn't look like the typical American Idol contestant. Most of them are squeaky-clean and pop star–ready. Bowersox, on the other hand, has a head of dreadlocks and a sound that's one part folk, one part rock, and another part country. She plays guitar, writes her own songs, and has a voice that's often compared to rock legend Janis Joplin. Her talent won over the judges, who remarked that her laid-back performing style and lack of gimmicks were a breath of fresh air in the competition.
During Idol's ninth season, Bowersox, 25, learned more than how to give a great performance; she discovered the importance of diabetes control. Though she's had type 1 since she was 6 1/2 years old, the competition took time away from her diabetes management—and landed her in the hospital.
Diabetes Forecast caught up with Bowersox to find out about life after American Idol (she was runner-up to Lee DeWyze); her new album, Farmer's Daughter; how the show helped her better manage her disease; and the impact she hopes to have on other people with diabetes.
Known for: Coming in second during last season's American Idol
Debut album: Farmer's Daughter
Family: Husband, musician Brian Walker, and 2-year-old son, Tony
Fun fact: Her inner wrist is tattooed with a dragonfly, the words type 1, and the medical alert symbol.
Q. You were diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. How did growing up with the disease affect you?
It's one of those things that have shaped me in every way, really. In school you always received a little extra attention from the teachers, and sometimes the other students didn't understand why you got to have a snack in class. You're constantly branded as different growing up, and now as an adult it's something that I've come to embrace and be proud of. But it was definitely difficult as a kid and a teenager.
Q. You've mentioned before that affording diabetes supplies was hard when you moved away from home. How did you manage?
Thankfully, my dad had a job at a local factory where he had good health insurance, and it was family coverage so we were able to have all the supplies and things we needed. Things were different when I moved out on my own. I had to have a full-time job and a full-time academic career as well just to maintain that health insurance coverage. I was tired. I was working really hard to take care of myself. There were times when I couldn't afford everything I needed and you do what you have to do to get by. I've begged for insulin at pharmacies.
Q. You had been writing and playing music for years before you went on American Idol. What prompted you to audition?
I had avoided it for years. And then I had my son [Tony] in 2009 and I felt that time was a very valuable thing. Really the question was, "Why not?" So I did it, and it has changed my life in the most positive way.
Q. How did the show change you as a musician?
Idol really forces somebody to be able to react to things at the drop of a dime. You have to perform a song after you've sung it maybe once or twice. It makes you demand more of yourself. And I definitely learned to demand more of myself. I've learned things about self-discipline that I never knew I knew or could know, especially with my diabetes.
As you may know, I fell ill in March, pretty early in the competition. Mostly it was because I was almost ashamed of my diabetes. I didn't want to tell the producers I was diabetic because I didn't want that special attention. I didn't want to be branded as different. I let my priorities get mixed up, and I was sick because of it. I wasn't checking my blood sugar regularly. I was more concerned about band rehearsals than I was taking insulin. And that's not healthy. That's why I'm part of the OneTouch [blood glucose meter advertising] campaign now, because I want to really spread the message that to live your life first, you have to be alive. Take care of yourself, manage your diabetes, and anything is possible in this world.
Q. American Idol's producers wanted you off the show once you were hospitalized. How did you react?
[Executive producer] Ken Warwick came into my room and said, "You're off the show," and I thought he was joking. It took him a few times saying it for me to really believe him. And then I think there were some curse words exchanged. It was devastating to me.
That was when I made the decision that if I were to be voted off the show, then that was fair and just. But for me to allow diabetes to control my life and possibly cost me everything that I've worked hard for, it just wasn't going to happen. I was not going to let diabetes be the thing to destroy me. And now I'm coming to terms with that, and I'm learning more and more every day how to manage my diabetes and to maintain good control so I can live my life first.
Q. How did you persuade him to let you stay on?
I think Ken just saw in me the fire and passion that a lot of people do, and I definitely let it out in that room that day. I demanded a meeting with the head honchos, the people running the show. I made an agreement that in order to stay on the show I'd have to give up all of my medical privacy and do what I was told and really respect that authority. I was reluctant at first, but just realizing now it was all for my own good.
It takes a team to manage diabetes. It takes a network of people, family, your friends. I'm grateful, I'm so happy all of that happened. It was really a wake-up call for me. They had hired a nurse who was on top of me constantly about checking my blood sugar and making sure I was monitoring what I was eating. [The nurse] basically enforced all the things I knew how to do—I just wasn't doing them. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Q. How do you manage your diabetes now?
I use [a] glucose meter for checking my sugar. I do use [an insulin] pump, and I wear a [continuous glucose monitor] as well. You know, information is power. The more information you have, the tighter your control can be and the more productive your life can be. It's all about quality of life. My quality of life is better than it's ever been as far as my health and everything goes.
Q. Does performing affect your blood glucose?
It does affect it, actually. Right now my routine is: I'll check my sugar one to two hours before hitting the stage. And then if it's too high or too low, I can adjust accordingly. If it's too high, I'll take half the amount of insulin I'm supposed to take because adrenaline makes your blood sugar go up. But it also comes down on its own. You don't have to correct for an adrenaline high, and if you do, you end up bottoming out after the show. It's been a struggle to find that fine balance, but I feel like I've got it now.
Q. How has your life changed since American Idol?
There are definitely more people in the audience now. I'm playing with a full band, and they're friends of mine that I've been with for years. It's a lot more fun now. I get to reach more people. It's like I had a really big promotion.
I feel like the world around me has changed. I feel like the core of me is the same girl. People view me differently. As a musician I feel I've been very warmly welcomed into the Nashville community and beyond. I get to do what I love for a living, and that's all I want to do: make music. And [support] diabetes advocacy.
Q. What role does diabetes advocacy have in your future music career?
I'll always be a diabetic. I mean, I hope not. I hope there's a cure in my lifetime, but as it stands right now I'll always be a diabetic. And I'll always be a musician. It's just part of my being. If there ever comes a time when I'm not an advocate for people with diabetes, there's something wrong happening there. I can't keep my mouth shut about it. I want other people living with diabetes to know that anything is possible as long as they maintain good control.
Q. Was spreading the word about diabetes always part of your plan?
Before Idol I didn't always have great control, but I always looked up to Mary Tyler Moore. She was a role model of mine. She was the only person in a public forum that I knew of who had type 1 diabetes. And that was a huge help to me as a kid, thinking that here's somebody who has had this great acting career and done so many things and is really giving back to the diabetes community. I want to be like that. I didn't think that it would ever be possible for me, and now I realize it is.
Q. What message do you hope to send to the diabetes community?
My message for the diabetes community is just, every day is a new day. You can strive for good control, but remember not to beat yourself up if you have a high or a low. None of us are perfect. As humans, we're made to make mistakes. But the overall goal is to strive for good control.
If you control your diabetes first, it cannot control you. You can live your life first. Embrace the changes you need to make to have good control. Don't shun them. Don't ignore your diabetes or it will ignore you.
Q. Have any fans told you that you've inspired them?
There was a kid who showed me his insulin pump and he's like, "Man, I want to be a singer like you someday." I was like, "Well, there's no reason you can't. There's absolutely no reason you can't."
I've signed insulin pumps and I've signed glucose meters. It's been a lot of fun, and definitely I'm honored to know that there are people who look up to me. Honored and scared. It's amazing. It's a heavy weight on my shoulders. But it also keeps me in line. It keeps my sugars in line because I know that responsibility is there, not only to the people but also to my son.
Q. You wrote many of the songs on your debut album, Farmer's Daughter. How much of it is autobiographical?
The title track on the album, "Farmer's Daughter," was my introduction to the world as far as songwriting went and getting my demons out. I feel like it's very important to be honest with my listeners. They can get a sense of who I am and know me better through my music. It was important to me to get that out, but I'm looking forward to writing more positive tunes.
Q. What are you working on?
I'm currently in the process of writing songs. That process never ends for me whether it's for an album or whatever. I'm constantly writing when the mood strikes. I guess I'm looking forward to the future. I'm currently touring with the album Farmer's Daughter and having a blast doing it. Taking my band on the road, and my husband and baby as much as I can. I'm just working. I'm living life. Living life first.