By: Kristin Lund
Ben Vereen, the Tony Award-winning, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated actor, was diagnosed with type 2 on Christmas Day last year.
He told Diabetes Health that at the time, he wasn’t educated about diabetes and didn’t recognize the symptoms. He was lethargic and tired, had frequent urination, experienced mood swings, and was very thirsty. A hospital blood test showed him and his doctor what was wrong.
Now Vereen is sharing his story as part of Take the Stage for Diabetes Awareness, the Sanofi Aventis national campaign designed to educate people living with diabetes and their families about their condition and the importance of diabetes awareness. As part of the campaign, Vereen worked with Sanofi Aventis to create a new website called BensDiabetesStory.com. The website offers more information about Vereen as well as advice from Dr. Michael Bush, MD, who is a diabetes expert. The site boasts a downloadable meal planning guide and a short list of some diabetes-related online resources.
Once he recovered from the shock of his diagnosis, Vereen committed to doing everything he could to manage his health. He got his diabetes under control by checking his blood sugar often, making healthy food choices, exercising daily, and taking his medications, which include a once-daily insulin injection.
At first, Vereen worried about being prescribed insulin. “There is a stigma about taking insulin, but it shouldn’t be about ‘Oh my God!’ It should be about “Thank God. Thank Dr. Joslin.” (Dr. Elliott Joslin, the first doctor in the United States to specialize in diabetes, was the founder of today’s Joslin Diabetes Center. One of the first to teach patients to manage their own diabetes, he recognized that tight glucose control leads to fewer and less extreme complications.)
Vereen went public because he hopes that his testimony will help others. He said that although we’ve come a long way, the stigma of needles is still out there and people still need to be educated about diabetes. He noted, “I did an episode of [the television show] Webster in which I played Webster’s [diabetic] uncle. Webster’s guardians didn’t want my character around. They saw my character’s diabetes kit and they misunderstood what it was for.”
The actor and dancer didn’t worry that his career would be negatively affected by going public with his diagnosis. “This is my life,” he told Diabetes Health, “Without my life, there is no career. Life issues are very important.”
Vereen has a strong social conscience and has become a respected speaker among audiences of all ages. His topics include overcoming adversity, arts in education, black history, recovery through physical and occupational therapy, and the importance of continuing education. He has also been involved with many organizations, including Ballet Florida, the American Red Cross, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association. In 1989, he spearheaded his own organization, “Celebrities for a Drug Free America,” which raised more than $300,000 for drug rehabilitation centers, educational programs, and inner city community-based projects.
“I want people to know they can have a good life with diabetes,” said Vereen. “People need to see a doctor, exercise, take their medications, and watch what they eat.” He walks and dances for exercise, but he cautioned that “everybody needs to find their own regimen.”
Supporting each other is also important to Vereen. He became a little choked up during our interview when he talked about people coming up to him and sharing that they, too, have diabetes. “The community of people with diabetes came out after I was diagnosed. I never knew [they were there]. Stagehands would wait in the wings with orange juice for me…There has been such a show of support. People are out there and they say, ‘I, too, have diabetes.’ We talk to each other and we support each other. It’s so beautiful. It’s a special, special community.”
A long and varied acting career
Vereen’s first love is the theater. He has appeared in the Tony Award-winning productions of Pippen, Wicked, I’m Not Rappaport, Fosse, Jesus Christ Superstar, and A Christmas Carol. He toured the country in Sweet Charity and Hair, and for more than 30 years he’s been performing one-man concerts in the United States and around the world. Currently, he is on tour with “Vereen Sings a Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.”
Vereen’s acting roles include the unforgettable Chicken George in Roots and the title role in Louis Armstrong-Chicago Style, as well as many others. His television guest appearances include OZ, Touched By An Angel, Star Trek-The Next Generation, The Jamie Foxx Show, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as well as recurring roles on Silk Stocking and Webster.
His film appearances include Sweet Charity, All That Jazz, Funny Lady, and Why Do Fools Fall in Love.
Recent and Future Appearances
Most recently, Ben guest-starred on NBC’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent and ABC’s hit primetime drama Grey’s Anatomy. Later this year, he will appear in the Hallmark television movie An Accidental Friendship and opposite Ciara and Patti Labelle in the upcoming Fox feature Mama, I Want to Sing!
– 2004: Nominated for Career Achievement Award by the Le Prix International Film Star Awards Organization
– 1992: Emmy nomination for Intruders They Are Among Us
– 1983: Golden Globe Award nomination for Ellis Island
– 1978: Entertainer of the Year, Rising Star, and Song and Dance Star Awards – American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) (first performer to win these three awards in one year)
– 1978: Seven Emmy Awards for Ben Vereen: His Roots
– 1976: Golden Globe Award nomination for Funny Lady
– 1973: Tony Award & Drama Desk Award for Pippin