As any fan of the mega-hit television show American Idol knows, making it through the first stage of auditions is not easy. Contestants wait in line for up to 12 hours to get the chance to sing a few bars before the discerning ears of judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.
The judges are quick to determine not only who can and can’t sing but also who has the celebrity “it” factor and who does not.
Among the 19,000 potential contestants who came out to the Boston auditions in Idol’s fifth season was a shy, easygoing 28-year-old pharmacy clerk and part-time DJ from Richmond, Virginia, named Elliott Yamin. From his audition on, both the judges and the American Idol viewing audience (who vote by phone for the winner) agreed that Yamin—whose sultry voice is well-suited to R&B as well as rock and pop songs—had the voice and the “it” needed to become a pop star.
He made it to become one of the final three fifth-season Idol contestants and from there has launched a successful solo recording career.
What Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and the viewing audience did not immediately know about Elliott Yamin is that in addition to overcoming a number of adversities in his life—including a 90 percent hearing loss in his right ear—he also lives with type 1 diabetes and uses an insulin pump. But having diabetes is not something that Yamin wishes to hide—in fact, he first made his diabetes and insulin pump public through comments featured on the American Idol Web site. And when the Idol crew followed Yamin back to Richmond last May to tape a segment for the “homecoming” show, in which contestants meet fans from their hometowns, they taped footage of children from a local Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation chapter who had come together from all over Virginia to hold up a banner cheering on Yamin. Yamin wore a blue “Cure Diabetes” bracelet that they gave him as he went about his engagements in Richmond.
As Yamin remains in the spotlight, he plans to use his celebrity to educate the public about type 1 diabetes and to encourage young people with diabetes to reach for their dreams.
Diabetes Health spoke with Elliott Yamin recently and learned more about his experiences with diabetes and his plans for the future.
Elliott, how old were you when you were diagnosed? What was that experience like for you?
I was diagnosed just after my 16th birthday, and it was a hard time. I wanted to be a regular teenager, like all of my friends. They were thinking about getting their driver’s licenses, and I was dealing with insulin shots and testing my blood sugar.
How did you adapt to this new reality and all of the responsibility that goes with type 1?
At first I was glad to know what was going on with me—I had been really sick before getting diagnosed. But then, once I knew, I went into denial. I didn’t want to accept having diabetes, so I ignored it a lot. Sometimes I would skip taking my insulin shots.
What happened to turn that around for you?
I spent too much time in the ER. Once I woke up from having passed out and saw my mom (who also has diabetes) sitting there, crying. I didn’t want her to go through that. I began checking my blood sugars more.
How did you choose pump therapy?
About six years ago I was working with someone who was on the pump, and he started talking to me about it and showing me how it worked. I really liked the idea of it, so I started seeing his endocrinologist, who got me started on the pump. It’s been a huge life change for me. Being on a pump is so much better than taking three or four shots a day. I love the flexibility of pushing buttons to take my insulin.
Which pump are you on?
Medtronic MiniMed’s Paradigm. I love it.
What was the hardest part of managing your blood glucose during American Idol?
I would definitely have to say, watching my blood sugars around all of the adrenaline rushes. There was a lot of excitement and “good stress,” which would make me run high. I checked pretty frequently so I wouldn’t get low during performances. I also made sure that everyone around me knew about my diabetes, just in case there was a problem.
Have you been surprised by how the diabetes community has embraced you?
It’s been amazing. Kids with diabetes come up to me before concerts and show me their pumps. Parents come up and thank me. The sheer number of people with diabetes who write to me and are supporting me is amazing. I want to use this opportunity to educate people about diabetes—that is one of my major goals.
You have already worked with the JDRF and American Diabetes Association. What advice do you give to other people living with diabetes? Especially to teenagers who might be going through a similar kind of rebellion as you did?
I tell them to stay positive. Make time for your diabetes and be aware of your body. Remember how going high can affect your health in the long run. I think it’s really hard for young people to see the big picture of how what they’re doing today affects their long-term health. You just have to carry yourself as if there will be no cure, even though we are all hoping for one . . . as long as you don’t let your diabetes control you. Anyone with diabetes can have a normal life. It makes me so happy that I’m showing kids and teenagers that they should absolutely go for their dreams.
Elliott Yamin is currently recording a solo album and is also touring.