No one ever forgot Ben Vereen as Chicken George in the mini-series "Roots," while some know him for his role as Uncle Phillip Long on "Webster," (alongside Emmanuel Lewis), and for his Broadway credits, for which he won a Tony award. But most don’t know that he battles diabetes, a potentially life-threatening condition that renders the body unable to properly process insulin.
We caught up with the triple threat when his tour hit Washington, D.C. He told us that he was diagnosed during Christmas of 2007 and, "it was my Christmas gift that year." He found out he had the disease after passing out on stage one night, but realized that he had the signs for the condition all along. "Prior to that, about a year or two before that, I didn’t want to exercise anymore, having these cravings for sugar, [I] wasn’t able to focus, I was going to the bathroom a lot, and I couldn’t understand why," Ben told S2S.
Once diagnosed, Ben was told that he’d have to begin an insulin regimen. "At first I had these horrid thoughts in my mind about insulin," he shared. Immediately Ben was reminded of his "Webster" character Uncle Phil who was initially not welcomed by Webster’s adoptive parents because his diabetes medicine (then a huge, bulky needle and a strap to tie around his arm) looked like drug paraphernalia to them. "My first thought was that episode, but come to find out, it’s not that way."
Ben’s journey, from diagnosis to beginning insulin medication (which he said "are very slight, you don’t even know you’re taking them,") to completely changing his outlook on life as a result inspired him to "take the stage" and educate the public.
"We need to get people to talk about it more, especially in the African-American community," Ben said. "Twenty-four million people that live in this country have diabetes, and six million are living with it and they don’t even know they have it. Every 21 seconds somebody else is diagnosed with diabetes, and 11 percent of that number make up the African-American community."
With his message of solidarity and education among Black people living with diabetes, we asked Ben what he thinks about other famous diabetics (Halle Berry, Donnie McClurkin and Patti LaBelle are all open about their conditions).
"When I was first diagnosed, I called B.B. King right away!" laughed Ben. "We need to talk to one another and we need to let the public know it’s okay to talk about it." He also confirmed that there are talks about adding some of his famous fellows to his campaign.
"[In 10 or 20 years] I’d like to see it completely done away with," Ben said of the condition. "Because of the fact that we’re so aware of it, we’re taking better care of ourselves. That’s my want."
For more information about Ben’s diabetes advocacy, visit his Website, BensDiabetesStory.com.