When it comes to living well with diabetes, a little lipstick may go a long way. "The Divabetic motto is 'Glam more, fear less,' because if you're taking care of your appearance and looking good, you'll also have the energy you need to take care of yourself," says Max Szadek, founder of Divabetic.org, a national non-profit. "To really take charge of diabetes, it definitely helps to be a diva."
Szadek, a.k.a. "Mr. Divabetic," is a former music industry personal assistant, now on a "quest to glamorize good health." Szadek started Divabetic after suffering what he calls his own "diabetes-related complication" -- the death of his boss and friend Luther Vandross. The R&B singer collapsed from a stroke before the release of his Grammy-winning album "Dances with My Father" in 2003. "I was the one who found Luther in his home. I was the one who brought him to the hospital," says Szadek.
Though both Szadek and Vandross shared a family history of diabetes, Szadek was shocked to learn that the stroke could have been prevented. He also learned that African-American women -Vandross's fan base - suffered a disproportionate rate of stroke and other complications from the disease. "I decided the rock 'n roll industry did not need one more personal assistant, but the diabetes industry needed more rock n' roll."
Vandross died in 2005. At a tribute concert, singer Patti LaBelle told the audience that her own type 2 diabetes didn't control her, she controlled her diabetes. Says Szadek," I thought, 'Honey, you're not a diabetic, you're a divabetic!"
The Divabetic movement started small by fundraising for other diabetes organizations with "Divabetic" t-shirts. Six years later, Divabetic has evolved to include a community-oriented website (divabetic.org), a monthly podcast "DivaTalk Radio," and a national outreach effort that travels to hospitals, "Divabetics Clubs," and women's wellness expos around the country.
At the events, Szadek serves as master of ceremonies, introducing women struggling with the disease to diabetes educators, nutritionists, make-up artists and fashion stylists, and encouraging group discussions on everything from managing low blood sugar to the medicinal powers of a good-fitting bra. Party games like "Diabetes Numerology" mix up celebrity gossip, familiar movie plots, and favorite TV characters to add a little sex appeal to the usual clinical discussions of counting carbs. "Passing the boa" is another tradition of Divabetic gatherings, as women take turns sharing how they moved from denying that their diabetes was a serious health risk, to making good health habits a priority.
In some circles, "there's a lot of shame and blame that goes along with diabetes, so we're really preaching the power of 'making over your diabetes,' so you can accept it and move on," says Szadek. "It's kind of like finding out that you have to change the carburetor in your car to stay alive, and it can feel impossible," he says. "But we're not a pity party for diabetes. Instead, being a diva is about saying, 'I can do this disease, and so can you.'"
Here are Szadek's top three tips for moving from diagnosis to "divabetic":
Build an entourage: "Every diva has an entourage and so should you," says Szadek. Create a support system of care providers, close friends, and family members you can take to appointments, double-team your diabetes care, and depend on when you run into trouble.
"Denial is not my style": "A lot of women are afraid of what will happen if they have a low (blood sugar level), but they don't have a game plan for how to deal with it," Szadek says. Develop your own 'in case of emergency' strategy so that you're ready to treat highs and lows when they happen, so you're less likely to suffer from complications later on.
Raise your voice: "Being a diva isn't just about singing," says Szadek. It's also about advocating for your own care, insisting on the self-pampering you need to feel good about yourself, and sharing the lessons you've learned with other women dealing with the disease. "That's probably one of the empowering parts of becoming a diva," he says. "Realizing you're not alone."
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor or health care provider.