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This article was originally published in Diabetes Health in February, 2008.
Elliott performs his latest hit, "Movin' On," at the World Diabetes Day celebration in Manhattan.
It has been rags to riches for singer Elliott Yamin. With his naturally soulful singing voice, listeners feel his raw emotion and they like it. When you hear him, you know immediately that few guys in any musical genre sing with this kind of authenticity.
In a true Cinderella story, Yamin went from being a pharmacy clerk in early 2006 to international singing sensation in a matter of months. His singing talent was recognized when viewers voted him to (almost) the top spot on the television show American Idol. Though he came in third, he has since gone on to eclipse the first- and second-place winners, and is being touted as perhaps one of the greatest of a new generation of male singers.
Yamin faced a huge challenge in wooing the judges to pick him to from among the tens of thousands of other contestants who turned out to audition for American Idol. Although he was shy, the judges quickly saw a very friendly and easygoing 28-year-old with a sultry, smooth voice well suited to the genres of rock, pop, soul, R&B and jazz.
Yamin had sung karaoke as a teen, which was how he had discovered his own talent. The untrained youth began singing in local bands and in amateur venues, and his influences came to include the likes of Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and Ray Charles. While working as a pharmacy clerk, he left his job to audition for American Idol on the advice of his friends, but he had little idea of where he was really heading.
Diagnosed With Diabetes
Yamin was not a stranger to facing great challenges. The Richmond, Va, local was diagnosed with diabetes at 16 - just two years after his parents divorced.
"I just knew I wasn't feeling right," Yamin says. "It was about a two-and-a-half week period leading up to my diagnosis that I was just feeling totally run down and lethargic. I was urinating every hour, I was always thirsty, my breath was really stinky, all of my joints would constantly ache, my mouth was dry. I just didn't know what was going on with me."
Yamin told his mother of his symptoms on a Sunday night.
"She has type 2 diabetes and she recognized the symptoms," he explains. "She got her meter right away. She tested me at 860 mg/dl and she became frantic and called the physician."
The family lived in a convenient location right behind the hospital, he said. "We went to the emergency room and I ended up spending four days in the hospital."
The news did not sit well with Yamin. Like most teenagers he enjoyed hanging out with his friends, cruising in cars, dating girls and living a normal life. He did not want to take multiple insulin injections and finger sticks daily for blood glucose readings.
"I was very angry," he says of the time following his diagnosis. "I was in denial. I didn't want to believe I had the disease. I kept wondering, 'how did I go from being an average kid without too many worries or concerns to having this incurable lifelong disease?'"
The reaction to his diagnosis, along with normal teenage defiance, spelled out disaster for his diabetes control.
"I got really rebellious. I didn't want to take my insulin and I didn't want to believe I actually had diabetes," he says. "I was pissed. I thought the future was grim and I wouldn't be able to do the things I always wanted to do."
It wasn't long before he realized he needed to take control of his condition in order to feel good and have energy.
"I learned very abruptly when I was diagnosed that I had to get a grip on my diabetes or I wouldn't live very long," says Yamin, who made several trips to the emergency room before taking better control of his diabetes.
After five years of taking multiple daily injections Yamin started using an insulin pump at 21.
"I think once I got on the pump it really changed my view on diabetes and on how I could take care of myself," he says. "I love it."
Friends Spur Him on to Idol
It was the urging of his friends that prompted Yamin to audition for American Idol, singing Leon Russell's "A Song for You." Although the audition never hit the air, the judges moved him forward to the finals based on his obvious talent. American Idol judge Simon Cowell is quoted as having called Yamin "potentially the best male vocalist ever" on the show. After Yamin performed "A Song for You," Cowell said his performance was the equivalent of someone teaching a "vocal master class."
Yamin left the show following one of its tightest races - each of three top contestants earned nearly the same percentage score from viewers. Though he only came in third, the show earned Yamin the recognition he deserved. Soon came a recording contract with Hickory Records and talk show appearances that included the Tonight Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, and the Fox News Channel. Since then, his self-titled debut, "Yamin," has turned gold with a single ("Wait for You") that has made number 20 on the Billboard Top 100.
When he's not on the road touring or promoting a show, Yamin says he tries to eat healthy foods in addition to testing his blood glucose often, although it's not easy. "I try eating a lot of salads and stay away from fried stuff ," he says. "It's not really a set diet every day. I certainly have more access to better foods when I'm at home. I'm trying to increase my protein intake level. I want to try to put on some muscle."
When it comes to muscle and his physical appearance, Yamin says he is pretty secure now - but it wasn't always that way. He says that having an insulin pump hasn't harmed his love life.
"Diabetes doesn't affect my relationships with women at all. I was a little apprehensive about taking my shirt off around girls at first," he says. "It's awkward looking to have a third nipple on your stomach - the infusion set for my pump - and it's hard for people to get their minds around that it's something I'm always going to have.
"Everybody has supported it. The only thing that kind of sucks is that I can't really sit in the hot tub too long because the adhesive around my pump site gets really soggy. One of the disadvantages is the heat wears it off. If there is a hot tub backstage after a show I can't partake, or, at least not for very long."
Regimen on the Road
The ideal daily regimen for optimal control is not easy on the road, says Yamin, who has been traveling at least seven months out of the past year.
"No matter how busy my schedule gets, I still test around three or four times a day," he says. "Beyond that, I just test as much as possible and adjust my pump according to what I'm eating. I count carbohydrates and try to watch what I eat."
It's very important to have good blood glucose control before going on stage, says Yamin, who tests with his meter before and after going on stage. Hypoglycemia on stage could mean devastating effects on a performance - and not just because of the low blood glucose level, but also because it's hard to get up fast in front of a waiting audience.
"I like to be around 160 mg/dl before I go on, and a lot of times when I come off it's higher because of the level of good stress, or adrenaline, and anxiety," he says.
One time this was not the case.
"Just a few months ago we were in Vancouver and I was doing a show there and I stepped on stage, opened up with the first song and I felt my blood glucose dipping down pretty low," Yamin explains of the incident. "I asked somebody to go grab me a couple of Pepsis and I finished the first song. But, between the first two songs I sucked both of them down pretty quick. I had to correct my blood glucose fast."
He explained to his audience what was going on at that point - openness about his diabetes with his fans has always been a strength for Yamin, from his first American Idol performance when he was very clear with the judges about his disease.
The problem came once he was done drinking.
"I drank the two Pepsis very fast. You don't really want to drink carbonated beverages on stage," he says. "It was hard not to burp on stage after that. It was ugly, man. It was just ugly. I kept having to pull away from the mike to burp."
Hypoglycemic episodes are not common for Yamin on stage.
"I notice my blood glucose level gets higher on the road," he says. "I've been on the road maybe a total of seven months, adding everything up on three tours."
There isn't always time on the road to do the exercise he would like to.
"I go to bed around 4 or 5 in the morning and wake up early to do morning radio shows, do sound checks, meet and greets on the shows," Yamin explains of his days on tour. "I do everything I can to promote every show in every town I go to. My time is very limited. I'm very busy - the first single has just been very busy and very taxing."
Yamin says although his most recent hemoglobin A1c was 8, he has plans to get his diabetes in tighter control, he advocates a healthy lifestyle and he knows his results would be more favorable if he were not traveling from city to city, riding the tour bus and airplanes constantly.
Even celebrities surrounded by constant fan attention, wealth, and almost nonstop social and stage appearances can find themselves getting down about their diabetes - and Yamin is no exception. He has certainly handled a great deal if adversity in his life, including a 90 percent hearing loss in his right ear - but sometimes depression over his diabetes still gets to him.
"I've been down and out before. I've had the diabetes blues," he says. "You know, I think it happens to the best of us."
Yamin says when he feels down, it's important to consider all things - not just the challenges of having to deal with diabetes. He tries to count his blessings and realize how things could be worse.
"I just try to realize how lucky I am," he says. "I try to take a step back and reflect on all the blessings that I have, especially over the past couple of years with living out my dream and being a sort of Cinderella story - it really helped change my perspective on how I cope with diabetes."
He often takes advantage of his newfound stardom to help others who may be feeling blue.
"It's important to me to inspire others and advocate to help find a cure," says Yamin. "Hey, diabetes sucks, man. But don't let diabetes control you. It's very important to test your blood glucose as often as possible. Also, let people around you help you and never lose sight of your goal - no matter what kind of disease or adversity you face."
Yamin encourages others to join in the fight as well: "Take initiative to help find a cure, and the better off we will all be in the long run."
Nobody But You
Yamin learned as a teen that he was the only one who could best take care of his diabetes. His body would tell him if he was testing and controlling his blood glucose well enough. There were many times he woke up in the emergency room at the hospital. It was watching his mother, his own idol, cry when he woke there once that sparked him to take better control of his diabetes.
"Now I know that sometimes you just have to face the music, no pun intended. You have to take care of yourself because in the long run it's only you that can do that. No one else can nurse your health the way that you can."
Yamin's Advice To Diabetes Health Readers
Overall, Yamin says his diabetes has been a sort of blessing in disguise.
"I think it has really made me stronger," he says. "It doesn't affect how I sing or how I perform. I carry a card in my wallet that says I'm type 1 and insulin-dependent."
Yamin says his diabetes is a strong part of what makes him who he is and it shows up in his writing, such as in songs about how nothing is impossible, where he encourages listeners to achieve their goals. Yamin is just as passionate about finding a cure for diabetes as he is about singing. He is now sponsored by Eli Lilly and he has also done a great deal of work for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"Young people should just continue going for their dreams," he says. "Don't let diabetes stop you. I go out there and sing hard and give it my all, and am passionate and try to convey that passion on stage. It's my job. It's what I'm supposed to do - and it's the best job in the world. I really come alive on that stage. I love it - it's where I belong."
Elliott and Me
By Miriam E. Tucker
This photo of Elliott Yamin and me was taken on May 17, 2007 in the parking lot of the Birchmere music venue in Alexandria Va, after the opening kick-off show of his first U.S. tour. He was soulful and superb…and so was his band!
When I first saw Elliott compete on American Idol, I thought he was adorable and obviously a talented singer. When I found out he had type 1 diabetes just like me, I picked up the phone and started voting! He ended up in third place, but that's okay. Since then, he has proven himself a winner in so many ways.
Watching Elliott perform in person, I was struck by how happy he seemed to be, loving what he's doing and clearly grateful for the opportunity. He smiles while he sings, and you smile back. He opens up and invites you in. His concert felt like a big group hug.
Afterwards, I was among 50 or so people who hung around, hoping to say hi and maybe get a quick pic. I was thrilled when, after the crowd had cleared a bit, Elliott and I actually ended up chatting for several minutes about living with diabetes!
Calm and Attentive
He seems to be very calm about his diabetes, yet not in a blasé kind of way. He obviously works at controlling it - by wearing an insulin pump - but doesn't let it control him. He clearly doesn't see himself as a victim. I doubt you'll hear him complaining about the injustice of the disease. I got the impression that he views diabetes as just another of life's challenges to overcome, along with his partial deafness, his parents' divorce and the scathing comments of surly Idol judge Simon Cowell.
I think Elliott Yamin is an ideal example for kids who are dealing with all the emotional and physical hassles of living with diabetes. When I was diagnosed back in 1973, Mary Tyler Moore was my only role model. She was great, but of another generation. Elliott is young, like many of his fans. A kid with diabetes can look to him and relate.
But Elliott's mature style appeals to us older folks, too. In fact, while waiting out back after his show, I met a couple in their early 50's who were also hoping to meet him. (The husband, a D.C. lawyer, is the one who took this photo with my cell phone.)
An Inspiration to Me
And I'm 43, a bit beyond the American Idol target audience. Yet, when I began considering insulin pump therapy later in 2007, Elliott was one of the reasons I finally decided to go for it. I mean, look how cool and successful he is. Maybe I can be like that, too! Of course, neither wearing a pump nor having diabetes guarantee coolness or success. But as Elliott Yamin is proving, they sure don't get in the way!
An Elliot Yamin Timeline
Ends 2007 ranked at number three on the Top Independent Albums chart and at number 114 on The Billboard 200 chart. "Wait for You" ends up ranking at number 11 on the Pop 100 Airplay chart and at number 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 Songs chart.
Dec 17, 2008