William ‘Max’ Szadek is a 50-year-old entrepreneur currently living in New York city and is the founder of Divabetic. After graduating from Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, Max had a very colorful career working as a celebrity personal assistant with the legendary R&B musician Luther Vandross before his death.
Following the tragic loss to the music world, Max has since gone on to become a powerful public spokesman for diabetes awareness.
One of his vehicles is the national nonprofit organization, Divabetic (divabetic.org) which partially grew out of his dismay with the lack of media attention to Luther Vandross’ diabetes.
Though Max does not himself have the disease, he’s made it his mission to help those who do. His older brother is living with Type 1, his grandmother had diabetes as do several other family members.
When Max is not busy with his work fighting for people with diabetes, he enjoys tennis, live theater, and live music. He is also a member of the largest LGBTQ Sports League in North America (Gotham Volleyball), and the New York Celebrity Assistants organization.
Everyday Diabetes recently caught up with Max Szadek at his home in New York to talk about his organization and his involvement with the diabetic community.
What inspired you to become such an active volunteer for people around America with diabetes?
I was inspired to get involved in diabetes and founded the national diabetes nonprofit organization, Divabetic (divabetic.org) because of my career working for Luther Vandross. I found Luther on the floor of his 5th Avenue apartment after he suffered a stroke related to his type 2 diabetes. I worked with him for 13 years. I was so shocked by what happened.
I had no idea how damaging the consequences of mismanaged diabetes can be. It was devastating. When the doctors told me that Luther’s stroke could have been avoided, I decided to speak out. I was also extremely disappointed because the media was only reporting on the stroke, and not linking it to his diabetes. I wanted people to learn from our mistake so that they could prevent it from happening to their family.
Through the loss and disappointment with the media, where did you go from there to become so proactive?
I started selling t-shirts with the word “Divabetic” on the front, and “Sugar’s the Bitch. Not Me” on the back as a part of a fundraising endeavor. They were popular and people kept asking me if I did anything else. I thought they meant baseball caps or tote bags, but they were talking about programming. I started hosting free monthly programs at the YMCA in New York with the help of two women, Amy Jordan and Dana Hariton, living with type 1 diabetes. They were called Divabetic ‘Bee A Diva” Diabetes Coaching sessions.
Soon after, the sessions morphed into bigger outreach programs featuring guest speakers, games, healthy food tastings, music, and finally beauty and fashion presentations.
Luther Vandross continues to inspire me everyday to broaden the appeal of diabetes outreach and to treat women with diabetes like divas.
Divabetic is also an organization that helps women feel and look their best, and not letting diabetes hold them back. How did you start?
I launched the program ‘Divabetic – Makeover Your Diabetes’ in January 2005 at a tiny makeup salon in NYC with the help of the JDRF. The event combined free diabetes education with free personalized beauty services such as makeup applications, styling advice, etc. Novo Nordisk approached me about a possible patient outreach collaboration. By this time, I had amassed a laundry list of different diabetes programs aimed at women, men, and children. However, I chose to pitch our ‘makeover’ program because it represented the style of my diabetes education and empowerment programming the best.
I ended up working with them for 3 years and traveling to eight major US cities reaching thousands of women at risk, affected by, and living with diabetes. The enthusiastic response we received from the program gave us the opportunity to partner with local organizations in Cleveland, OH, New York, NY and Philadelphia, PA to present ongoing programming for women.
Today I continue to present free monthly diabetes outreach, the Divabetic Club at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. I still receive emails from women in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, asking when we’re coming back.
Diabetes doesn’t have to dim your dazzle! You’re still beautiful, sexy, sassy, and smart. You’re not alone.
During your Divabetic events, what kind of activities are involved?
Divabetic outreach programs feature traditional diabetes education by healthcare professionals, patient testimonials, workout routines, music like a live string quartet, ‘Glam More, Fear Less’ Fashion Shows, line dancing, and Mr. Divabetic games.
My presentation includes a “Hot Topics” discussion on breaking news on diabetes health and wellness with celebrity gossip sprinkled in. I learned a long time ago that people are more apt to remember the types of diabetes if I relate them to familiar characters or personalities like ’Golden Girls’ or the Kardashians.
I also lead a chair workout routine called ‘Dancing with Cars’ using the motions of driving and repeating them in different sequences.
In March, we hosted a free program focused on kidney disease and prevention. The program featured a keynote address by Dr. Maria Paula Martinez Carntarin, a panel discussion with a kidney donor and a kidney transplant recipient, a ‘Glam More Fear Less’ fashion show featuring eyewear designs, healthy lunches and a Family Feud style game featuring questions on kidney prevention presented with Dr. Neva White. Serve, Taste or Trash! at Central Farm Markets.Serve, Taste or Trash! at ADA Walk in New York.
What positive motivation did you offer to the thousands that came?
That diabetes doesn’t have to dim your dazzle! You’re still beautiful, sexy, sassy, and smart. You’re not alone. And there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
After the Divabetic makeover events ended, where did you go from there?
I launched our popular podcast, Diabetes Late Nite, which will be celebrating it’s 6th year anniversary this June, plus expanded our social media. Currently I use our platform “Divabetic” to address what I consider to be the often overlooked topics such as sexual dysfunction, body image, hormones, and menopause related to diabetes. There’s always an element of beauty, fashion, and music in everything we do at Divabetic since we are after all, ‘divas’!!!
What can women expect upon visiting divabetic.org?
It’s all about attitude! Living well with diabetes can be fun, flashy and glamorous! You’re fabulous just the way you are! We have a very upbeat approach to living with diabetes. We’re not a ‘Debbie Downer.’ Currently our website features links to over one hundred free podcasts, poetry, health headlines, games, calendar listings, and our monthly top picks for diabetes self-care products, beauty/fashion items, music, books, etc. We are re-doing our website in June. and the Divabetic Club Philadelphia.
You continue to do so much for the community of people suffering with diabetes, do you have any future goals with your outreach?
I want to develop my “Dancing In Cars” workout routine into a video series. People who normally don’t like to exercise really enjoy it. I am also interested in developing a diabetes app specifically for younger women with diabetes relating to body image and self-esteem. There has been interest in starting Divabetic Clubs in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, PA, and Detroit, MI.
To the women reading this article, what words of wisdom would you give them right now to make them feel like divas?
Don’t try to manage your diabetes alone. Luther Vandross had over fifty people supporting him with his music but when it came to managing his type 2 diabetes he chose to do it alone –I think that was a huge mistake. I deeply regret that I wasn’t more involved in his daily self-care before he had a stroke. I like to encourage both men and women to create their own healthcare entourages which include friends, family, co-workers, hair stylists, fitness instructors, and healthcare professionals to help them live their best lives.
Every celebrity ‘diva’ has an entourage to help her look her best and perform at her best so why shouldn’t you? Be vocal! One of the world’s most beloved voices was silenced by diabetes but yours doesn’t have to be! Open up about the issues that concern you most with your healthcare provider and seek help from a qualified therapist if necessary.
I am also interested in developing a diabetes app specifically for younger women with diabetes relating to body image and self-esteem.
As of right now, what are some of your proudest moments throughout your diabetes awareness career?
I am proud to honor and serve Luther’s legacy. He had a huge impact on my life. Sharing his story, and playing his music and videos at our events has given me the opportunity to connect with his fans and encourage them to ‘keep their house a home’ by learning how to prevent a diabetes health-related complication such as stroke from occurring.
Sometimes these moments happen from just adopting the phrase “Divabetic” on their social media or simply wearing our Divabetic t-shirts. Sometimes these moments can occur by tuning in to our podcasts, attending one of our live outreach events, or visiting our website. Sometimes I actually see it happen when they see the back of my fruit suit emblazoned with the phrase ‘Divabetic’ while I’m raising awareness for diabetes at an outdoor street festival or NYC parade.
They have a huge smile on their face. It’s an ‘Ah Ha’ moment of personal empowerment that more time than not has nothing to do with me or Luther Vandross. I’m thankful for all of these moments. I am also grateful that my life has a greater purpose because of my work with Divabetic.
What about the current state of diabetes in America? What more do you think can be done to improve this health crisis?
I wish the diabetes community could focus more on lifting people up who have diabetes and encouraging them to develop a personalized approach to managing their diabetes instead of telling them nonsense like they can get rid of it or reverse type 2 diabetes when they’re initially diagnosed!
Since my focus is on helping people with diabetes prevent and/or avoid a diabetes health-related complication we need to empower people to become their own diabetes healthcare advocates. Our goals in the diabetes community should also include ‘comforting, connecting, and cheering’ on people living well with diabetes in addition to finding a cure, developing new insulin therapies, etc.
I would like to see more diabetes programming targeted at all types of divas, discussing how hormones, menopause, and pregnancy relate to blood sugars and diabetes. They’re not ‘crazy’ if they find themselves struggling to juggle their diabetes and periods on a monthly basis. Currently I am working on developing a diabetes app featuring upbeat affirmations for women with diabetes to encourage them with their daily self-care. I am also interested in promoting the idea of reducing the amount of sugars contained in popular sodas and sugar sweetened beverages to help reduce the number of new cases of type 2 diabetes in the world.
Anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Making a woman with diabetes feel good about herself is what Divabetic is all about. I feel if you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to take care of your diabetes health. This is why I strive is to glamorize good health and aim to help eliminate the shame and blame often associated with diabetes.
Since I’m not living with diabetes nor have I experienced a diabetes health-related complication, using ‘scare’ or ‘fear’ tactics to encourage people to prevent a complication isn’t authentic to me. My approach is to help people stay happy and healthy so there’s no chance of a complication ever occurring.
Luther Vandross showed me how to put on a great ‘show’. He entertained people with sparkles, music and showmanship. I try to educate people about diabetes wellness the same way. All Divabetic programming features music, beauty/fashion, games, prizes, expert advice, straight forward conversation and sweet inspiration. I wear a ‘fruit suit’ on stage to lighten the mood and encourage people to have a good time. Whether people tune in to our free monthly podcasts, attend a live Divabetic outreach event or follow ‘Divabetic’ on Facebook, they’re treated like divas!
Working together with a team of certified diabetes educators, beauty/fashion experts, poets and music industry personnel I try to make learning about diabetes and diabetes self-care management fun and upbeat. We hope to inspire people with diabetes to live happier and healthier lives so they can avoid diabetes health-related complications such as stroke.
You can learn more at www.divabetic.org