Max Szadek aka Mr. Divabetic decked out in his "fruit suit." Photo: Winston Kerr, Kerr Photo
Max Szadek is pulled in a lot of directions. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the volunteer vice president of activities and outreach for Gotham Volleyball League, North America’s largest LGBTQ sports organization, Max Szadek plans events, fundraisers, wellness programming and the group’s annual Coming Out Project.
But it’s the Murray Hill resident’s gigs as a celebrity personal assistant that have taken him and his community organizing skills in unlikely and rewarding directions. Szadek was the assistant for many years to Luther Vandross, the Grammy-winning singer who suffered from diabetes and died in 2005. After Vandross’s death, Szadek started a diabetes awareness non-profit in his honor called “Divabetic.” Szadek appears at events in a “fruit suit” of fruit and rhinestones as his alter ego, “Mr. Divabetic,” as he seeks to changes mindsets from helpless to hopeful.
Szadek spoke about the origins of the group and its upcoming inaugural four-day Fandross Festival beginning May 10.
In 2003, thirteen years into being Luther Vandross’s right-hand man, the entertainer had a diabetes-related stroke. Tell me about how that experience led to the advocacy work you do.
I found my boss on the floor and rushed him to the hospital. The emergency room doctor came out and told me this could have been prevented. It was like someone slapped me across the face. I knew he had type 2 diabetes. That really has always stayed with me — that missed opportunity of education.
I became Luther’s part-time caregiver, and focused my attention on jump-starting the diabetes conversation no one was having. I started by selling “Divabetic” t-shirts, and after Luther died in 2005, we incorporated as a 501c3 national non-profit.
What’s the genesis of the name?
Patti LaBelle was performing at a Luther Vandross tribute concert. She stopped between songs to address the crowd, and admitted she was living with diabetes. Then she said diabetes doesn’t control her, she’s controls diabetes. I was blown away by how outspoken she was about her diagnosis. I thought that’s not a diabetic, that’s a diva. “Divabetic” popped into my head. Later ... I realized the “v” represented “Vandross.”
And you knew nothing about diabetes?
I didn’t know about diabetes, but I knew about divas. I thought a glamorous approach would be a way to get people to take care of themselves. Divabetic is unique in its approach to diabetes wellness education and empowerment. We are very successful at presenting diabetes education out of the clinical setting. Our messages related to self-compassion strongly resonate with our members and boost confidence in managing their self-care.
And your members are primarily female, right?
Yes. African American and Latino women — who happen to comprise a large part of Luther’s fan base — are disproportionately affected by diabetes health-related complications such as stroke. Unfortunately, issues specifically related to women and diabetes management are not adequately addressed, including menopause, menstruation, etc. And women tend to make themselves their last priority. I like to shine the spotlight on them, boost their confidence, and inspire them to get involved and take care of their health.
That said, I do tackle diabetes sexual health issues for both men and women, whether that’s vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction, which is common in men who have diabetes, especially those with type 2 diabetes.
What’s an OMG diabetes fact/stat?
Seventy-nine million people are living with pre-diabetes, and a third of them don’t even know they have it. Luther is an integral part of a genre of music called the “Quiet Storm.” The term sums up diabetes perfectly.
The inaugural Fandross Festival kicks off its four-day run of performances, panels, and screenings on Thursday at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar on the Upper West Side. Besides wanting to raise awareness, what was the impetus for the event?
I had the idea to bring my annual Luther Vandross tribute podcast to life! To present the ultimate Luther Vandross fan experience and connect them with the people who helped Luther make the music since so many reach out to me with questions about his music, background vocals, etc. I also wanted to highlight members of Luther’s musical family and their endeavors.
Interestingly, you currently work for Itzhak Perlman, the world-renown violinist, conductor and teacher, who’s been living with polio since he was four.
When I found out he was in a motorized scooter, it humbled me and piqued my interest in working for him. During the final stages of Luther’s life he was in a wheelchair, and I saw how quickly the world passes by and no one slows down.
I’ve been able to help coordinate outreach advocacy activities for Mr. Perlman with Rotary, an organization that works toward eradicating polio, as well as Concerts in Motion, which brings live concerts to those who can’t go to them.
I’m already in discussions about next year’s Fandross Fest, and I’m aiming for a big, splashy production for Luther’s 70th birthday in 2021.
For more information about the Fandross Festival or Divabetic’s Glam More, Fear Less approach to managing diabetes, go to http://divabetic.org/