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How Comedian Lea DeLaria Is Taking Diabetes One Day at a Time

big boo-orange is the new black-diabetes-type 2
big boo-orange is the new black-diabetes-type 2
Lea DeLaria | Photos by Tina Turnbow

Known for her role as Big Boo on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” actress and comedian Lea DeLaria was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes early in the show’s run. We talked with her about how she’s managed the condition through lifestyle changes and daily medication, and has become an advocate for other diabetics.

What went through your mind when you were first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes?

My mom was diagnosed with diabetes in her 30s and just a few months before I got the diagnosis, I had visited my family and my brother was diagnosed. Wse’re a very sarcastic family, so I was laughing at him like, “Yeah, I’m fat, but at least I don’t have diabetes.” And then three months later when I went for a physical, the doctor told me I had diabetes. I was like, “Oh my god.” And then of course my brother and I just proceeded to text each other.


My blood sugar was over 400 and my A1C was over 11, and the normal level is 7. There are a lot of things that one looks for or is aware of, like frequent urination, exhaustion, weight loss, and at the time I was perimenopausal, so I was going through the change hormonally and I didn’t even think about diabetes until they told me. The whole thing took me by a bit of a surprise. You think you know your health until this happens.

Also, I did not have health insurance, so I wasn’t getting a physical very often. So, when I was cast in “Orange is the New Black” and I had health insurance through my union, that was when I was able to get a physical and found out I had diabetes. So, it’s hard for most people without insurance to get screened and most are living undiagnosed, which can be dangerous.

Why did you decide to go public with your diagnosis and how did you handle the media attention?

When the show premiered, it blew up and was crazy popular, and I was diagnosed about a year after the first season hit the airways. So, I was doing a lot of press and walking red carpets, and I had lost a lot of weight because I was changing my habits in relation to the disease.

Everybody was like, “how did you lose weight?” And I said, “Well, first you contract diabetes,” and I was being funny about it, but once I did start becoming vocal about it, I noticed there were a lot of other people who were vocal about it and decided this should be something that we discuss.

I started talking about lifestyle changes that you have to make, like changing your habits. For example, the first thing I do is take my medication — I never mess around with that. I have to take medication every day and I take it on schedule. I also go to the gym, and it becomes this routine of making sure you take your medication, are eating on time, and that’s it.

We’re all freaking human — give yourself a break.

Lea DeLaria

The world can be crashing down around you, and now I’m trying to focus on my health while juggling everything. For me, that’s important — being on top of my diabetes for my health. It’s not about my looks.

I’ve always been very vocal, I fought for queer rights, I fought for women’s rights, and I fought for fat rights. I don’t care about looking gorgeous, but I do know that the weight screws with my blood sugar and my A1C, so I try to keep it off. 

What is it like managing your symptoms while also managing your hectic schedule with a TV show and comedy tour?

On “Orange Is the New Black,” when I began to lose weight, they put me in a fat suit to make it seem like nothing had changed. Then I was what they call overdraft, so I had like two outfits on to make me me appear bigger. Then, because I had so obviously lost so much weight, they added a storyline that I had gotten a parasite when we were all in the lake and that’s how I lost all the weight.


I recently did a play, and in theater, more so than film, when you’re working eight times a week with a group of people that you’ve been working with for months, you become kind of a family and they are always bringing stuff from home. There’s a table that’s filled with a cake someone baked or candy because Easter had passed. I just kept having to say, “Yeah, thank you, but no thanks — I’m a diabetic.” I told everyone to eat, and I’m going to watch you eat and live vicariously through you.

A big change came in terms of flying since I travel a lot for work. Airlines have special meals that can be requested in advance; here’s my little tip for people: Don’t tell them you’re a diabetic — you’re not going to like the meal. On the flight, find the one they offer that is a high-protein meal. They all have it because they’re more interested in helping people with keto than they are with actual diabetes.

Also, I enjoy a tipple with people; I’m really strict around food because I enjoy a nice cocktail, but have to be careful of sugar and alcohol. But, because of Keto, we have bread and noodles that are literally protein, and because people have to give up certain foods with diabetes, keto is a good alternative.

I love peanut butter, and it broke my heart when I had to give it up because there’s a lot of sugar in it. But I did some research, and if you get organic peanut butter, there’s not that much sugar in it. There’s a lot of peanut butter out there with no sugar in it, so I can have a little peanut butter on a slice of Keto bread and I’m a happy little camper!

Is there any advice you can give to other people who have been recently diagnosed and are currently managing type 2 diabetes?

It’s a process. Eventually you will get used to this process, and you’re going to make mistakes. Just give yourself some grace, correct, and move on. Find alternatives for your favorites, like keto, and compensate. We’re all freaking human — give yourself a break.

I messed up yesterday, today is another day, and I’m handling my diabetes one day at a time.

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