An Interview with American Idol Veteran and T1 Actor Kevin Covais
Who remembers Kevin Covais from Season 5 of American Idol? He was that nerdy finalist with glasses who America compared to Chicken Little. But lo and behold, he's also living with type 1 diabetes and has become a successful young actor as well as a diabetes advocate. (The Sky is Not Falling! Thank you, Kevin!)
Today, Kevin is known as a successful singer/songwriter who makes regular appearances at the Children with Diabetes Friends For Life conference each summer. His face is becoming ever more visible these days as his blossoming acting career puts him on the silver screen and TVs across the world.
A native of Long Island, NY, Kevin was diagnosed with T1D as a kid almost two decades ago and is now living in Los Angeles in pursuit of his acting career. And we must say, it’s been remarkable to watch the 28-year-old embrace his dream for the past decade, since being eliminated in the final Idol round of 2006. He's since taken on roles in the Disney sitcom Good Luck Charlie, the movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, and most recently on the season finale of NBC’s wildly popular dramedy This Is Us.
We had the chance to chat with Kevin recently just after his This Is Us episode aired, and here’s what he has to say about diabetes, acting and using his growing celebrity platform to do good in the world.
Actor Kevin Covais Shares on Diabetes, Idol, and More
DM) To start, how did you first get pulled into the diabetes world, Kevin?
KC) Man, it’s amazing how times flies. I was diagnosed just after my 11th birthday (in 2001). I remember being in the doctor’s office and being diagnosed, and just not knowing what diabetes actually was. I’d heard the word before, but didn’t truly know what it meant or what it would mean for me going forward. They told me: 'You’re going to live with this and be OK, but it’s going to alter your lifestyle.' Being in fifth grade and just wanting to still be a kid, I remember very clearly that it did change everything, with all that came with type 1. Being a kid and going through school can already be so heavy at times… so yeah, then you add diabetes onto that...
How was it for you right after being diagnosed as you approached teen-hood?
It was tough initially. But once I became acclimated to a routine and schedule and knew what I could or couldn’t do, I was fine. I knew I could eat something, as long as it was in moderation, or do certain things and check my blood sugar. It came quickly for me, and I was also very fortunate to have such a supportive family. It all became second nature that was another part of my day. I’m lucky that it became so routine so quickly for me, because I know it’s not that way for everyone.
How did you deal with diabetes at school at the time?
I remember school so vividly, and how diabetes – as it does – could change at a moment’s notice. Anything could trigger or set you off from a blood sugar standpoint, whether it was a big test or in getting ready to do a play. These things happen. I was a nervous kid at times, as kids are, and I remember going to have to go to the nurse’s office for a check. Like with anything else in life, you do your best to prepare because you don’t know when the moment may happen. As a type 1, you prepare for those situations.
How do you see diabetes differently now?
You examine things differently as an adult. Well, I may act childish, but age-wise I’m an adult. You examine things with a different perspective. Looking back now, I am really happy that this happened when it did at age 11 because I think about a diagnosis at an earlier or later time and how tough that can be. I was old enough to absorb it and do what I needed to, but still young enough where I didn’t have to fully re-train my brain like you might as an older teenager or as an adult. I try to look at it in a positive light, knowing I realized that I was still a normal kid and could do anything.
So let's talk American Idol -- which by the way is making a comeback right now after being off-air for several years. How did you decide to audition for Season 5?
It was probably a year or two after diagnosis that I really discovered my love for singing and acting, and in school kind of ran with that. My start was joining the school chorus, and doing school plays and drama every year.
I was a big fan of Idol. My mom and I watched it every week, and I decided to audition for the show. My parents asked if I was sure I’d wanted to do that, and they were incredibly supportive. I really didn’t think about diabetes as a part of it, because I was fortunate growing up that diabetes never held me back from wanting to pursue my dreams or wanting to dream big. My family engrained that in me from an early age. So, I decided to go out for Idol.
What was the Idol experience like for you?
It was crazy, as I had just turned 16 when I went up from New York to Boston for an audition. Against all odds, I just kept hearing “Yes” from judges even though I was expecting to be done before the first round ended. It’s kind of like winning the lottery and I couldn’t have imagined that I’d make it as far as I did.
Then I got out to Hollywood and made it onto Hollywood Week, flew across the country, and was out on the West Coast (where I now live) for the very first time at 16 in the winter of 2005. It was amazing. I ended up getting into all the way to Top 12 of my season as #11 and performed on the big stage live for five weeks.
With that whirlwind, there was always diabetes, of course…
Every step of the way, again, I was monitoring my diabetes. But just to show how comfortable I was with my diabetes at that point, they asked me during interviews for the show about hardships in my life, something difficult you’ve gone through -- and I never mentioned having diabetes. I don’t think I did during any of the time I was on the show.
Do you regret not talking more publicly about T1D back then?
I look back now as an adult, and do wish I’d said something. But it just goes to show how comfortable I was in my own skin having T1, and that I do live a normal life. This is a thing that I deal with, but it doesn’t phase me to the point that I need to mention it when someone asks me about hardship or struggle.
But everyone’s story is different. For me, my family was so supportive and things were good and are good in my life where I didn’t need to bring that up. It wasn’t until after I was eliminated from the show that I wondered if I should have brought it up, because I could have an impact on people who watch the show. As a kid, I wasn’t thinking that way. But later, you do realize that your platform can help others and raise awareness, and make a difference.
It was certainly a
different time then, in terms of patient advocacy...
The landscape is ever-changing, especially in the past 10-15 years. And yes, it’s crazy that it has been 12 years since I was on Idol... I basically look the same now, except with less hair. But yes, it was so much fun and opened up so many doors for me, and also opened my eyes as to how I can do good with this platform wherever that takes me.
Do you still keep in touch with fellow finalist and also T1D-peep Elliott Yamin from that season of Idol?
Yes, I do. We’ve become fast friends. The great part of my friendship with Elliott goes back to how we all come from different cities and end up together before the live shows. In the Boston auditions, he and I were the only ones of the Top 12 who were in Boston. I remember meeting him, seeing this guy at the final audition in Boston. We didn’t go on until the end of the day, so we were both waiting 9-10 hours just to get into the room to audition for three judges. He was sitting in the corner with these sunglasses on, and I thought, 'Wow, this guy looks cocky. I wonder what his story is.'
Then it turns out, it’s the incredible Elliott Yamin. We ended up meeting and vibing in Hollywood, and sharing our stories and diabetes came up. It was 'Me Too' and a friendship was born right away. It was so cool and unique, to have diabetes come up and to have that common issue bonding us. Aside from the type 1 diabetes, I was just a fan. If Idols can be fans of other Idols, I’d be a big fan of Elliott’s voice and think he’s one of the best there is. I saw him just a couple months ago, but of course he’s now doing his thing overseas and is very busy, which is awesome.
How did you get into acting and performing after Idol?
I didn’t really pursue the music industry professionally, but still it’s very fulfilling to do that personally with songwriting. It just didn’t feel like a good fit for me. But there’s quite a bit of interest in acting, doing film and TV and auditions for character roles. I never once, while doing American Idol, considered doing those things so it was a thrill to just go into audition rooms and meet people. I briefly went out for some Broadway auditions, and it was all amazing. That helped me transition into Part Two of my career, focused on acting.
That’s what has really taken hold here, with big and small roles. I’ve been living out in LA for a while now, and have some great opportunities out here -- some sitcom work on Good Luck Charlie and movies, and of course the most recent stuff on This Is Us.
How did you actually nab the role on This Is Us most recently?
I didn’t exactly take a break from acting, but wasn’t as active in the past couple years and really got back into it full steam ahead this year. My manager came to me with this audition. Anytime an audition like that comes around, you’re all 'Whoa!' because it’s at the level it is and plus I’m an enormous fan of the show – like everyone who’s obsessed with it.
I love film and TV content on Netflix and other streaming channels so much these days, but am not watching network TV as much. This show is an exception and I watch it religiously every week. So I get this audition for a small scene with Kate (actress Chrissy Metz’s character) and thought it was really cool. Any chance to be on that show… I wouldn’t done background work, walking around in the background of a scene. Then I heard back very quickly about getting the part of an artisanal ice cream shop employee who has a great little scene with Kate.
And was it fun?
It was the greatest day of my life. And it felt so short, because it was so much fun. They filmed in the Paramount lot, and I met a lot of the cast – Justin Hartley, Sterling K. Brown, all the cute kids who play their younger versions – and of course Chrissy who plays Kate and she’s such a sweetheart. We acted out our scene very quickly with about six takes and then got to hang out.
Very cool! As is the irony of your ice cream shop when you're living with T1D, right?
That irony wasn’t lost on me, for sure. After shooting the scenes with Chrissy, we got to sit and share ice cream. We sat for about half an hour, and she’s telling me her story! It was amazing, and she even recognized me – because I’m kind of a weird-looking guy and I get that a lot from Idol. It was just an unbelievable experience.
Of course I checked my blood sugar and took some insulin before enjoying the ice cream. I think it was like a fancy cookies and cream flavor.
Do you tell people you're working with about your diabetes, for safety or other reasons?
Sometimes when you’re on set you do want to tell people about your diabetes, just in case an emergency comes about. For something small like this, especially as it was in an ice cream shop, I told a bunch of people on set: 'You’ll only know me for the next five hours, but I have diabetes and this is what I’m dealing with.' But I was so excited that it wasn’t really on my mind much. Instead of a kid in a candy shop, I was a type 1 in an ice cream shop.
Last thing I’ll say about the This Is Us experience is that you just never know what even small roles like that can lead to. Sometimes you’re not guaranteed to make it into an episode or film, and for an actor to see that I made it was a victory. That in of itself is a huge honor!
Where else can we expect to see you?
There may be an episode of Lucifer coming up, too. I wish I could say for sure on a firm date. It was supposed to be on (already), but it wasn’t yet. That’s up in the air, but I did do an episode that isn’t listed quite yet. I had a fun little part, kicking off an episode. That’s about all I can say before it airs. I'm also not turning away from any potential opportunity, and do hope to do some script-writing at some point.
Do you have any particular diabetes mishap stories to share from over the years?
The diabetes technology has evolved so much, the less issues I run into. That’s all anyone can ask for – whether you’re acting like me, or have a “real job” somewhere.
But going back to the Idol time, the story that stands out the most is when I was on the live show, and my BG dropped live during the semi-finals during that third week. Right before they announced the Top 12, it happened on stage – all going back to nerves throwing me off. I got up to perform, and could feel my BG dropping, right while singing live on national television. I powered through, but knew I had to do something. Afterwards, the judges were talking, and normally I would care what they have to say, but I just thought: 'Stop rambling, I need to go get my Sunny D or glucose tablets!!'
For me, that was the one experience where diabetes felt so real and interfered. I’d done everything to prepare for it, but nerves took over in the moment and got the better of me. I was at 40 mg/dL but got my juice and it all turned out OK. That was a wild moment, and reminded me that diabetes doesn’t take a break because something important is happening.
Can you talk about how you’ve embraced the CWD Friends For Life conference?
I’ve been going since 2006, and it’s become just an amazing part of my life. At first as a special guest, and now a staff member – but it’s like family. And I owe that to my friend Tom Karlya, as we’re both from Long Island and he originally reached out to get me there. I enjoy it so much; it's really a positive experience where you meet so many amazing people who are going through some of the same things you are with diabetes, and just so many interesting personalities.
You can’t help but be inspired. And every year, I feel like I could be doing more. And yes, it can bring perspective. I was naïve to people’s everyday experiences with diabetes, and the struggles they sometimes have. Because I have been lucky in my life with diabetes. You see how it can be, and how something like FFL can shift the mindset of a child who may be struggling because of diabetes, and how positive that experience can be for so many. And I think it’s great that FFL has helped me understand that even more.
Any new plans for diabetes advocacy, or using your acting platform on the diabetes front?
Absolutely. For me, it’s about finding new ways to do that. I am the world’s worst networker and always feel like I’m bothering people. When I was young, I didn’t think to bring it up. But now, in terms of discussing advocacy and your journey with diabetes, we do a video series at Friends For Life called Docu-Diabetes for three years now where everyone can film a video on what diabetes means to them – from songs to skits and just sharing their story. For me, doing things like that is fun and important.
Aside from FFL, I have worked with Diabetes Research Institute (DRI in Florida) and JDRF, and I hope to again. Generally though, I do go back to that Idol story and the low blood sugar, and how I think it’s important to share stories. It’s normal to us and people who live with it every day, but not for everyone. Often, people just need a bit of education because they don’t know anything about diabetes. It’s amazing how many people I tell my story to, who know a friend of a friend but that’s it. And then you can give them a quick little lesson about type 1, and the differences in types and you help out. I’m happy to share that information when I can.
There’s no shame, and this is who we are. You embrace and tackle it head-on, even when there are those difficult times. This isn’t going to stop me from doing anything.
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Originally published on March 28, 2018 at DiabetesMine