For more than a decade, Randy Jackson has drawn on his years of musical experience to advise aspiring singers as a judge on television’s wildly successful talent-search competition series “American Idol.” Now the Grammy-winning producer, performer and TV star wants to share another part of his story that he hopes will inspire and educate a whole new audience.
Faithful “Idol” viewers may know that Jackson has shed more than 100 pounds since he first appeared on TV in 2002, and now he’s finally speaking out about why. Just one year after “American Idol” debuted, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“I thought I was sick with the flu,” he says. “I couldn’t quench my thirst, I was perspiring all the time, and I thought I had a fever.”
After a trip to the emergency room and a definitive diagnosis, Jackson got a stern wake-up call from his doctor. Diabetes was a treatable but incurable disease, the physician told him, one that could more than double his risk of heart attack and stroke.
“It was a blessing and a curse,” Jackson says. “Finally something had happened that meant I needed to do what my doctor had been telling me to do for years: lose weight.”
Paying it forward
Now that Jackson has adopted a healthier lifestyle, drastically changing his diet, playing tennis and lifting weights weekly, he’s sharing his experience with the audience who sees him on TV each week—and beyond. He’s partnered with the pharmaceutical company Merck for an awareness campaign called “Taking Diabetes to Heart” to help people living with the disease understand its complications, manage their condition, and commit to living a diabetes-friendly lifestyle.
“I wanted to pay it forward, because when I was diagnosed, there wasn’t a lot of information easily available,” he says.
Some of Jackson’s less-healthy habits began as a young boy in Baton Rouge, La., where his dad also battled diabetes.
“I grew up in the lovable, huggable South with amazing food, but it’s not always great for you,” he says. “It can be made good for you, but it’s mainly made to taste good—and we worry about the rest later!”
Louisiana was also where Jackson’s love of music was born.
“My brother was in a band and used to rehearse in my mom’s garage, so I got the bug then,” he says. He picked up the bass guitar at 13 and “fell in love.”
In 1986, he joined the rock band Journey behind the scenes as a session player, and went on to play in the studio and on stage with superstars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stone Keith Richards.
“So many people are not aware of this vast experience he has had in music, all the way back to being a member of Journey and one of the best bass players in the world,” says Karen Schwartz, co-creator and executive producer of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” the competitive reality series she and her husband, Howard, developed with Jackson in 2008.
All aboard for ‘Idol’
After spending 12 years behind the scenes in the music industry as a vice president at Columbia and then MCA Records, Jackson was asked in 2002 to bring his knowledge and insider expertise to a new TV show called “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, music on TV—I don’t know if it’s really going to work, but let’s give it a whirl,’” he recalls. “I’m always up for something new and different.”
America was, too. “Idol” quickly became a sensation that transformed several young singers, including Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, into megastars—and original judges Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul soon became weekly guests in millions of television households.
“It certainly made me a lot more popular,” Jackson says with a laugh. “It’s done a lot of great things. We’re all blessed to have it in our lives.”
But worldwide fame hasn’t much changed the laid-back Southerner, according to people who know him best. Friends say Jackson has an uncanny ability to remember names and faces, and that he remains a devoted family man to his wife of 17 years, Erika, and his three children.
“Through all his success, he has remained approachable and light-hearted,” says singer Kimberly Caldwell, who placed seventh on the second season of “Idol.” “He’s a man you can really count on to give you that extra confidence you need in this crazy industry.”
No slowing down
Besides returning to “Idol” in January with new judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban, Jackson will produce Carey’s upcoming album and has several other TV, music and film projects in the works.
“He has not let anything slow him down,” says Kimberley Locke, the second runner-up on the show’s second season, who worked with Jackson on her 2010 single “Strobelight.” “He has reinvented himself over the years, remaining relevant.”
Jackson prides himself on “always evolving” and seizing any opportunity to learn new skills. But it’s not lost on him that they’re only possible because he finally got serious about his health.
“There’s no cure for diabetes, but you can manage it,” he says. “I’m living with it, so maybe my story will help inspire someone else.”