Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Learning to cope with a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis takes a degree of courage and resolve no matter what. While every single individual who battles this disease and learns how to cope with life in new and creative ways is an inspiration, it can be especially impactful to watch a public figure openly discuss and model what I looks like to live with a condition that is both chronic and often debilitating.
Beloved movie and television stare Annette Funicello is an example of a celebrity who did just that. From her rise to fame as a teen icon to her ongoing roles on the big screen, Annette Funicello managed multiple sclerosis with grace and poise and inspired hundreds of viewers along the way.
Her early life
Annette Funicello began her career in Hollywood at the young age of 12. Her big break came from one of Hollywood’s most recognizable entertainment providers, Disney. At 12, Annette was one of the 24 original cast members of the wildly popular television show, “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The cast members, or Mouseketeers as they were called, rose to superstardom in an age when many American households still didn’t actually own television sets. Fans saw Annette as a sweet and loveable personality on the TV show, and her presence quickly gained her a reputation as a favorite.
But Annette’s career as an entertainer began long before she joined the ranks of Mouseketeers. Prior to joining the television show, Annette was actually a ballet dancer and it was through dance that she was personally discovered and recruited by Walt Disney himself. You could say that Annette was born to be a performer. She was naturally talented and easily loved by audiences across a broad spectrum.
Later on in her career
Unfortunately, the Mouseketeers couldn’t last forever. As Annette began to age out of the television show that had made her a household name among American teenagers across the country, she was called into Walt Disney’s office. Annette recounted how at the time she was afraid because she thought he was going to fire her. Instead, he offered her a contract with Walt Disney Studios. Annette would go on to be the only Mouseketeer actually offered a contract by the studio.
During the following years, Annette continued to develop the semblance of a perfect life. Her parents who had struggled financially before moving to Southern California continued to work and expected Annette to do the same, maintaining both her household chores as well as her responsibilities at school. Annette’s talents as a performer are certainly an enormous part of her popularity, but her character can’t be underappreciated either. Accounts of Annette’s early years point to her strong work ethic, humility, and her resolve to always stick to her principles.
Her contract with Walt Disney Studios proved lucrative for both parties. Annette went on to start in various Disney films such as “The Shaggy Dog” and was also loaned out to other studios for film and TV appearances. Annette also embraced the coming age of Rock-n-Roll and performed with a variety of other teen heartthrobs while releasing several of her own successful records – she had two top ten hits!
Annette’s big break
As she continued to pursue her career in the entertainment industry while also managing her own responsibilities as an adolescent, Annette was presented with the next opportunity that would eventually solidify her status as an American icon.
Walt Disney Studios were approached with an offer to cast Annette in a beach movie. Disney himself spoke to Annette about the opportunity and thought that it seemed like good, clean entertainment, values that were important both to Annette and to the image that the studio had cultivated. She agreed to participate in the film, and also agreed to Disney’s request that she not show her navel in order to maintain her modesty.
Annette then went on to star in a host of teen beach movies such as “Beach Party” alongside other idols like singer and actor Frankie Avalon. Together, the pair were heralded as the It couple among teenagers of that generation. Despite their immense popularity, Annette removed humble and never entertained delusions about her fame or her success.
At 22, Annette married her agent, Jack Gilardi, with whom she eventually had three children. While Annette had been an incredibly popular performer, she was also committed to being a wife and mother and raising her children. As she began to bow out of the spotlight in favor of devoting her time to her children, she appeared in fewer film and TV productions. Although she had several later appearances in movies and especially in commercials, Annette was largely glad to leave her entertainment career behind in favor of a quieter life.
Battle with multiple sclerosis
Annette was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987, although she didn’t publicly discuss the disease until 5 years later. At that point, Annette and Gilardi had divorced, and Annette had remarried to Glen Holt with whom she would share a life until she eventually died of MS-related complications in 2013 at age 70.
Annette’s discussed her diagnosis with MS publicly in 1992. At that point, she had begun to suffer from dizziness and difficulty controlling the movements of her limbs. She was afraid that her appearance could be interpreted as drunkenness and so instead decided to discuss her struggle with the disease publicly. As with everything else in her life, Annette approached her struggle with MS with sincerity and optimism. Rather than becoming a recluse in her later years, even as the disease took a stronger and stronger hold on her life, she started a charitable foundation designed to raise funds for research into MS. In 1999, Annette underwent brain surgery in an attempt to help control the tremors that had become increasingly worse over the years.
Annette Funicello died from complications related to multiple sclerosis in 2013. She was survived by her husband, her three children, four step-children, twelve grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. In interviews with family members, Annette was always described as just the kind of person that she appeared on screen: cheerful, sweet, and genuinely caring.
Why celebrity awareness matters
While every individual who struggles with a chronic disease like multiple sclerosis is a source of inspiration, sometimes watching a celebrity publicly discuss their battle can be especially inspiring. It’s easy to think of celebrities – especially celebrities like Annette Funicello, who seem so perfect – as people who are outside of the circumstances that affect us throughout our everyday lives. Instead, by openly discussing her struggle with the disease and being honest, Annette presented the public with a real picture of her life. In doing so, Annette was able to accomplish several important things.
First, Annette was certainly able to use her popularity and star power to help raise funds for research into the disease. It’s important to remember that facing a disease like multiple sclerosis can be daunting and that it takes an entire community to fight this disease effectively. In addition to using her position to create a tangible benefit in the fight against MS, Annette was able to do something else as well. Discussing her struggle publicly helped to destigmatize the disease. It allowed others to realize that they’re not alone in the fight against this disease, that all kinds of different people suffer from this condition, but that it can still be faced with honesty and bravery. Although Annette died in 2013, her legacy as a lovable icon and a brave advocate in the cause to end MS certainly lives on today, and will for years to come.
Read more about Annette Funicello’s legacy at The New York Times.