When Annette Funicello was nudged by an “enquiring” media to confirm the unhappy news that she has multiple sclerosis, she worried about the effect on her fans. In the spotlight for more than 35 years—first as a TV Mouseketeer, then as leading teen in a spate of beach-party films, and finally as spokesmother for Skippy peanut butter—she had always led a charmed life. Nothing bad ever happened to Annette. Her fiercely loyal fans kept her in a time warp, forever wedged between Doreen and Cubby, or kicking sand with Frankie Avalon. Like the wholesome characters she played on the big screen, she seemed destined for a happily-ever-after kind of life.
“That’s why I debated about going public,” admits Annette. “I’ve always had a sort of fantasy existence in show business and have never had to face a lot of disappointments and hard knocks. Because people think my life is so perfect, I didn’t want to upset them or burst their bubble. I even wondered if people would still like me. And I worried that they might not know how to take MS because not many people understand very much about it. I certainly didn’t.”
The diagnosis had been made in 1987, shortly after she had wrapped up Back to the Beach, a tongue-in-cheek reunion movie with her old pal, Frankie Avalon. Her persistent vision problems and complaints of wobbly legs initially had been the source of over-the-hill jokes between the 40-something friends. But when the symptoms persisted, she agreed to see a neurologist. An MRI test (magnetic resonance imaging) confirmed the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. She told only her husband Glen Holt, her mother, and her three children, Gina, 27, Jackie, 22, and Jason, 18.