From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
To the first wave of kiddies raised on TV, she was simply Annette—the name emblazoned in block letters across the front of her memorable Mouseketeers turtleneck. On Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club from 1955 to 1959, Annette embodied a dark-eyed, dimpled teenage wholesome-ness. As she matured, Funicello (a Utica, N.Y., native and the daughter of an Italian-American auto repair shop owner and his homemaker wife) left the mouse ears behind, but her fresh-scrubbed sweetness never changed.

After appearing in such Disney classics as 1959's The Shaggy Dog, Annette hit the sand in a series of Beach Party movies that first played in 1963. Her voluptuous 5'2", 110-lb. body poured into a modest two-piece, she primly shrugged off even the thought of a bikini. "I wouldn't even wear them around my own pool," she said. In an era of sex, drugs and rock and roll, she was the likable straight arrow who reassured America that purity and probity still mattered.

Known later as a spokeswoman for Skippy peanut butter, Funicello has devoted most of the last 25 years to raising her family. Married in 1965 to talent agent Jack Gilardi (whom she divorced in 1982), she is the mother of Gina, 26, who works in home-video marketing, Jack Jr., 22, a film editor, and Jason, 17, a music student. Now 49, she lives in Encino, Calif., with Gina, Jason and her husband of six years, racehorse breeder Glen Holt.

But life has not been all sunshine for America's favorite ex-teen. On July 8, Annette announced that since 1987 she has been suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, damaging the protective coating that surrounds nerve fibers. Its symptoms can range from mild tingling sensations to problems with vision, balance and coordination—and sometimes even to paralysis. MS affects as many as 350,000 Americans, two thirds of them women. Annette walks with a cane now but is facing the ordeal with her typical courage and optimism. Here, in her own words, is Funicello's story, as told to correspondent Nancy Matsumoto.

I FIRST BEGAN TO NOTICE THAT SOMETHING was wrong back in February of 1987. I was making the movie Back to the Beach with my old friend Frankie [Avalon]. We'd be shooting a scene on the sand, and when I'd try to get up, I couldn't balance. We'd laugh about it, and Frankie would say, "Look at you, you look like you've had too much to drink." And I'd say, "Frankie, this is just the weirdest thing."

Shortly after that, I noticed that my eyesight was getting worse. I visited my ophthalmologist several times in six months. Twice he made my glasses prescription stronger, and the third time he said, "Wait a minute, these are not simply the normal effects of getting older." He referred me to a neurologist, who ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, which gives an image of damage in the brain and is the best way to confirm a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. I suppose I should have been frightened, but I didn't know much about the illness. My big fear was something else. "Please don't let me have a brain tumor," I prayed.

I had the MRI in the spring of 1987. The technician straps you onto something like a conveyor belt, puts what looks like a football helmet on you and slides you into a machine that reminded me of an iron lung. Inside, you hear the pounding noises of the scanner that collects information, which is then translated into computer images. It took 45 minutes, but it was absolutely painless.

My mother and my husband were with me when the neurologist gave me the diagnosis and showed me the images. He pointed out white areas in the brain indicating that there had been inflammation or scarring, which is typical with MS patients and is what causes the symptoms.

When he told us that I had MS, I was so relieved it wasn't a brain tumor, I didn't panic. Later I learned that it was impossible to know what course the disease would take—I could soon go into remission, I could have intermittent flare-ups, or I could gradually worsen.

In the beginning the whole thing seemed so unreal that I wasn't terribly disturbed. Physically, I felt great for several years. At first my mother, my husband and my children were the only ones I told. For two years I didn't even tell my father, because if I even have the flu he goes to pieces. One day in 1989 I finally said, "Daddy, I want to talk to you about something before You read it someplace." So we had our good cry, and he's been wonderful. Still, I watch his eyes when he sees me walking toward him, and I see his pain. It's really hard. I say, "Daddy, I don't want tears, and I don't want pity. I'm strong and I'm going to be fine."

Telling my children was less difficult. Initially, I explained that it's an illness affecting the central nervous system. Then, if I got a burning sensation in my feet when we were sitting here watching TV, I would say, "OK, here's one of the symptoms." Step by step, I made them aware. My daughter and I have shared good cries together, and I know the uncertainly is frightening to them. But they've never said, "Mom, what if you're in a wheelchair, what shall we do?" It hasn't gone that far.

The fact that the disease is so unpredictable is frightening to me too. The tingling and numbness in my feet come and go; I had tingling in my hands for a while, but it's gone now. Other symptoms also come and go. Once I was at the dinner table, and my fork started shaking. It just fell out of my hands; I couldn't hold on it. Then about a year ago I went through a terrible siege. For two or three days, I got flulike symptoms. I was hot, then cold. My fever shot up to 105, and my husband had to pack me in ice. I couldn't hold on to crawl to get to the bathroom if Glen wasn't there to carry me. I later discovered that a viral infection like this can trigger a flare-up of MS symptoms. After a few days the fever—and the symptoms—suddenly disappeared.

Back in October of 1989, I felt well enough to do a year-long concert tour with Frankie Avalon. I didn't say anything to him about my condition until the very end. One day I thought, "I have to tell him because I owe it to him as a friend." Also, my balance was getting worse. After all, we were on the road, off and on, for over a year. When I told him in November 1990, I could see the shock on his face. I said, "Frankie, please hold my hand real tight when we walk out to take a bow. Don't let me get too close to the edge."

Then about a year ago my equilibrium got very bad, and I had to start walking with a cane. Also, I started to feel a return of numbness and tingling in my feet. At first I told people that I had tendinitis—dancer's legs. But it became harder and harder to hide the truth. About six months ago, a friend of my son Jack said to him, "I saw your mom leaving a restaurant the other night, and, boy, did she have one too many." If I've been sitting for a while and then stand up, I have to steady myself, or I'll fall over. So I guess my son's friend saw this and thought I was drunk.

Reporters from the tabloids started knocking on our neighbors' doors last year, asking questions about my health. Then the neighbors phoned me. I said, "I'm fine. They're just trying to stir up gossip." So the tabloids called my agent and my husband when he was up at our Bakersfield ranch, where he spends one or two nights a week looking after the racehorses. They even called relatives in New York. Finally, last month, after they phoned me and offered to pay me to talk, I got in touch with a publicist at Disney and said, "Please call USA Today. I want this to go nationwide immediately."

And I'm so happy not to hide anymore! I didn't go public for a long time because I believed people wanted to think that nothing bad ever happens to Annette. I didn't want them to panic. So for a long time I tried to hide both my divorce from Jack in 1982 and later the MS. But when I went public, the letters that came in both times were so supportive. When the stories about my MS came out, everyone gave me their love and their prayers. I heard from Frankie, and from Barbara and Frank Sinatra, and even my daughter sent me flowers with a note that said, "Mom, you have such strength."

Since I first began having symptoms, I've tried different treatments. I was on a steroid program through my neurologist. That didn't alleviate my symptoms. I've gone through acupuncture, acupressure, herbal medicines and I even took vitamin B-12 shots in my legs, but nothing has helped. Next, I'm going to try physical therapy and see what that does.

I think you have to learn how to adapt your lifestyle to MS and figure out what's best for you. Attitude is so important. Any stress is not good, so when I have a bad day, I talk to myself to try to soothe over everything, because I know tomorrow will be better. Glen is very helpful; he's so strong, and that's a great asset. He's been with me every step of the way, and he's becoming very well-educated about the disease.

When I was young, I never imagined something like this would happen. Now people say to me, "Oh, you're so strong. It's just great the way you're taking it." They don't see my down side ever. I do have times, when I'm all alone and the house is very quiet, when I cry, and sure, I think, "Why me? Why me?" But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS.

You know what my fantasy is? To appear before Congress to talk about MS. I would say in a public statement: "To all of you out there who have ever watched me on The Mickey Mouse Club, send in one dollar, please, in my name." The MS people would have millions.

I'm a Catholic, and I've always been a religious person, and having MS reminds me that there's a higher power up there who knows what HE's doing. MS has brought my family closer together, if that's possible. Glen and I will do our errands together—go to the bank, the cleaners, the supermarket—and he'll help me cook dinner. But I don't like it when people say, "Oh, I'll get that for you." I need to walk, to do things for myself. I don't want to be treated like an invalid.

Naturally, however, I've made certain adjustments to cope with MS. I have begun to work out three times a week to an MS exercise videotape that was put out by an MS patient, and that includes loosening up, bending, walking on your toes and heels. I also use my stationary bicycle, which helps the circulation in my legs.

My neurologist tells me I should lake naps, but that's hard to do because I haven't had fatigue. I can't take naps when I'm not tired. I also take cold showers and limit what I do in the summer heat, because heat tends to make my symptoms worse, as it does with many MS patients.

Reading is now very difficult for me, so a friend of mine just got me a subscription to the big-print version of Reader's Digest, which is wonderful. Otherwise, if I read a newspaper, I use a magnifying glass.

I don't know how bad my symptoms will eventually become. I don't know if, down the line, I'll be able to handle it as well as I do now. So I just take one day at a time.

And I live hopefully. I saw something on television about a woman with MS who had lost the use of her legs. She tried free-falling from an airplane, strapped to the instructor. About five days later, she fell a tingling in her legs. Well, P.S., she's supposedly walking now. At any rate, I said to Glen, "What time do you think we can get out to the airfield?"

The more I read about MS, the more encouraged I am. When I wake up in the morning, I like to imagine, "This is the day I'm going to hear about an MS cure on the news." I know it may be a long way off, but what a glorious morning that will be.

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto.