From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Michaele Salahi has grown accustomed to unflattering press. First there was "Crashergate" last fall, when the D.C. socialite and her winery-owner husband, Tareq, allegedly turned up uninvited at President Obama's first state dinner. (Filmed that day as part of Bravo's Real Housewives of D.C., Salahi calls the incident "a misunderstanding.") Then a Housewives costar questioned her weight, setting off speculation about an eating disorder. But Salahi insists the criticism rolls off her back. "I don't care if people make fun of me, think I'm stupid or too thin," she says. "I have bigger things to worry about."

Now, after years of secrecy, she has decided to open up about the biggest. In Cirque du Salahi by Diane Dimond, Salahi, 44, reveals that she has multiple sclerosis, the potentially crippling nervous-system disorder that afflicts some 2.1 million people worldwide. "I would have never shared this," she says over dinner near the couple's rural Virginia farmhouse. "I never wanted pity."

Why speak out now? For all her immunity to criticism, Salahi admits that she hopes to clarify some things: It was a symptom flare-up, she says, that forced her and Tareq to leave that White House dinner early, fueling speculation that they'd snuck in. And then there's her weight. "With MS, if you weigh more, it's harder," says Salahi, who fluctuates between an admittedly "very thin" 123 and 127 lbs. "My doctor said, 'Keep your weight balanced.' For MS it's critical."

Mostly, though, she says she's speaking because "the media's digging. 'Is she anorexic? Did she have a drug past?' No. But there is something I've been dealing with, and hopefully it will help people to hear about it."

Salahi was just 27 when an abrupt loss of sensation in her limbs led to the diagnosis. "I said, 'Well, I don't want to live,'" she recalls, bursting into tears. Then a model and makeup artist, she was bedridden for eight months, remaining vague about why except to family. "My biggest fear was that I wouldn't be able to function on my own," she says.

Hers turned out to be among the 85 percent of MS cases categorized as "relapsing and remitting," meaning she can go years between full-blown relapses, which require steroids. Her symptoms include numbness, blurred vision and loss of balance.

Yet despite long symptom-free periods, the diagnosis haunted her, especially when Tareq proposed in '01 after nine months together. "I thought, 'What if he doesn't want this in his life?'" says Salahi, who shared the truth three weeks after accepting. Says Tareq, 41: "I was crushed, but I said, 'I wish I could take it for you.'" The couple decided against having children because pregnancy, while not considered risky, can sometimes make certain MS symptoms worse. "It's painful," says Salahi. "I would have been a great mom."

She has other things to occupy her, even if Housewives, which ends in October, is not renewed. She is weighing an offer to pose for Playboy and plans to reopen Tareq's Oasis Winery, shuttered after family infighting led to bankruptcy. "I don't think about tomorrow," she says. "I live every day like it's my last."