Ethics Hero Emeritus: Annette Funicello

AnnetteAnnette died yesterday after a long, painful decline triggered by the onset of Multiple Sclerosis 25 years ago. To understand why she was an Ethics Hero, one need only read the New York Times obituary, which captures her essence well. One is an Ethics Hero if one goes through life caring about others, being loyal, responsible and fair, never inflating one’s own value and worth above those you live and work with, and having integrity.

If you can do all this while being a celebrity, TV star, teen idol, recording star,  movie star and adolescent lust object, you are more than an Ethics Hero. You are a miracle. That was Annette.

She apparently never became full of herself, never believed her press notices, never really saw her stardom as anything but a temporary detour in the life she sought for herself as a wife and mother. When her illness was diagnosed, she finally played her celebrity card, establishing the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. There appears to be no human being who ever met her, worked with her or knew her who didn’t think she was a genuinely nice person.

Of course, many celebrities start out as modest, grounded, nice people, and come apart at the seams in the hot steam of accolades, money and power. Annette had what fellow Mouseketeer and child actor advocate Paul Petersen has designated as the keys to escaping child star ruin: a healthy family structure, solid values, and intelligence. Lindsay Lohan was a guest on David Letterman last night, and watching this sad and ruined ex-Disney child star, I realized that Annette was the anti-Lohan. She is proof of why ethics works: her values not only protected her, but protected everyone around her. It was not inevitable that Annnette Funicello’s life would end up poles from  Lindsay Lohan and so many other young actresses who ended up as desperate Playboy centerfolds when their careers ran down. She always had the mysterious “It” factor–call it charm, charisma, or presence— that transcends talent, and she might have chosen to exploit her gift as long and as profitably as she could. That would have been the conventional choice, but she never wanted to do it. She had other priorities. For example, when Walt Disney, a man she revered, told her that she was a role model for millions of girls and made the ridiculous request that as she starred in  a series of teen flicks populated by hoards of comely young women in bikinis, Annette alone would eschew revealing her navel, Annette agreed…and kept her promise. (She still was the only one you looked at when she was onscreen, navel or not.)

Like most of the males who fantasized about the dark-eyed Italian girl with the baby-doll voice, my initial fascination with Annette had nothing to do with her character, but then, perhaps it did. Maybe that, her essential goodness, kindness and niceness, was the secret behind that “It” factor. Maybe, at least in Annette’s case, values were sexy.

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Facts: New York Times

10 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Annette Funicello

    • The bad news is that anyone watched those movies looking for Annette’s navel. Her garb is considerably more understated that the other women in every beach movie, including that one—maybe they figured that with all the full out bikini exposure in Bikini Beach, which I think was the fourth in the franchise, AF would look ridiculous if a navel wasn’t peeking out. The way the shots are cropped, if her navel sneaks in, ins not for long.

  1. Annette was the only female Mouseketeer I could remember after my “Wonder years.” And I remember her far better than the one male Mouseketeer who I can recall, Bobby. I have never seen her movies.

  2. In the late 1950’s my best friend from grade school (7th grade) was a cute Italian girl who reminded everyone of Annette …. and she was lucky because she was the one all the boys fell for !! All the girls I hung with back then took Tap Dancing lessons just because they wanted to dance like the kids on the show. Most of us had a pair of ears and even an MMC shirt with our name on the front. I still have mine. 🙂

  3. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Annette. Wow! She was even more beautiful in person than on the screen. Annette was already in a wheel chair. Several photographers and journalists were vying for Annette’s Attention. Ms Funicello surveyed the room and focused her attention on my 13 year old daughter standing several feet away. Disregarding the photographers snapping photos and the journalists shouting questions, Annette smiled at my daughter and said “Hi, what is your name?” When my daughter shyly responded, Annette smiled broadly and said “What a beautiful name! If I had another daughter, my plan was to give her your name.” My daughter was appreciative, and put at ease in a room filled with adults. at that moment I decided that years of admiration for “my Annette” were well founded. Annette Funicello was the same as the image she always projected. A beautiful, modest, kind and generous star who never took her celebrity seriously. In fact, she was perplexed by how important she was to millions of us worldwide. Frankie Avalon said that when he returned from traveling around the US, he would tell Annette how wherever he went everyone would tell him how much they loved her. Avalon said Annette would always have a look of surprise on her face and would say “really?”…Dick Clark once said of Annette, when talking about her appeal to young boomers like myself “All the girls wanted to be her and all the boys wanted to be with her!”..In fact, Oprah Winfrey, when introducing Annette on a taped TV segment proclaimed “When i was growing up, I wanted to be Annette Funicello!” When a New york Times reporter visited Richard Pryor, at his bedside toward the end of his life,he noted: “Richard Pryor had three items on his nightstand, next to the bed where he spent his days. The items were: “a buzzer to call his nurse, medication and a framed picture of Richard with Annette Funicello.” When Funicello began deteriorating from Multiple Sclorosis, she gave her greatest gift. Annette showed countless others how to face adversity with dignity as she worked at educating and funding research to help those stricken with MS and the other Neurological diseases. Thank you “Pineapple Princess” for teaching us that we could add meaning to our lives and the lives of others by finding the strength to face our challenges. As Annette reminded all of us “Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.”

  4. I wish I could have known her,I have been in love with her all my life.It must have been that beautiful curly-permed hair and/or those beautiful smiling eyes.I will niss her greatly..

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