From usatoday, long before Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera sported rodent ears, there was the original Disney girl — Annette — who won America's heart.
Annette Funicello, whose pubescent pulchritude made her a standout on TV's first Mickey Mouse Club in the '50s and an early crush for many a Baby Boomer boy, died Monday at age 70 in Bakersfield, Calif., from complications of multiple sclerosis. Her family confirmed she had been in a coma for years before being taken off life support.
Her daughter, Gina Gilardi, said in a statement: "She's on her toes dancing in heaven. ... No more MS. My brothers and I were there holding her sweet hands when she left us."
Funicello was born in Utica, N.Y., and moved to Southern California at age 4. Trained as a singer and dancer, she would get her break in show business after Walt Disney was among those who saw her as the ballerina in Swan Lake during a recital held at the Burbank Starlight Bowl in 1955.
Soon she was signed up as the 24th and final Mouseketeer on a popular variety show for kids, appearing in her own self-titled serial (where her signature tune, How Will I Know My Love, performed during a hayride scene, would lead to a singing career). With her innate wholesomeness and sweet disposition, the brunette beauty's pinup appeal was a major draw, generating more than 6,000 fan letters a week. She would go on to inspire one of her early beaus, Paul Anka, to write his 1960 hit Puppy Love about her.
The self-described "queen of teen" also became a recording sensation, releasing 15 albums for Disney that featured the top-10 hits Tall Paul and O Dio Mio. After the show ended in 1959, Funicello remained under contract with Disney, appearing in theZorro TV series in the late 1950s and such family films as 1959'sThe Shaggy Dogand 1961'sBabes in Toyland. Once out of her teens, she traded in her mouse ears for a curve-revealing bathing suit for 1963's Beach Party, the kickoff title in a series of six youth-oriented romps that paired her with Frankie Avalon.
"Mr. Disney," whom Funicello considered a second father, made one request of his demure discovery: that she not reveal her navel on-screen and besmirch her pure image. She complied in the first movie but would wear a two-piece fishnet suit in 1964's Muscle Beach Party and a blue-and-white bikini in 1964's Bikini Beach.
She left show business — save for her Skippy peanut butter commercials — to become a homemaker after marrying her first husband, Jack Gilardi, in 1965. They had three children before divorcing in 1981. She then married horse breeder Glen Holt in 1986.
When she and Avalon made a comeback as a team in the 1987 spoof Back to the Beach, she first noticed signs of multiple sclerosis. She kept the condition under wraps despite having obvious symptoms during a yearlong concert tour with her co-star. After news reports claimed her ailments were signs of alcohol abuse, she went public with news of her illness to USA TODAY reporter Tom Green in 1992. She would go on to raise awareness about MS and started a research fund in her name in 1993.
She said of her decision: "Sometimes I can't help but ask, '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."
Funicello released an autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Storyin 1994, and the book would be turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1995. She also created a line of collectible teddy bears in the '90s.