In this article we consider the power that celebrities with multiple sclerosis such as Jack Osbourne, who was diagnosed with the disease, can have on influencing others.

The Osbourne Effect

If you’d told me a couple of years ago I’d be scouring the media for everything I could find on the ostentatious Osbourne family, I’d have given you a sceptical look. But such is the power of celebrity when a figure in the public eye is diagnosed with chronic illness. I’ve never been into the bare-all sensationalism of reality TV nor interested in the lives of its stars. Yet when Jack Osbourne disclosed he had multiple sclerosis, this former reality TV star rocketed to the top of my Google list. Now pursuing a career as a presenter, the 28-year-old was diagnosed with MS in 2012 after symptoms including numbness and optic neurosis. Since then, the media star has been clear his aim is to dispel the doom-and-gloom misconception that surrounds the illness. And taking a brief gander at his amusingly titled website, ‘You Don’t Know Jack about MS’, I was pleased to see a holistic approach described and his stab at a section on common MS myths and facts. Go on, Jack! Though Osbourne doesn’t yet follow our lovely OMS programme, the role of a healthy diet, exercise and stress-reduction in the management of MS are all areas he has spoken about. He has brought the relationship between diet and MS to the attention of mainstream media.

A stepping stone?

Advocating the healthy-living route to MS management long before Jack joined us on the MS map was also US chat show host, Montel Williams. Again, though not following the OMS programme, the similarities in Williams’s approach are more striking than the differences: a reduction in processed and fast food; decreasing bad fats and added sugars; eating fruit and vegetables like they’re going out of fashion. And a non-negotiable exercise routine. It’s not rocket science, granted. But I don’t recall ever getting this or any dietary advice from my health professionals. So as Montel Williams’s 2008 book Living Well was one of the stepping stones that led me to OMS, I’m optimistic that Osbourne will lead others the same way.

Famous face

Yet it’s surprisingly common for us to bemoan the attention stars get when they find themselves coping with illnesses many a humble folk suffers with in silence. Ann Romney, the wife of former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is one such public face that has suffered significant backlash. Speaking out about her MS during the 2012 election campaign, she was criticised for sensationalising her seemingly benign form of MS and for her privileged lifestyle – she cited horse-riding as one of her main therapies. There is no doubt that a famous face raises awareness. Working for a cancer charity, I’ve witnessed first-hand the ‘celebrity-effect’ when Angelina Jolie announced she’d had a risk-reducing mastectomy. Online hits to our risk assessment tool increased by a mind-boggling 1000%. Would we really prefer these celebrities not come forward?

The invisible disease

Regardless of what celebrities are up to, many of us choose to remain quiet about our own MS diagnosis. But as long as we do, MS will continue as a stigmatised disease: the only visible examples being severely disabled. Jack Osbourne has been praised for his courage in disclosing his illness at such an early stage. Undoubtedly, there are many more celebrities living with MS who won’t disclose it until they absolutely have to: when there are damaging rumours of alcoholism or drug abuse. It seems that celebrities face similar fears of prejudice as we do. And the same dilemma when it comes to disclosing our illness. But is throwing up a website, releasing an autobiographical book or talking about your ‘struggles’ during your husband’s election campaign more about self-promotion than about changing public perception of Multiple Sclerosis? I’m not sure I mind even if it is. I’d rather the topic be an under-exposed issue such as chronic illness than another spat with Lily Allen. Whether or not they change a thing, Osbourne, Williams and Romney are high-profile examples of PwMS leading productive lives while advocating healthy lifestyles. It’s a start. And it promotes a much more promising benchmark than the sadly rapid declines of Richard Pryor and Jacqueline Du Pre. If only to ourselves. As more celebrities with MS come forward and are seen to be leading fulfilled and productive lives, the mystery and stigma surrounding MS diminishes. I personally hope this will give PwMS more confidence in disclosing their own diagnosis and in researching the right lifestyle choices for them. If they can do it, so can we.