Famous Performers Who Have AS
These familiar movers-and-shakers prove that you can sing, dance, entertain, and even rock out with ankylosing spondylitis.
Maybe you’ve never heard of ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a progressive form of arthritis that can cause parts of the spine to fuse, resulting in painful stiffness. But you just might recognize some prominent performers with AS who never allowed the condition to stop or define them.
Before we shine a light on four impressive AS stars and their string of accomplishments, it’s important to understand how challenging this autoimmune disorder, which affects 1.1 million Americans, can be.
“The hallmarks of AS, in addition to the joints, are inflammation of ligaments or tendons that attach to bones,” says Rochelle Rosian, M.D., a rheumatologist at Cleveland Clinic's Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Diseases. “Often people can have recurrent Achilles’ tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, tennis elbows, as well as bowel inflammation, inflammatory eye disease, psoriasis, or psoriatic arthritis.”
That translates into a long list of potential AS symptoms that, for many, can be chronically debilitating. Still, that never slowed these four notables from making their mark and living big, boldfaced lives:
Dan Reynolds @danreynolds
Lead singer, Imagine Dragons
In November 2016, Dan Reynolds opened up for the first time about his AS journey and diagnosis. He first began experiencing symptoms when he was just 21 years old.
“It was beyond the pain that you feel when it’s just a backache,” he told People magazine. “It felt like someone was drilling my nerves." The band had just started to gain traction, selling out in smaller clubs and throwing themselves (sometimes literally) into playing active, physical shows. But then, Reynolds started having to cancel appearances. “I couldn’t get on stage," he said. "I couldn’t move, I couldn’t sleep at night, I couldn’t perform without standing perfectly still. I couldn’t sit down for more than a half an hour.”
Reynolds, now 33, later announced that he needed a novel approach to treatment, because of his fears that pain medication might affect his vocal cords. Moreover, immunosuppressants caused him to get sinus infections, he said, so he was turning to a new, clean-eating diet and regular exercise to try and keep his AS symptoms at bay.
He soon learned how important an AS bone-friendly diet is. He says he eats anti-inflammatory foods that include “oatmeal, berries, bananas, salads, sweet potatoes, brown rice, chicken, lamb, and lots of olive oil.” (The Spondylitis Association of America backs this nutritional approach, also recommending people with AS try fish oil and Vitamin D supplements, healthy fats from nuts, and probiotic foods including sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, onion, garlic, asparagus, and watermelon to tame inflammation and keep gut health in tip-top shape.)
Plenty of exercise for his AS has also been a game-changer for Reynolds, whose regimen reportedly includes regular walking, jogging, yoga, Pilates, surfing, and even some weightlifting.
This multi-tiered approach apparently has done wonders (although, we should note, for many people with AS a super-clean lifestyle is not enough, and medications prescribed by a rheumatologist are a must). “A decade ago my body was so inflamed I could hardly walk,” the lead singer recently posted on his Instagram account. “…There is nothing more valuable than your health. I’m now able to wake up and do the things I love thanks to a wonderful rheumatologist and healthy nutrition/exercise … feeling very grateful.”
Alicia Graf Mack @aliciagrafmack
Former professional ballerina
Now 42, Alicia Graf Mack is a former professional ballerina and is currently the dean and director of dance at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.
After years of battling symptoms including eye inflammation and back, hip, and knee pain, she was finally diagnosed with AS at age 26.
“There were days spent icing my feet to reduce my ankle swelling, and over the years I took so many steroid eye drops that I now have cataracts,” she told HealthCentral.
With a proper diagnosis, she found that she responded well to an AS treatment combination of the biologic Humira (adalimumab) and methotrexate, a drug that helped reign in her immune system, as well as the before-mentioned steroid eye drops to relieve eye inflammation. (According to one study, approximately 40% of patients with AS may develop a type of acute eye inflammation known as iritis, also referred to as uveitis).
She had surgery for a herniated disc in 2014, and as part of her recuperation she worked with a physical therapist that created a core- and back-strengthening regimen to help her handle extra weight in her recent pregnancy.
Today, she continues to stay active and dance—as well as move other dancers, with and without AS, to follow in her inspiring footsteps.
Zach Kornfeld @korndiddy
YouTuber and “Try Guy”
Kornfeld is known for posting hilarious videos that he’s been making with his three fellow, equally funny “Try Guys” (Eugene Lee Yang, Ned Fulmer, and Keith Habersberger) since 2014. (We’d link to the post where Zach & Co. try on women’s underwear but … maybe it’s best we let you search for, and discover, their special talents for yourself.)
In 2017, “Korn Diddy” revealed his then-recent AS diagnosis on YouTube in a frank, medically informative vlog that speaks directly to the frustration so many people with this condition feel: Long racked with pain, his doctors dismissed his reality for years before he was finally referred to a rheumatologist (who diagnosed him with AS almost immediately). That’s when he found some physical relief and—after being medically gaslit for so long—emotional consolation, too.
Now 30, Kornfeld told HealthCentral how his AS meds initially did wonders for him—but then stopped working. “I just wanted medicine to solve all my problems,” he said. “The diagnosis was the first wake-up call. Once the medication stopped working, that was the second wake-up call. That really forced me to take a long look in the mirror and say: ‘This is a lifestyle commitment. I can’t just rely on medicine. I need to be proactive about this.’”
So he dove into making some big changes, including upping his exercise quotient and committing to regular “stretching to get ahead of this thing and to stay ahead of this thing,” he said. “And if I ever want to go into remission it’s not going to be just because the medicine was magically working, it’s gonna be a combination of so many things.”
That means eating right for AS, too—especially when it comes to avoiding trigger foods (like those that are high in refined sugars). “The cleaner I eat, the better I feel,” Kornfeld said.
Walking with his dog and using a portable TENS unit (a.k.a., transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a therapy that uses a low-voltage electrical current for pain relief) help, too. And, of course, laughter remains the best medicine. Just this month he and his fellow funnymen posted new vids recreating drag queen makeup and responding to their favorite mean comments from online “fans.” (Hmm. Might be time to give Kornfeld & guys a “try.”)
Mick Mars @mr.mickmars
Guitarist, Mötley Crüe
The rock legend was diagnosed with AS when he was 17 years old. After years—decades, even—of discomfort, Mars finally got a hip replacement in 2004 at age 53.
He bared all in the band’s 2001 bestselling memoir, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, documenting in it how he spent years in pain before getting famous. His hips hurt, his bones hurt, everything hurt—but back during his salad days he didn’t have any money to see a doctor, “so I just kept hoping that I could do what I usually do: will it away, through the power of my mind. But it kept getting worse.”
As his star grew he began having issues breathing—"it felt like someone had plunged a knife into my back”—and this excruciating level of discomfort soon moved to his stomach and other parts of his body. “I’d grab hold of doorknobs, anchor my legs into the ground, and pull with my hands to stretch my back and ease the pressure out,” he said in the book.
Over time, Mars developed scoliosis (a curvature of the spine), losing about three inches of height, admitting in 2012 that “there is always some amount of pain with my hips.” Change and relief came when he finally assembled an AS health team to help him manage his many physical challenges. “There are a lot of people that go around that suffer from this type of thing, and they go to their doctor, and he tells them that they will be in a wheelchair. My advice to them is to go to another doctor because he is wrong,” Mars told Goldmine magazine.
In 2014, Mars announced to Artisan News Service that his AS was not going to stop him from touring and performing the music he loves. “It is a bit of an inconvenience; sometimes it's rougher than other times. But my health is perfect. I mean, I go every six months to get a checkup. And I'm in really good shape.”
With an upcoming Motley Crüe 2021 summer stadium tour of at least 15 U.S. cities on deck with all four original members slated to perform, it’s clear Mars is still every bit the “Live Wire”—and the only bowing out he'll do anytime soon will come after rocking an encore on stage.
What Is AS: Mayo Clinic. (2019.) “Ankylosing spondylitis.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ankylosing-spondylitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354808
Number of Americans With AS: University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. (n.d.) “Ankylosing Spondylitis.” orthop.washington.edu/patient-care/articles/arthritis/ankylosing-spondylitis.html
Eating Right for AS: The Spondylitis Association of America. (n.d.) “Anti-Inflammatory Eating.” spondylitis.org/spondylitis-plus/anti-inflammatory-eating/
Trigger Foods for AS: Nutrients. (2018.) “Effect of Dietary Sugar Intake on Biomarkers of Subclinical Inflammation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986486/
Dan Reynolds on Lifestyle and AS: Us Weekly. (2020.) “Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds: Inside a Day in My Life.” usmagazine.com/celebrity-body/news/imagine-dragons-dan-reynolds-inside-a-day-in-my-life/
Treating Inflammation in AS: Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) "Taming High Disease Activity in Early Ankylosing Spondylitis." arthritis.org/health-wellness/treatment/treatment-plan/disease-management/taming-high-disease-activity-in-as
Eye Health and AS: National Institute of Health (2019.) “Uveitis.” nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/uveitis
Study on Iritis and AS: International Journal of Ophthalmology. (2012.) “Clinical features of ankylosing spondylitis associated with acute anterior uveitis in Chinese patients.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3359030/
What Is Scoliosis: Mayo Clinic. (2019.) “Scoliosis.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/scoliosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350716