On Monday night at the 75th Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Christina Applegate, a presenter of the award for supporting actress in a comedy series, used a cane and walked to the podium with effortful dignity. The 52-year-old actress, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2021, wore a red, silk-velvet dress, her signature blond hair parted to the side, cascading down her shoulders like a golden curtain.
As she spoke into the mic, panic and determination seemed to be waging a battle behind her green eyes. Still, she conjured the disarming smile she’s been flashing at America since 1987, when she played the teenager Kelly Bundy on the sitcom “Married With Children.”
Ms. Applegate wasted no time acknowledging her disease, showing the audience that it would not stop her from coming to the stage. Since her diagnosis, Ms. Applegate appears to have experienced some of its debilitating effects, and has said she no longer plans to work on camera.
Nonetheless, under the blazing lights, on a show broadcast to millions, she spoke deliberately and made a series of jokes meant to both call attention to and deflect from her self-consciousness about her appearance and her chronic illness. Each one walked a fine line.
When some in the audience stood to applaud her, she responded chidingly. “Thank you so much,” she said. “Oh my God. You’re totally shaming me with disability by standing up.”
Laughs are hard to come by in the best of circumstances at awards shows these days, but that line got an uneasy one. Even Ms. Applegate seemed unsure if she wanted people to celebrate her efforts or to treat her like nothing had happened.
Her next punchline, “body not by Ozempic,” worked better. It poked fun at the often unacknowledged change that weight-loss drugs have had on the way many celebrities prepare for awards-show season, while making a subtle statement that cosmetic concerns pale in comparison to the realities of degenerative diseases.
In Hollywood, where beauty is a form of currency and physiques can make careers, illnesses that impede physical function hold a special horror. Occasionally, celebrities have taken those challenges public: the actor Christopher Reeve, who died in 2004, spoke about his paralysis; the actress Selma Blair and the actor Michael J. Fox have spoken about their respective battles with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
For anyone to call attention to the fact that an illness has rendered their body incapable of conforming to the typical standards imposed by the entertainment industry takes a certain kind of resilience. Perhaps Ms. Applegate was more prepared for this moment because she’d previously been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36, for which she underwent a double mastectomy. There’s something powerful about facing the world with an illness that no amount of surgery can disguise and Ms. Applegate looked comfortable, even emboldened, by being in the spotlight.
The jokes also reminded the celebrities in the audience, and the viewers at home, that Ms. Applegate — who was also nominated for lead actress in a comedy series for her role in “Dead to Me” — has made a career of being funny. As she welled up describing her many roles, including her first as Baby Burt Grizzell on “Days of Our Lives,” while the audience continued to clap, she said flatly, “We don’t have to applaud every time I do something.”
But in this case, the applause was warranted.