Battling MS reveals performer's true self

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist
Published September 5, 2007

With music in her heart and performing in her blood, Kristie Salerno Kent appeared set to compose her lifelong Broadway dreams.

Coming out of Syracuse University with a fine arts degree, Salerno Kent wasn't going to quit until she became a star. Multiple sclerosis had a different idea, and this talented signer had to give her regards to Broadway.

Salerno Kent, 33, stopped performing and turned to marketing, promoting other singers and authors.

"I was in denial the first couple of years," Salerno Kent said. "I convinced myself it wasn't what I want to do. I kind of gave it up for awhile."

But she came to realize she could combine her plight and her passion.

Today, Salerno Kent serves as an MS Lifelines ambassador, singing and speaking to people about MS, a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system. On Saturday, she performs at MaSquerade 2007, an annual fundraiser being held at the University of South Florida Gibbons Alumni Center.

Because Salerno Kent has performed at the event for several years, she has formed a meaningful friendship with the Felder family, which founded MaSquerade in 2002. Mother Ande and daughter Jenna Felder started the event to help sister and daughter Megan Felder, who was diagnosed with MS 10 years ago.

It's difficult for Salerno Kent to imagine where she would be if she hadn't returned to her first love.

"I view the disease as a blessing, and before I viewed it as curse," Salerno Kent said. "I realize that obstacles are really opportunities. They're really stepping-stones. This is who I was meant to be. This is my path."

Last year, Salerno Kent produced a CD, Believe, that sold 10,000 copies. That sounds modest until you realize she published the CD herself.

Later this year, Salerno Kent expects to debut a documentary that illustrates the challenges of MS at the National MS Society's Annual Conference in Dallas.

It's just one more indication Salerno Kent has found her calling. "This feels so much more rewarding than if I had been on a Broadway stage because it means something I perform for," Salerno Kent said. "I guess I wasn't meant to play another person, hide behind another character. I was meant to share who I am."

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For the third consecutive year, I'm donating my services to help with MaSquerade's silent auction. The winning bidder will get a chance to have lunch with Times columnist Ernest Hooper at the 220 East restaurant on Davis Islands. The winning bidder also receives four tickets to the Sept. 25 game between the Devil Rays and the New York Yankees. The package also includes a Devil Rays T-shirt, cap, bobblehead, bandana, miniature baseball, cooler, popcorn, peanuts, beads and a cowbell, because everyone "needs more cowbell."

To top it off, we're throwing in a 26-week subscription to the Times. Come on, if it was just lunch with me, the Felders would get only $12.95.

That's all I'm saying.

Fast facts

For more on MaSquerade 2007, go to www.masqueradeoftampabay.org. For Kristie Salerno Kent's CD, go to www.kristiesalernokent.com.