In case you haven’t heard, Richard Simmons is missing. Three years ago, Simmons abruptly retreated from the public life he built for himself as one of Hollywood’s most accessible and eccentric personalities. He stopped teaching his iconic $12 exercise classes at his Beverly Hills studio, Slimmons. He stopped answering calls and emails from nearly everyone in his life. He stopped his decades-long habit of running out of his house in costume to greet the vans filled with Midwestern tourists hungry for celebrity interaction. Where did Richard Simmons go?
This mystery is the basis of the much-talked about, controversial podcast Missing Richard Simmons, which has been the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for the past month and counting. Led by Dan Taberski, a former Daily Show producer who before Simmons’ disappearance had been working on a documentary about him, it is part ode to Richard, part tabloid probe, complete with theories of black magic and a hostage scenario. To push play on Episode 1 is to be instantly hooked.
Yet Simmons himself insists he’s fine. He just wants to go for walks and be alone these days, as he told Today last year. And this week his older brother, Lenny, told ET: "I would just hope people [can] be a little bit more respectful and realize that he's worked hard and he still loves people — but he needs some time for himself."
Many critics, and even some of the friends he abandoned, have questioned the ethics around badgering a private citizen who just wants to be left alone. They want to know: Why won’t everyone just let him go?
Simmons was the first mainstream fitness celebrity (and maybe the only one ever?) to build a veritable empire based on the idea that people who don’t meet impossible weight and beauty standards also need a place to sweat and to be seen.
Look, that makes sense. But let's not forget: Richard Simmons is an icon. He is a man who meant a lot of things to people. He is a man who was preaching love yourself right now (in Los Angeles of all places) at a time when the idolized '80s gym rat was a a 5’8 leggy blonde with a perfect tan. Simmons was the first mainstream fitness celebrity (and maybe the only one ever?) to build a veritable empire based on the idea that people who don’t meet impossible weight and beauty standards also need a place to sweat and to be seen. He did this in the era of Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford, decades before the phrase “size diversity” became buzzy. That he did this before social media, before Jessamyn Stanley, before fat acceptance and Health At Every Size, is kind of... incredible.
Simmons’ origin story is now legend: By the time he graduated high school he weighed 268 pounds. As the butt of every joke, he wallowed in self-loathing, before turning to extreme dieting, which turned into an eating disorder that allowed him to lose more than 100 pounds but also landed him in the hospital. After almost dying, he adopted a healthier lifestyle based on “balance, moderate eating and exercise,” according to his website.
In the early 1970s, he moved to Los Angeles, working odd jobs until he opened his own gym called The Anatomy Asylum, which was designed as a friendly place to work out for people of all sizes. Back then, gyms were only “for people already in shape,” and so Anatomy Asylum stood out. By 1984, there were 13 locations across the country. (The Beverly Hills location would eventually become Slimmons.)
Success led to more success: One-off TV appearances led to a four-year stint on General Hospital and two different successful morning talk shows in the ‘80s. He wrote popular self-help books, and developed gimmicky diet products. He did multiple national shopping mall tours, where he’d greet large crowds of adoring fans wanting to hear his gospel.
But his most famous (and perhaps most lucrative project) is without a doubt his library of exercise videos, in which he leads high-energy dance aerobic workouts in his signature striped shorts. Titles include: “Dance Your Pants Off”, “Disco Sweat”, and of course, “Sweatin’ to the Oldies.” Just the “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” series alone made a reported $200 million. If you didn’t own a copy yourself back then, you definitely saw the infomercials.
“You get to believe in our society that only thin people are successful, and that’s not true at all. And I get very upset when anyone judges anyone by what it says on the scale. I think it’s very wrong.”
One of the main reasons his workout videos were so popular was the way he made certain the people in the background looked like normal people. Just looking at old footage that exists on YouTube, you can see people of all sizes, across races and genders dancing their pants off behind him — and they’re all decked out in epic ‘80s fashion, of course.
He was also famous for befriending the people he met on his tours, becoming not just a weight loss coach but a dear friend. These were often severely overweight people in Nebraska, or Texas, places where being different and definitely being overweight could be supremely isolating. “I receive 25,000 to 30,000 letters a day,” Simmons told People in 1981, “and the reason I travel a lot is to meet these people, who are part of my family. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I basically relate to people like myself.”
During an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the ‘80s, he summed it up thusly: “There are three groups of people in our society that have been shafted, neglected, and rejected: That’s the overweight, the senior citizen, and the disabled,” he says. He goes on to explain how his goal is to change not only how these people see themselves, but to also change how more able-bodied people see those who are different. “It’s important that all of us get along as family… They all need our respect, not our pity.”
This was a radical view for the 1980s. Today, we would never term a man who peddles weight loss and counting calories as “body positive” — in fact, he was anything but. "He definitely believed in the importance of 'liking yourself' or 'focusing on what you like about yourself,' which isn't exactly body positivity, but it's something," says Kelsey Miller, author of Big Girl and creator of Refinery29's own Anti-Diet Project. "But, I still don't think it's fair to say he treated fat people like people. He treated them like sick, damaged people who needed help. He was like a preacher saving souls, willing to forgive you no matter how lost you were. It reminds me of those weepy new 'body positive' Weight Watchers commercials, where they tell you to go 'beyond the scale' (by losing weight?!)."
But still, it’s hard to brush off what he did for all those people. It's hard to imagine how we’d get to today’s love yourself culture if it weren’t for Simmons, the patron saint of sweat as a radical act of self-love.
In fact, his guiding principles sound a lot like some of the things body activists today preach: fad diets don’t work, eating disorders are horrible and those who suffer deserve help, exercise should be fun, and everyone deserves respect and the space to take care of themselves free of judgement.
Exercise had changed Simmons’ life, and he felt everyone — whether they were Jane Fonda or a short, loud weirdo with an unusual amount of energy — deserved to experience what he had experienced. The pounds lost, and the acceptance that came with it, were more of an added bonus or a proof-of-concept for him. That people still desperately needed to lose weight to be accepted should make us sad, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame Simmons for that. In fact, he was vocal about how wrong that is.
“You get to believe in our society that only thin people are successful, and that’s not true at all,” he told Oprah in that same appearance on her show. “And I get very upset when anyone judges anyone by what it says on the scale. I think it’s very wrong.”
At the end of each episode of Missing Richard Simmons, Taberski includes a phone number so listeners can call to share their own theories about where he’s gone. Here’s mine: Simmons has always had impeccable showbiz instincts, knowing how to market his message and how to be his one-of-a-kind self and still fit into the cultural conversation. With body positivity and self-acceptance dominating our culture over the past few years, maybe he just sees this moment as his cue that his moment has passed. And it’s time to bow out.
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