Growing up in the ‘80s, I became well acquainted with all things related to dieting and fitness. I accompanied various family members to Weight Watchers meetings and Jazzercise classes, usually reading or coloring in the back of the room while the women present learned how to take control of their eating habits or shimmied off the pounds.
If the important grown-up women in my life were putting so much time and effort into losing weight through diet plans and dance routines, I knew it had to be something very serious. But I also found it terribly boring. Sure, Jazzercise sounded like fun in theory, but when it came down to it, it was just a bunch of ladies doing grapevines in a community center function room. It didn’t do it for me.
Then one day in 1991, my mother brought a new videotape home from the library. Initially, I wasn’t interested; I had seen plenty of workout videos before, and no disrespect to the legend that is Ms. Jane Fonda, but they were all a snooze.
But as soon as she popped this one in, a loud, curly-haired man in a low-cut tank top and short shorts burst onto the screen and said, “LET’S. SWEAT. AGAAAAAAAAIN,” and I knew I needed to do two things: 1) sweat like I’ve never sweat before and 2) find out more about this fascinating, energetic person.
Right off the bat, I could tell that Sweatin’ to the Oldies 2 was far superior to the other exercise videos collecting dust on the side of the VCR. For starters, the participants looked like regular people — the kind I’d see in my town. They weren’t all skinny blond models in matching leotards and leg warmers; they were men and women of all sizes in different outfits — some inexplicably wearing button-down blouses and jean shorts — all of which you could easily find at your local Kmart.
And then there was the music. My parents really didn’t move past music from the ‘60s, so I was far more familiar with Neil Sedaka and Little Eva than I was with Madonna or Wham. I loved that Richard Simmons shared our taste in music.
When he shrieked, “Oh, Daddy!” during one of the first songs, I could relate. I also enthusiastically loved my father. Simmons and I truly had so much in common.
The video set was decorated to look like a 1950s diner, but with plenty of colorful neon shapes on the wall, à la The Max in Saved by the Bell — so it had a tasteful, contemporary feel. I imagined Simmons and the other exercisers hanging out there after they worked out, and I desperately wanted to join them. We’d sip on milkshakes (presumably SlimFast) and talk about our favorite episodes of The Golden Girls. In hindsight, I’m not sure a diner was the most appropriate location for a weight-loss exercise video, but it clearly didn’t faze me or the millions (I’m assuming) of other people who enjoyed sweating along with Simmons.
At the end of the video, they would do a Soul Train-esque line where participants would dance their way down, and when they reached the end, the amount of weight they lost was revealed on the screen, with amounts ranging from 10 to 245 pounds. What you don’t understand as a child, though, is that they didn’t lose this weight after doing the video just once. So when I’d run down the hallway to weigh myself on the scale in my parents’ bathroom while the closing credits were rolling, I was distraught when I saw that I weighed the same as I did before starting the video. Nevertheless, I persisted.
I have distinct memories of doing this video on a regular basis well into the late ‘90s. My sister and I watched it so much that we even picked out our favorite participants, who we monitored throughout the video for any missteps or funny facial expressions.
Even when Sweatin’ to the Oldies 2 stopped being part of my regular routine, my love for Richard Simmons never waned. Thankfully, he graced us with his presence on television regularly, always a burst of sunshine and positivity.
And then there were the lucky few who got to do aerobics with him in person. I have a lot of reasons to be envious of my sister — she’s a brilliant mechanical engineer and all-around badass — but one reason eclipses them all: She has attended not one, but three aerobics classes at Slimmons, Simmons' studio in LA, and has met him and taken photos with him.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. Living in Ireland at the time, the commute from Dublin to LA for class was just too much, but I swore that I’d make the trip out west as soon as I was able. I knew Simmons was getting up in years, but he’s an institution — I figured he’d be teaching at Slimmons and posing with fans forever.
But then, in 2014, he didn’t show up for class one day and hasn’t been seen since.
Like everyone else, I have been concerned about Simmons' whereabouts since he disappeared and have been listening to every episode of the podcast Missing Richard Simmons as soon as it is released. Like the show’s host and so many guests, it’s not that I feel as though he owes us anything, let alone being a sparkly ball of energy always in the public eye — we just want to make sure that he’s OK.
Richard, if you’re reading this, I hope that you are as happy and healthy as you’ve made the rest of us for the past three decades.