Famous American fitness coach Richard Simmons in 1996.
Evan Hurd Photography / Getty Images
The podcast Missing Richard Simmons recently became a cultural sensation. Created by Dan Taberski, a producer at The Daily Show and self-described former friend of Simmons, it framed the fitness guru’s decision to retire from public life — around February of 2014 — as a mystery. Taberski clarified at the outset that the podcast wasn’t in search of “the punchline or the half-forgotten icon” but of the friend who “shocked everyone who knows him” by disappearing from their lives — including Taberski’s. And his approach was effective: The podcast dominated the iTunes chart and generated the kind of mainstream attention not seen since the success of Serial. But the podcast’s story of Simmons’ retirement into privacy, an almost Hitchcockian tale featuring the fitness world’s neo–Greta Garbo, only captivated the public in the way that it did because of our fascination with the half-forgotten icon.
Ultimately, Taberski didn’t uncover anything that wasn’t already presented in a rich, intricately reported longform piece published last year by the Daily News. Much like Taberski’s narrative, the article — which prompted Simmons to phone in to the Today show to assuage any concerns fans had about him — raised questions about his housekeeper, noted Simmons’ sadness over the death of his Dalmatians, and sought to solve the “mystery” of Simmons’ disappearance by diagnosing him personally: Was he depressed, emotionally exhausted, or even undergoing a gender transition?
A number of critiques emerged about the discomforting ethical aspects of the podcast; before the podcast was even conceived, Taberski had approached Simmons as a documentarian looking for a subject, and Simmons had declined to participate. Sarah Larson, writing in The New Yorker, concluded that “Like ‘Serial,’ ‘Missing Richard Simmons’ revealed that no matter how many details we examine and consider, mysteries aren’t always solvable to self-appointed detectives, or to anybody else.”
But the real problem with Missing Richard Simmons is that the show’s narrative added to the confusion around Richard Simmons the cultural persona and Richard Simmons the person. The fascination with his disappearance is ultimately a cultural conundrum that can be traced through a consideration of the way Simmons’ celebrity evolved, especially the persona that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s as a kind of Mother Teresa of fitness. That image worked — apparently too well — by disrupting gendered boundaries between personal and professional, between commercial and spiritual, between camp and sincerity. And it is by understanding how that image functioned — and how it was received — that the fascination with his retirement makes a different kind of sense.
Richard Simmons was not always the caricature most people remember now, performing flamboyant selflessness by preaching health in tiny shorts and tank tops. That his public life from the 1970s has been completely forgotten is a testament to how Simmons’ ’80s celebrity reshaped his image. In fact, he first gained media attention when he was 24, after a career in cosmetics marketing led him to develop a successful jewelry line — with whimsical designs of body parts like hearts and rib cages — called Simpatico. And Simmons had always been intrigued by celebrity culture and performance; he appeared in Federico Fellini’s Satyricon and The Clowns when he still weighed 268 pounds, before he lost the weight that he would later claim led to his shift into the fitness industry.
Richard Simmons in Fellini's Satyricon, 1969.
Produzioni Europee Associati / Via youtube.com
That career reinvention started in the late ’70s with Simmons opening a salad bar, Ruffage, and a gym, the Anatomy Asylum, in glamorous Beverly Hills in the midst of a major revival of American fitness culture. The Anatomy Asylum was cited in news coverage as the kind of chic place where Cher, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and even Paul Newman worked out. Early articles about Ruffage suggest that Simmons’ own growing celebrity and campy mode of dealing with customers was his biggest selling point: “Its renown may have more to do with its owner than anything it serves,” explained the Washington Post in 1976. “He yells insults at patrons, new and old … kisses the women and men customers with equal ardor … During lunch one day he shamed a customer who had lit up a cigarette … then threatened to do in one of the women seated at a nearby table so he could 'marry her husband.'”
Simmons' 1981 cover story.
The Simmons persona that America would become familiar with — gently hectoring people about their health, flirting with men through their amused wives, and expanding the limits of masculine boundaries around affection — was already emerging, but it still lacked the element that would make him a household name: television. Simmons began to approach national celebrity through his appearances on soap operas in the ’80s, playing himself on daytime talk shows and as an aerobics instructor on General Hospital. On television, as with his students and customers, his kitschy excess and scandalously flirtatious presence made for great entertainment.
With his bubbly — almost aggressive — cheerfulness, constant animation, and tendency to break into showtunes, Simmons placed himself in a tradition of extravagant white masculinity associated with gay men of a certain age. But that was an association that he — and for the most part, the mainstream media — never explicitly addressed. Throughout his career it would be noted through adjectives like “bedazzled,” “colorful,” “flamboyant,” “wacky,” “obnoxious,” “outrageous,” “zany,” and “campy.”
In a 1981 People magazine cover story, a woman described only as an “Omaha matron” explained his appeal thusly: “I used to watch Phil Donahue. I turned him off because he had so many programs about these gays and couples swapping wives. I do exercises with Richard now — and he makes me feel younger.” Simmons, in other words, was being framed by media narratives — and consumed by many — as an innocent alternative to the lurid sexual politics of Donahue.
Simmons still teased his own sexuality in ways that were subtle enough to avoid an overt political stance, but obvious enough to be funny. This willingness to play with and even incite some discomforting questions — about what he might desire, given his self-presentation — forged a path into the world of morning and daytime talk shows both as a guest and host. In an episode of his own talk show, The Richard Simmons Show, which aired from 1980 to 1984, Simmons hands his guest (the dreamy General Hospital soap star Tristan Rogers) a bouquet of roses before giving him one of his usual long and tight hugs, which appear both innocently enthusiastic and carnal. “Today’s guest is a…real heartthrob,” he announces. Sandwiched between Rogers and Rogers’ wife during the show’s cooking segment, Simmons clings to Rogers’ arm and kisses his shoulder twice. “Hold the kisses,” says Rogers, half joking, as Simmons sidles up to him.
“Tell me about the first time you kissed him,” Simmons says to the wife.
“I don’t remember,” she says, unimpressed.
“I would’ve remembered!” says Simmons excitedly.
This wink-wink attitude toward men desiring men permeated many of Simmons’ daytime television appearances, and it seemed to make sense within the supposedly feminine sphere of morning and daytime television, even throughout the ’90s. As a guest on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee in 1995, for example, he arrives on set and hands Kathie Lee a rose, adding, “This is for Frank,” meaning her husband Frank Gifford, the football player. “Thank you, precious,” Kathie Lee replies, and then she plays along by saying, “Frank will appreciate it. Hasn’t stopped talking about Richard.”
Simmons kisses Tristan Rogers and his wife on an episode of The Richard Simmons Show.
The Richard Simmons Show / Via youtube.com
People were already speculating about Simmons and his private life, but Simmons had answers for them: It was all devoted to public service. In the 1981 People profile, he “insists he has little time for a private life — and no plans to start one. He has few close friends.” Simmons goes on to tell the writer (in a way that sounds defensive, and that he would repeat in almost every interview he gave): “What’s more important, a one-to-one kid-and-family situation or helping 60 million people get their act together?” He was able to frame his difference from the norm as a kind of selflessness. It was as if he had turned into the priest he once dreamed of being, a goal he mentioned in a 1997 profile in the St. Petersburg Times and other interviews, shifting questions about the sexual and familial onto the transcendental and spiritual. While that displacement initially worked to keep the contradictions of his image intact, it would be harder to maintain over the years.
Simmons’ image through the early ’80s — aside from the kitschy excess — was still selling a rather conventional configuration of aspirational celebrity for ordinary people. His best-selling 1981 Never-Say-Diet Book captures this mixture: He crowdsourced questions from the public to write the book, in a bid for democratic appeal, but it was promoted as the diet followed by Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Henry Winkler, and Diana Ross.
Some time after the cancellation of his morning show in 1984, the Simmons narrative we associate him with today emerged: a kind of mater dolorosa of America’s marginalized fat communities. He was a frequent and successful guest on the daytime talk shows, the genre of trauma and confessions, the style of feel-your-pain television that Oprah — who in some ways replaced Simmons as America’s fat abjection expert — grew to dominate. But he also used his now infamous infomercials as mini talk shows, presenting the painful personal stories of some of his clients (framed as “friends”) as they testified to their abjection — and Simmons’ amazingly personal help — on national television.
Simmons with a copy of his Never-Say-Diet Cookbook, 1992.
Ron Galella / WireImage
“I remember the first picture you sent me of yourself, cut out in the shape of a heart,” Simmons narrates, telling the story of Kathy Miles, who lost over 150 pounds. “I take a trip and there you are in the snow, to see me. Why, Kathy?” As melodramatic music plays in the background, she and a number of other women explain how they sought him out at his mall appearances because he gave them messages of hope. “I'm here!” he says excitedly to another client, whose home he visits as if she just won a sweepstakes contest. “I know, I can't believe it. I'm so excited,” she says.
Tellingly, when some of the women interviewed on Missing Richard Simmons talked about the way he entered into their lives, they made it sound like a television star had suddenly materialized at their door. “You have to understand, I am in Nebraska, I was a 450-pound hairdresser. All of a sudden Richard Simmons jumps in my life, who was full of color, and I feel suddenly hope, and it was…very unexpected,” a woman (also) named Kathy recalled to Taberski. This was also the attitude of the women who appeared in the infomercials: Here was a soap star shaking up their everyday banality and acting as their mother confessor, all in one.
Simmons exploited the melodramatic register of television to perform empathy and make a space for people who were excluded from mainstream fitness representation and marketing. Indeed, the academic critic Rhonda Garelick noted in a 1995 study in the journal Postmodern Culture that Simmons’ most peculiar accomplishment was his use of camp — originally understood as a queer, anti-commercial sensibility — to ease fat women back into consumer society.
His televisual celebrity was at the core of his ability to connect with strangers: It made him a star, but in a way that also created an illusion of approachability. Just as talk shows made stars of ordinary people who spoke their truth from the audience, Simmons gave some of his clients a taste of stardom as he expanded into a lifestyle emporium, promoting the “Deal-a-Meal” weight loss program and, later, Sweatin’ to the Oldies workout tapes, where he famously included “real people” in the dance and workout sessions.
And as he became a celebrity himself, Simmons shifted from his earlier alignment with a glamorous, mainstream fitness ideal that “normal” people could aspire to. He started selling himself as an antidote to a fitness world that was all about achieving conventional ideals of desire and beauty, becoming a Mother Teresa for those “shafted, rejected and neglected,” by society, as he explained to Oprah: “the overweight, the senior citizen, and the disabled.” By the time the Anatomy Asylum was renamed Slimmons, around 1988, the rebranding could only work because Simmons’ persona now fully represented that new mixture of kitsch and his melodramatic inclusion of marginalized bodies.
Even as Simmons made inroads into the more masculine — and less domestic — space of late-night television throughout the ’90s, he was still interpreted through his ’80s image. He first appeared on Howard Stern and was then taken up by Letterman and Leno. In these appearances, Simmons explicitly makes himself — or is made — the butt of a kind of homosocial joking.
On Letterman in 1991, he entwines his legs — as he did in the People cover photo — in front of him; Letterman moves away from him, “jokingly” reading the body aerobics as sexual.
“When you see this tonight you’re really gonna be embarrassed, because your ass is hanging out,” he says to Richard. “Here, cover yourself up,” he says. Stern would similarly accost Simmons the minute he walked onto the set in a 1990 interview: “Your dick is hanging out of those short shorts.”
Simmons on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2000.
CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images
Simmons elicited that joking form of disrespect, one that he saw as enabling a kind of complicity. These talk show performances of flamboyance made him excessive in a way that conventional masculine self-presentation isn’t, and triggered expressions of masculine anxiety from people like Letterman and Stern. Yet it was that very excess — the scandal of his performance — that allowed him to access a form of authenticity and sincerity. It marked him as “original” and uniquely himself, but also allowed him to claim the feminized role of caretaker, and elicited feelings of protectiveness from some of the audience.
“I know Richard has to go through all kinds of stuff to get through the Letterman gauntlet,” one male client told journalist Bryan Curtis, who profiled Simmons for Grantland in 2013. “But he reaches people, like me, who need to be reached.” And the comment sections of Simmons’ late-night talk show appearances on YouTube are full of sentiments like this, from both men and women. Curtis observes, “This was Simmons’s greatest feat: He’d let himself be mocked, turned into a gag, but had somehow maintained his hold on his audience.” But even this interpretation reduces the complexities of Simmons’ gendered appeal.
It wasn’t in spite of the mocking, but rather because of that comedy that Simmons succeeded on late-night television — making him both beloved and pilloried — and expanded his marketing platform. The greatest feat of his persona was that it made a market expansion into a broader (male) audience appear as a kind of selfless act of bravery. That there might have been pleasure — perhaps even sexually tinged — for Simmons the showman in these coquettish encounters was never considered. That he was using humor to sell new healthy cookies or promote a video was sidelined by the idea of him as a kind of saint “taking it” for the larger goal of fitness. And it was the saintly image — rather than the salesman — that survived to be canonized and contested by the Missing Richard Simmons podcast years later.