How Richard Simmons Got Trapped In His Own Mythology

Simmons' public image as the fitness industry's Lady of Perpetual Sorrow confused cultural categories, and left everyone demanding answers that might not exist.

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.

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.'”

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.”

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.

“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 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.

Richard Simmons’ saintly image became fully complete in the ’90s, when bursting into tears became an integral part of his public persona. These moments turned into a constant theme of his interviews and television appearances, helping to affirm the sense of priestly spirituality that he talked about in profiles. Eventually, he became American fitness’s Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, a role that was sometimes framed by Simmons or in newspaper accounts as an evolution from his Catholic upbringing. But given its repetition, Simmons’ sincerity eventually came into question.

Reporting on one of his many mall and health expo appearances, a Baltimore Sun journalist wrote in 1993 of one fan encounter, “The elevator doors open once more and the man disappears with a wave. Speechless for once, Mr. Simmons rides to the lobby with tears in his eyes.”

In 1999, a Los Angeles Times reporter described a similar scene as Simmons sorted through fan mementos: "Needlepoint portraits of him, hand-drawn photo albums, handmade stuffed animals. The givers' emotional attachment seems intense. ‘Yes,’ Simmons says, ‘it is.’ As a testament to his sincerity, a tear forms in the corner of his eye and slides down his cheek.”

“He plops right down on the spotless floor, cross-legged,” a Tribune News Services reporter notes in 2008 after another mall appearance. “He takes several deep breaths. The past two hours — the people, their stories, the emotional feedback — have overwhelmed him. Richard Simmons begins to weep again.”

This same dynamic is conveyed in the 2013 Grantland profile, in which Curtis actually travels to take a class at the now-mythical (and closed) Slimmons studio. “It was like a red light had come on over my head, like a director had called ‘Action!’ on a scene of emotional catharsis,” Curtis writes. “‘At the end of the day,’ [Simmons] said, his eyes welling with tears, ‘when the tank top is off and I’ve cleaned my face, did I save a life?’”

By then Simmons had become an American institution and an object of intense nostalgia, and reported pilgrimages to Slimmons — which almost became their own narrative genre — took on the religious overtones of visits to the Sistine Chapel.

The people quoted in a 2009 New York Times article who had also visited Slimmons sounded like they wanted to confirm that Simmons existed in real life, so they could recount the experience. “It’s the epitome of what I expected,” the swimmer Rowdy Gaines, who was visiting California from Florida, is quoted as saying. “He’s Richard Simmons. He’s the exact same persona you see on TV.” By confirming that Simmons in person matched his TV persona, even casual followers of Simmons on television could settle the question of authenticity. This was the “real” Richard Simmons, meaning the one who matched the image created in the ’80s and ’90s, and he could cry in the fitness studio too. Regarding Simmons’ tears, Curtis concludes: “It was a performance, without a doubt. … You could say that Simmons is ridiculous, or that he is an enthusiastic amateur, but you couldn’t question his belief. It was this ability to claim the moral high ground that allowed Simmons to persevere where his pop culture fellow-travelers had not. In a strange way, Richard Simmons was the only sincere product of the ’80s.”

The formulation of a “sincere product” is ostensibly a juxtaposition, pitting cold ’80s commerce against Simmons’ warmth and authenticity. But it is made genuine, in this pilgrimage story, through Simmons’ live tears and through the vulnerability — and the interior sympathy — that the tears signified. That they could be both a performance and a symbol of sincerity suggested how Simmons’ personal aura and position as an object of “ridicule” helped displace questions about professionalism (is he an amateur?) into a question of genuineness. And as long as Simmons was around to perform that empathy — to demonstrate his sincerity — his image could remain intact.

As the Simmons persona moved into the 2000s, this Mother Teresa narrative started to be questioned in a variety of ways. A Los Angeles Times report on one of his weight loss cruises from 1999 took a more skeptical look at Simmons’ business. The reporter noted that Simmons’ clients — portrayed almost as groupies — talked amongst each other about the “infomercial, QVC and video guest-spots they have done (for zero pay),” subtly reminding readers of the way Simmons’ ability to turn clients into friends meant that he was not just providing emotional labor for them, but also extracting free labor from them. Carol Line, a floral designer from Modesto, is quoted expressing this skepticism too: "Someone at dinner was asking, 'How does he smile through all of this?' Well, ka-chiiing. That's how." She, along with other self-described “black sheep” participants, called it a “Ship of Fools.”

And it wasn’t just the commercial aspect of Simmons that some questioned. As openness about sexuality became supposedly de rigueur in an era of same-sex marriage, his romantic and family life became objects of speculation, not just in the tabloids, as always, but in mainstream media.

“When was the last time you were in love?” one ABC anchor asked him directly, in an interview filmed before his retirement that re-aired on Nightline after Missing Richard Simmons premiered.

“I don’t think I’m in love with a person as much as I’m in love with what I do,” he replied. And then they edited the clip to add Simmons’ comment: “No one should feel sorry for Richard Simmons. Because I think I’m one of the most loved people in the whole world.”

It is telling that Simmons — or the editors — wanted to explicitly state that the public didn't need to feel compassion for him. There was an understanding that some of that same public interpreted his tears and his joking self-abjection as real-life melodrama. And it was hard to hear his statement, because his complex performance of empathy and selflessness overwhelmed his image, and created almost aggressive feelings of proprietorship over him. Even journalists and other performers, like Howard Stern, seemed to want him to exist publicly on their terms rather than his own.

In an appearance on Howard Stern’s show in 2008, Stern confronts Simmons about his personal life, asking him to be “real.”

“Do you know love? Have you ever been in love? Seriously, have you ever been in love?” Stern insists.

“I’m in love with what I do…” Simmons attempts to say.

When Stern presses him about who loves him — even playing melodramatic music to expose the supposed fakeness of Simmons’ sentimentality — Simmons pressed on: “My wonderful housekeeper Teresa, who’s been with me 24 years. She cares about me, she loves me very much.”

“Richard, I just worry about you, I’ve never gotten to know the real you,” Stern says. “I want love in your life and I don’t know if you have that. I’m not talking about Teresa the housekeeper or your Dalmatians.”

Stern appeared to refuse to believe Simmons’ answers. The interview ends when Stern comments on his gender performance, saying: “Let’s stop pretending; Richard isn’t the most macho guy on the planet. He embraces both sexes ... and that’s why people like him.” Simmons then flees, in tears — prompting Stern and his staff to wonder on-air whether or not he was truly hurt, or just needed to make his next press appearance.

"I can’t believe he can keep such a good eye on the time, and know when to go out crying," Robin Quivers says in the after-show segment. They seem unsure of whether or not the tears are real, and by extension, whether they should be concerned about Simmons. And yet Dan Taberski’s podcast — and the current resurgence of interest in Simmons’ private life that it both built on and feeds into — only became an event because it repackaged that concern: the compassion Simmons said he didn’t want.

Despite all the criticism against Missing Richard Simmons, there is something culturally logical about the fact that just as Simmons confused the lines between the personal and the professional, Taberski also created a professional success out of his friend’s private life. Much like Howard Stern, Taberski seemed to refuse to accept that Simmons might be happy living with his housekeeper. And just like Stern, he appeared to want Simmons to know that he is beloved and respected — a gesture that could only make sense if it can be assumed Simmons never knew it. (Taberski did not reply to a request for comment.)

Thus Missing Richard Simmons resonated less because it had new things to say and more because it reactivated all the questions that have always been at the center of Simmons’ celebrity and which his very presence — from the tears to the flirty sexuality — helped both entice and shut down. All the tabloid rumors could now be addressed within a “quality” podcast context, and with the warmth of a friend rather than, say, the “bullying” of Howard Stern.

The podcast finally gave people the spectacle of a private life that Simmons claimed didn’t exist, as Taberski admitted that he had been on a double date with Richard Simmons and his “masseur,” the man who had started much of the speculation in the 2016 Daily News article. It also allowed people to speculate about whether the gender play that Simmons had performed on television meant he was actually transgender or transitioning. And yet it ended — like so many of the narratives about Simmons — with the question of whether his proclamations of selflessness, and his work as a weight loss counselor itself, were real.

Taberski seemed to be troubled by the way Simmons’ professional role was confused by many of his clients with a “genuine” personal relationship. Had his concern for millions of his followers been somehow fake? He tried to untangle these threads by turning Simmons himself into a defendant. But it’s only because Simmons’ persona confused categories of private and personal, capitalism and self-help, gender and sexuality that his retirement even became the kind of mystery that a person could create a podcast around. It wasn’t Simmons himself but his Mother Teresa of Fitness image that Taberski was wrestling with. When your life is about selfless vocation, you're not expected to retire — except perhaps in death.

Simmons’ image was so powerful, and worked on so many registers to stoke public fantasies, that ultimately it was hard to control the size or shape of those fantasies. And the podcast is one way those fantasies returned to haunt him, seeking to address the contradictions that Simmons embodied as a celebrity. (Per his manager, Simmons is not taking media requests and declined to comment.)

Tellingly, it was only Willam Belli, who was a Slimmons regular — and, as a RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar, also an astute student of the labor of gender and performance — who felt no need to psychoanalyze Simmons during his appearance on the podcast. “He might have been done, and he doesn’t owe shit to anybody. He pulled back that curtain a little bit and gave people that personal interaction and now they feel a loss,” he said, in a way framing Simmons as a performer of the personal, before adding, “He pulled a 'bye, girl, bye.'” Belli pointed out in the second episode what Taberski revealed only at the end of his podcast: that his feelings were as much about himself as they were about Simmons. ”How can you lose what you’ve never owned? You know?” he said. “Like our relationship was partly mine, I partly owned that, and it’s not there anymore.”

Simmons always said he was a performer. He also told People in 1981, “The day I don’t love any of this, I’ll walk away.” The cultural mystery that remains is not whether Simmons was sincere, but why the Simmons celebrity persona, with its performance of empathy, evoked such a contradictory and layered cultural fascination for so many decades. And that analysis can only begin — not end — with the meanings of Richard Simmons’ tears.

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