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David Aguilera/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic Richard Simmons

Sweatin’ With the Oldie

The unstoppable Richard Simmons

He’s here,” the manager of the fitness studio said.

A glow had been spotted. An aura had been detected.

I turned and saw Richard Simmons standing in the doorway. His eyes were closed and his right arm caressed the doorjamb in the style of a ’40s movie starlet. The rhinestones on Simmons’s tank top formed the shape of a giraffe — an odd animal for aerobics, but never mind. His pants were orange and yellow, and he wore white New Balance sneakers.

Simmons walked toward me. At 64, he looks … older than you remember. His skinniness has an unearthly, Mick Jagger quality, and his once-proud Afro is a cinder cone encircling a bald spot. Two years ago, Simmons suffered the ultimate indignity: He had to go on Entertainment Tonight and explain that he wasn’t dying.

“What are you doing here?” Simmons breathed.

I was here to see how a Sweatin’ to the Oldies man was getting along in a P90X world. I was here to see how Simmons had crawled from the primordial ooze of ’80s talk shows — the world of Jack Hanna, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dr. Joyce Brothers — and become something more enduring than mere kitsch. Simmons was going to work me out. Then he was going to talk to me.

“I am?” he breathed. He walked away.

Richard Simmons’s exercise studio is called Slimmons. It’s on Civic Center Drive, in a sector of Beverly Hills that Simmons’s friend Regis Philbin calls the “other side of the tracks.” In the anteroom of Slimmons, framed VHS boxes show the rise of a fitness empire: the triple-platinum Oldies, Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes, The Stomach Formula. The anteroom opens into a long, rectangular exercise room that has scuffed pink pastel walls and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

Slimmons is a happy place. “Grumpy people go to Equinox,” the manager, Sherry, had told me before Simmons arrived. She was scurrying around trying to get everything just so. When Simmons teaches hour-long aerobics classes on Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, and Saturday mornings (his employees fill in the other slots), he demands house music be playing when he steps out of the car. The 50 or so exercisers who had gathered Tuesday had to be standing, Sherry said, so Simmons could greet them individually. Men would likely be asked to remove their shirts. It costs $12 to attend.

“Absolutely no farting,” Simmons said as marched to the front of the room. “People eat fucking Mexican food and I have to suffer.” He put on “It’s Raining Men” and we got moving.

Out of sheer cardiovascular terror, I hid in the back. I couldn’t see Simmons well, and had to wait for his moves to ripple through the class and make their way to me. This meant I was doing the Monkey (balled fists shaken up and down) while everyone else was doing the Hitchhike (hand with thumbs out to the right, then left). Every so often, Simmons would materialize from among the sweaty bodies, like an enemy soldier in tall grass, and bark commands.

“No baby steps. Get your shit together!”

“Sir, you must be bad in bed!”

“I want your underwear to be wet!” The last one came after he’d shut off Slimmons’s only fan. A woman in the back muttered something, and when Simmons couldn’t get the woman to share the comment, he threatened to close the studio doors and make us sweat more. “Turn on me and I’ll close the doors like Anne Frank,” he said to an audible gasp.

We formed a circle. Simmons beckoned a twentysomething man with a shaved head to the center of the floor. Simmons told the man to stand with his legs spread apart, and then laid flat on the floor and began to worm his way between them. When Simmons had done that, he told the man to drop and do push-ups, so that his face bobbed close to Simmons’s. I didn’t catch the man’s name or get his story, but I heard Simmons tell him, “You’ve been through a lot. There’s a reason God let you live.”

My knee lifts got higher to hide my face. I didn’t want to go to the middle. Mostly, I didn’t want to doff my shirt and kill everyone at Slimmons. Sherry the manager told me that when she first came to Slimmons as a customer, carrying extra weight after an injury, she thought, Maybe I need to go where the fat people are. This is the truth of the place: You get there and realize the fat person is you.

Simmons slowly motioned me into the center of the floor.

The two of us met there, face-to-face, about 5 feet apart. Simmons made his fists and threw a right uppercut, then a left. I made two fists and mirrored him. We danced like two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s killer apes, while the rest of the exercisers clapped around us. I felt the aura, the glow. I wanted to please this odd, aging man so he would fuss over me like he had over so many of his subjects. I curled my upper lip as I punched. Simmons opened his mouth in mock terror.

Later, when I was gasping in the anteroom, Sherry said, “My gosh, Bryan, you’re covered in sweat!”

I‘m a real paradox,” Richard Simmons said. “Because I’m a very serious person and I take my work very seriously. But I wrap it up in a court jester and a clown and make people laugh and make them feel good about themselves.”

Simmons was born in New Orleans in 1948. He was named Milton, but decided he preferred Richard, the name of a beloved uncle. As a boy, Simmons used his allowance to sneak turkey dinners at Woolworth’s on Canal Street. By college, he developed a “funny fat guy” persona that got him cast in Federico Fellini’s Satyricon and as a singing meatball in a commercial. He got serious about weight when someone left a note on his car that said, “Richard — You’re very funny, but fat people die young. Please don’t die.”

Jack LaLanne came from a time when there was little fitness culture. Simmons came from a time when fitness culture — at least in L.A. — was everywhere. Bikram Choudhury was teaching yoga; Ron Fletcher was teaching Pilates; Vince Gironda was squiring muscleheads around his gym in North Hollywood. Simmons tried and rejected them all. “I didn’t see any overweight people,” he said. “Where were they going? As a matter of fact, they weren’t going anywhere.”

Simmons’s genius was to find a client who was being left out. It was the person who weighed 300-plus pounds. It was the homebound man or woman gazing longingly at late-night infomercials. His Sweatin’ to the Oldies video, which came out in 1988, was set in a high school gym. “This is the chance to dance at the high school prom you always dreamed of,” Simmons announced. He was selling boomers the prom they’d never had and the reunion that was around the corner.

Simmons founded his studio on Civic Center Drive in 1975. Initially, the building had two parts. The workout space was called the Anatomy Asylum. The salad bar was called Ruffage. Simmons made the walls and floors all white so that only vegetables had color.

The late ’70s was a swell time to be a fitness guru. Tony Little and the Shake Weight hadn’t come along. There was room for improvisation. “We didn’t know what we were doing as much,” says Kathy Smith, who sold more than 16 million DVDs. “There weren’t as many rules. As science has caught up with all this, science says you have do 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Back then, you had Richard singing Judy Garland songs and doing leg-ups.”

I told Simmons I had a theory about his outrageousness. The overweight person who walked into the gym for the first time was terrified of being ridiculed, of sticking out. But Simmons’s performance had a way of breaking the ice, because the person soon realized no one was looking at them.

“I put a spell on people,” he breathed, “so they don’t know they’re working out … An enchanting spell, where they just don’t think about it, or overthink it, and then at the end they go, ‘Wow, I feel good.'”

It was only a matter of time before television added Simmons to its permanent guest list.

“I’m responsible,” said Regis Philbin, who began booking Simmons on his A.M. Los Angeles show in the late 1970s. “I take full credit for that and anything else that goes with it.”

“You know who discovered him was my wife, Joy,” Philbin said. “It was around 1975. She’d heard from a girlfriend that there was this guy who was totally different in the way he operated his exercise classes. So she went! She was taken by him. She said, ‘He would be great on your TV show.’ Frankly, that’s how it started.”

LaLanne was already a talk-show regular, leading the audience in exercises while a host gamely kept up. “Jack was terrific for years and years,” Philbin said. “But Jack appealed more to the men. Here was a guy who was really for the women.” Simmons’s female army was key to his endurance. “It was a daytime show,” says Maury Povich, who began booking Simmons in the early ’90s. “Who were we trying to attract? Women. That’s right up Richard’s alley.”

There are male Simmons fans, too. I met Steven Kessel, who’d traveled from Cocoa Beach, Florida, to work out at Slimmons. Kessel had gone from 208 pounds to 163. “And I’ve kept it off for two years,” he said. He’d announced his progress in class to loud applause.

“Ten or 15 years ago,” Kessel said of Simmons, “I saw him on David Letterman. Dave was mocking him. I know Richard has to go through all kinds of stuff to get through the Letterman gauntlet. But he reaches people, like me, who need to be reached.” 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.

As the ’80s ticked into the ’90s, Simmons would go on with Maury or Sally Jessy and talk about morbid cases. There would be a 1,000-pound man — I seem to remember this — who had to be carted out of his house on the stretcher zookeepers used for polar bears. But for Simmons’s tears, the poor guy could have been the fat man in a circus sideshow. “He was able to take what some people would think of as grotesque and make it a life-and-death situation,” says Povich. “It was very dramatic.”

Indeed, mortality hangs over Simmons. He has lost many of his most cherished clients. This has given him a dour outlook, as if plus-size ghosts are following him around. “I could be hit by a Sara Lee truck tomorrow,” Simmons told me. “Which is not a bad way of going: ‘Richard Simmons Found in a Freeway in Pound Cake and Fudge, With a Smile on His Face.’ Let’s face it. We don’t know anything.”

The knock on Simmons was that beneath the cheerleading, he had no idea what he was talking about. On the first Sweatin’ to the Oldies video, Simmons never managed to name the exercises or explain what muscles they were working. Twice he told viewers to check their heart rates, but didn’t explain what a healthy heart rate might be. It was like he was checking to make sure we were still alive.

Winifred Morice, a nutritionist who worked for Simmons for 16 years, said, “The first cookbook I gave to Richard to look at just before it went to press, and he made one change. I’d written, ‘Recipes developed by Winifred Morice.’ He put, ‘Recipes developed by Richard Simmons and Winifred Morice.'”

As Morice admits, Simmons made up for it with unrestrained benevolence. If a person asked him for help, he’d call that person for months or even years. “I talk to people every day: 200, 300, 500 pounds,” Simmons said. “But I tell them the truth and I’m very honest with them. Some of them get it and some people are very much in denial. I never stop calling them. Because one day, one day, it’s going to turn around for them.”

I met Cindy Sciacca, who had been working out with Simmons for three years. “He remembers everyone,” Sciacca said. “He knows if it’s your first class or your 100th class … If you haven’t shown up in a while or if you’re huffing and puffing, he’ll go, ‘What did you eat today?!'”

Simmons had absorbed Sciacca into his professional family. She had been cast in Project H.O.P.E., his new videos that come with an electronic device called the FoodMover. When Sciacca scored an acting gig, in an underground cabaret beneath a Mexican restaurant in Silver Lake, Simmons showed up and bought half the tickets in the room. “He came backstage before the show,” Sciacca said, “and I was practically naked. He wanted to try on all my wigs.”

This is why it’s useless to accuse Simmons of hucksterism. All gurus, from Simmons to Dr. Atkins, are hucksters. They’re tricking us into doing something we don’t want to do by promising it will be easier than we ever suspected. Short of selling pills, they are as much counselors as they are nutritionists.

I mentioned P90X and other nouveau workouts to Simmons. “The problem is it’s rush-rush, fast-fast, harder-stronger,” he said, “and that spells injury, injury, injury. Once you injure yourself, if you hurt your calf or your Achilles tendon, it’s hard to come back. I’ve always practiced this: Love yourself. Move your body. Watch your portions.”

It is vague but unassailable.

The last few months have been strange even by Simmons’s standards. In February, he told talk-show host Wendy Williams he wanted to “lick your inner thighs” and “lick your eyes,” forcing Williams to cut short a segment that was supposed to be about the Oscars. On Access Hollywood Live, Simmons talked in a mock-Indian accent before being admonished by (of all people) Billy Bush. His crusades have grown increasingly frantic. This spring, Simmons took up the unlikely cause of saving Auburn University’s aviation program. In a video, he skewered the dean who threatened to cut the program as a “deany-weenie.”

But the most striking thing is how little Simmons’s corner of the fitness universe has changed. Those who were left behind by yoga and Pilates in the ’70s are now left behind by P90X, CrossFit, and even The Biggest Loser, which is as close as pop culture has come to replicating Simmons’s formula. Simmons also has a bigger client base. In 1988, when Sweatin’ to the Oldies was released, the adult obesity rate in America was around 23 percent. Now, it’s 35 percent.

It is not just the same kind of people who seek out Simmons, but the same people. “The one thing that I did feel is that people felt more connected with Richard when they were heavy than when they were at their goal weight,” said Winifred Morice. “They felt he didn’t give them the same attention, because his attention, of course, was on people who needed him the most. They felt ostracized. Subconsciously, I think some of them gained their weight back to be needed by Richard again.”

“I get up at 3:30 in the morning,” Simmons told me.

Reading e-mail from your fans? I asked.

“I wake up and there’s like 600.”

And you write long e-mails back to all these people?

“I don’t send long e-mails back. It can be as simple as, ‘Know your self-worth.’ ‘Try harder this week.’ ‘Know that I love you — and I believe in you.'” Like an overworked minister, Simmons has become a master of the instant benediction.

After 40 years, I asked, do you feel the accumulation of all these needy people?

“My life is not easy,” Simmons said. “This is my passion and my crusade — this is what God wants me to do. But I can’t say it’s an easy walk in the park. Because it’s not. I take everything personal. If people gain a pound back, I take it personal. If people don’t lose weight, maybe I should have called them or talked to them. It’s never-ending. But when the clock strikes 11 and I go to bed, I feel good about what I did and hope that I can do it again tomorrow.”

I told Simmons he was more religious than I’d thought.

“I was raised very Catholic,” he said. “It’s hard to go to church because everyone stares at me. But my parents said you could just kneel down in your own bedroom and your own church.”

What is it like being a 64-year-old fitness instructor? I asked.

“It’s harder,” he said. “There are more overweight children. More overweight teens who want to kill themselves. Overweight young adults who don’t know what they’re doing. Overweight seniors who have lost loved ones and don’t want to live and don’t want to eat. Oh, it’s much more challenging now.”

Then he turned to me. It was like a red light had come on over my head, like a director had called “Action!” on a scene of emotional catharsis. “At the end of the day,” he said, his eyes welling with tears, “when the tank top is off and I’ve cleaned my face, did I save a life?”

I mumbled something and looked down at my recorder. When I looked up, Simmons was staring at me with teary eyes.

I looked down again, mumbled something else, and found his eyes still locked on mine.

And again, Simmons said nothing. He just stared.

It was a performance, without a doubt. But what could a snarky person — Regis or Dave or a writer — say? 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.

Simmons stared at me for 15 full seconds. Finally, he stood up. “You’re a good man,” Simmons said, before kissing me on both cheeks and sending me into the night.

Filed Under: Simmons

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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