Richard Simmons is a paradox. A flamboyant, ball-of-energy jokester who can burst into tears at the drop of a hat. A supreme motivator who has changed the lives of countless people but feels uncomfortable receiving a simple compliment. A workaholic who fosters self-esteem in others but makes self-deprecating jokes and refers to himself as the clown court jester. Someone who takes the time to get to know everyone around him but doesn’t divulge anything about his personal life.
A victim of bullying throughout his childhood (he weighed 238 pounds in high school), Richard opened up his fitness studio, Slimmons, 38 years ago. It has served as a safe, incredibly positive environment where people of all ages and athletic levels are welcomed with open arms—literally—to let go and get fit. He’s made terms such as “Deal-a-Meal” and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” part of our pop culture lexicon. But Richard’s legacy will be as a patron saint to society’s outcasts who have been ostracized for being different.
As he likes to say, everyone has a Richard Simmons story. Here’s his.
It’s 6:30 on a Tuesday evening in Beverly Hills. Richard Simmons has just arrived at Slimmons to teach the “Sweat” class. As he enters the room, he greets everyone he passes—first-timers and decades-long members—with a kiss on the cheek. When Richard approaches me, I tell him I interviewed him the previous night over the phone. Before I can even finish my sentence, he embraces me in one of the tightest and longest bear hugs I’ve ever experienced. When he lets me go, he is crying. His tears didn’t catch me completely by surprise, given our conversation the night before.
What was your childhood like?
I was born to thin parents in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had a thin brother. Everything we eat in New Orleans is fried. When you die in New Orleans, they actually deep-fry you—either regular or spicy. I had this relationship with fried oysters, fried shrimp and po’ boys. I was born with very bad, flat feet and had to wear special shoes that my parents could hardly afford. Maybe food was my outlet for when people made fun of me because I wasn’t Mr. Macho or because I broke out in show tunes. Because of my legs, I waddled, so my name in school was Penguinette. I had a few friends, mostly girls. I went to an all-boys, Catholic, jock high school. That wasn’t the easiest, either. I kept eating.
Did your sense of humor help you get through the hard times?
Well, either you use your humor as a shield and make fun of yourself, or they beat you up. This one kid would come with a baseball bat and hit me in the back of my head. I’m a very insecure and emotional person. Whether people are laughing with me or at me is not really the point. Now I have a family in no matter what city I go to. People are wonderful to me [crying] and treat me like family. I write these people. I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. I have lots of Facebook, Twitter, email messages, and a lot of them are: “Dear Richard, I’m 300 pounds. I’m diabetic and had a toe cut off. My husband thinks I’m too fat and we haven’t had sex in 10 years. And my kids make fun of me.” So it is my job to make that woman or man feel like a million bucks and a butterfly that can spread his or her wings. When I go to catch a plane for a personal appearance, it takes me a while to get to my gate because everybody wants to talk to me. I love it. It’s like hummingbird water to me. They’ll go, “My mother loves you. Could you call her?” And I do.
You seem like you internalize a lot.
I do. I have panic attacks. And then I can’t eat. When I read these letters, I take it all personally. If someone gains their weight back, it’s my fault. I’ve never changed since I was a kid. We had a girl in grammar school who had a very bad life. Alcoholic father. I sold pralines on the street corner after school. One year, my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I said to my father, “I want to go to Maison Blanche, and I want to buy a couple of really pretty dolls for a girl in my school.” [crying] When I went to school, I handed them to her. We never, ever talked about it. Years later, I was at Morrison Cafeteria and the girl in back of the desserts looked at me with endearing eyes and said, “Do you remember me? I’m the girl you gave those dolls to in elementary school. My daughter now has them.” She gave me a hug like I don’t think I’ve ever received. She said, “May all good things come to you.” [Blows nose]
I go to these cities to teach big classes for a convention, and I have to go through areas I can’t even describe. I always keep some cash in my pocket in case I see someone who is homeless. I don’t care what they do with the money I give them. I can’t stand to see poverty. And you know what they say to me? [crying] “You’re Richard Simmons, and I used to workout with you with my grandmother.” I say to myself, “What happened to these lost souls?” They have become the outcasts. I’m only one person handing out cash, and it’s very difficult to see these torn and tortured individuals.
I’m not going to lie to you, I spend a lot of my time in tears. I wish I could do more. I’m doing a new DVD for children. With the money, I’m going to buy the largest TV for as many elementary schools as I can afford and give them all a DVD. I just wrote a song called “Piece of my Heart” that is about a woman whose husband is going to Afghanistan for the third time. With that money, I’m going to do something for the husbands and wives who live on the bases here in the United States. So I have big dreams.
How should we be approaching food differently?
God made six food groups: fruits, vegetables, dairy, fat, protein and starch. Nothing new is coming from the Manas from heaven. You should eat all six food groups. All of these celebrities and major companies that have diet drinks and special foods that I wouldn’t even feed my 16-year-old dog Hattie—pills, shots, drinks—should be ashamed of themselves. People spend all this money on hopeless promises. Right now the big thing is quick, fast weight loss—and by some very prominent doctors. I always say, “The scale doesn’t lie when you eat too much pie.”
Do you still deal with food cravings?
I love desserts, but I only have it on Saturday night. I have anything I want. Joan’s on Third makes an apple pie that, seriously, when I open the little plastic container, my hand shakes. Or I’ll go to Greenblatt’s on Sunset. They have a chocolate mousse pie. Mine is always salty because I cry while I’m eating it. When I travel, they put me up in these nice suites, and I open the room service menu. Of course, my fat self goes directly to appetizers. “Well, there is a nacho platter.” To me, I just see little singers on the top of the chips singing, “We Are the World.” [singing] “The time has come when it’s guacamole, cheese, and we melt together as one.” Then you have a quesadilla. “Wow, look at all the cheese.” [singing] “We are lots of cheese if you please.” I’m very hard on myself—even with my meals. You would think after all these years—but it’s part of us. Our eating habits were developed as children and they don’t go away.
I went online to buy dolphin shorts for your class and I couldn’t find them anywhere.
I came up with that outfit because when I lost all my weight, there was skin hanging. During Sweatin’ to the Oldies 1, I had to come up with an outfit that would hide it, because I was very self-conscious. I was watching the Harlem Globetrotters on TV [whistles the team’s theme song], and I noticed they had a tank top and shorts. I was at a store on Ventura Boulevard and there was a rack of dolphin shorts. They came in pink, green, black, red, purple and blue—and they were striped with white. I said, “If I wore a tank top that was scooped in the front and wore these—I’ve got good legs—that would not show the extra skin, and I’d feel good.” They introduced me to Leslie Wilshire, and she designed this tank top. I put it on and I was like Cinda-fella.
These dolphin shorts were made in Asia with a material that went up in flames. The United States decided it would not have that material brought into the country. There are no more. But people go, “Dear Richard, I was cleaning out my garage and I came upon a box and I have three pair of dolphin shorts. I washed them and they’re yours.” I have, like, 300 pair.
People send you their old dolphin shorts?
Yes, they do.
That’s amazing. What would you do if you ran out of them?
I have 300 pairs! I’m 64! Chances are I’m not going to run out of them! They’re washed by hand.
Why do you go back to the Howard Stern Show when he tortures you?
Because he really loves me. I don’t do it often, because he gets me upset. Sometimes I don’t do the show for years, just like David Letterman. There are shows I will not do with some people who have not been very kind to me over the years. There was a girl, Ava, in my infomercial who went from 168 pounds to 132. Last week, she emailed me and said, “I don’t have a boyfriend, and I work for Chelsea Handler. I don’t have a date to the Christmas party. Will you be my date?” I went and I was in a tank top with a martini glass on the front and back with olives. I don’t go to parties, because it is not my element. I was the only one in a tank top and shorts that were ripped.
People were lining up to take pictures with me. I’d never met Chelsea. When I’m asked to do her show, I say, “Absolutely not.” She can be a little…. So, she came over to me and said, “You showed up to be her date and you helped this girl mentally and physically.” Then I had a little panic attack. [crying] She said, “I want you to do my show.” I go, “You know, you would say things that were hurtful to me, and I’m too old to be hurt.” She got really serious and she was like an inch from my nose and she said, “If you did my show, I would treat you with the utmost respect.”
Are you going to do it?
What should I do?
I think you should!
OK, I’ll call her, and I’ll do it.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I used to go to Broadway shows, but they’re late. The last time I went to the theatre, it was Les Mis in New York. I had to go to the bathroom. I’m in the bathroom minding my own business, doing my business, and all of a sudden I hear a rush of people come in. It’s a private thing. You’re in a stall. That’s your world right there in that stall. Now, I hear someone banging on the door. You know what happens when you’re interrupted going to the bathroom—you freeze. So I zip up and there are 10 policemen. They go [in a New York accent], “Rich! What are you doing in here?” I said, “Well, I was going to the bathroom.” They said, “There’s been a bomb threat, and you’re the only one in the theatre.” So I don’t go to the theatre anymore.
For more on Richard’s upcoming projects and classes, go to RichardSimmons.com. Photos by Ryan Forbes, RyanForbesPhotography.com.