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Fit 'n' Fabulous with Richard Simmons

By Aaron Drake

The motivation to achieve your New Year's resolution this year comes in the form of a familiar face you can't help but love. Frontiers contributor Michelle McCarthy sits down with the legendary, over-the-top fitness guru and current cover man Richard Simmons to discuss dolphin shorts, food cravings and Howard Stern.

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.

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