Anyone and everyone knows who Richard Simmons is – he was on every TV set during the 1980s and ’90s. Heck, my mom used to work out to his videos. From talk shows to his ultra-famous Sweatin’ to the Oldies video tapes, Simmons made a mark as the world’s most memorable exercise advocate. And then, he suddenly disappeared.
In 2017, Simmons became the spotlight of the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, which detailed filmmaker Dan Taberski’s attempts to lure the former fitness guru out of what seemed to be a self-imposed three-year exile. The man who rocked many people’s worlds with his sequined tank tops and flamboyant personality actually has quite a story to tell, and it all begins with a childhood that essentially made him the man we all came to know and admire.
Before Richard Simmons became a household name, he was known as “Dickie” Simmons, a praline seller in his neighborhood. His birth name, however, was Milton Teagle Simmons, and he was born in 1948 to “show business parents” and raised in a very religious household in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Growing up, he helped his parents get by financially by taking visitors through the St. Louis Cathedral as a guide at the famed, haunted Musée Conti wax museum.
But his first-ever gig was when he was eight, when he would hit the street corners of the French Quarter to sell sweets from Leah’s Pralines. According to his childhood friends, Dickie was “hilarious” — always teasing, joking and running around.
But Dickie was overweight as a kid and teased mercilessly by his classmates. For those who don’t know, the food in New Orleans has lots of rich gumbo, muffuletta sandwiches, king cake, bananas foster, banana bread pudding — all the good stuff. For Simmons, all the comfort food was readily available, on every corner, and the boy ate to dull the pain.
Antoinette DiPiazza, a close friend of Simmons’ told PEOPLE that she could always tell when Simmons was trying to hold back tears. “I felt for him, the boys would just pick on him because of his weight and during gym class and stuff,” she recalled. She also remembers him as “one of the nicest, sweetest, most humane people” she knows.
As Simmons got larger, he became a bigger target at Cor Jesu High, the Catholic school he attended in the city. By the time he graduated from high school, he weighed about 270 lbs. Simmons said that he was “mucho big – You know how they teach you early on that ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you?’ Well, that’s a lie,” he told The New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1983.
“But who has the last laugh now,” he added with pride. Eventually, Simmons left his days as “Dickie” behind him and started his massive fitness empire, making millions in the process while also gaining thousands of devoted followers.
Remember, Simmons was raised in a religious household, which evidently impacted him and the initial choices he made for his early career. His father was Methodist and worked as a master of ceremonies before he started working in thrift stores. His mother was Russian Jewish and worked as a traveling fan dancer before she started working as a cosmetics saleswoman.
After graduating from high school, he went to a Dominican seminary in Iowa for nearly two years before he decided to leave. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said. Not only did he note his weight, but his “loud” persona as being less than fitting for the work of a priest.
Simmons spoke of his food addiction which started at the age of four. By the age of five, he said he knew his weight was perceived negatively. At the age of 15, he already weighed 182 pounds. Simmons said he also tried getting into medicine but discovered that he just couldn’t handle all the “dead bodies and blood.”
He also dipped his feet in cosmetics and fashion illustration, and as an art student in 1968, he had appeared among the “freak show” characters in the Fellini film Satyricon. Eventually, he found his footing in the fitness industry, opening the Anatomy Asylum exercise studio in 1975.
Simmons once told The Tampa Bay Times that he adopted the name Richard after one of his uncles who paid for his college tuition. In 1981, he told The New York Times that he worked as a “fat model” in Europe in the late ’60s. Then, one day, he found a handwritten note stuck to his car.
“Fat people die young,” the note read. “Please don’t die. Anonymous.” Simmons, who was 268 lbs. at that point, was rattled by the message. The note impacted him so severely that he developed an eating disorder, surviving on nothing but water and lettuce for over two months.
He dropped from 268 to 112 lbs. through a regimen of pills, hypnosis, bulimia and anorexia. As a result, his hair fell out and he spent $13,000 to tighten the loose skin on his face. Still, that letter saved his life, which he repeatedly attested to over the years.
He realized that such an extreme diet wasn’t sustainable and extremely unhealthy. While he spent time recovering in the hospital, he read books on nutrition. During those days of rehabilitation, he saw his path forward: He was going to champion the overweight.
He developed a new philosophy: “Love yourself, move your body and watch your portions.” He then moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and started his new life’s mission. At first, he got a job as the maître d’hôtel at Derek’s, a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
During this time, his interest in fitness became his passion. But he noticed that exercise studios favored the already fit customer. He noticed that there was little help for those, like him, who needed to get fit from an already unhealthy state.
“I saw the rich eat,” Simmons told Los Angeles Magazine. “I saw them drink. I saw them fall down in stupors. I realized they had bad breath. I saw marriages fall apart. I saw divorce. I saw accidents. I saw careers in Hollywood tumble. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is self-destruction time. I can’t be like this.'”
In 1975, he opened a salad bar restaurant called Ruffage with an adjoining fitness studio. At first, his early clientele included the likes of Paul Newman, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand. As for the overweight customers who joined, he would run after them and chant, “Thighs, thighs, go away, give them all to Doris Day!”
Until 1978, Simmons chose to wear all black, all the time. “I was in mourning,” he told to The Washington Post in 1981, “for the fat people of America.” And so, he established gyms, and his work and new life mission helped him lose 123 lbs. He later opened his own exercise studio that he called “The Anatomy Asylum” – a place where the emphasis was on healthy eating, proper portions and enjoyable exercise in a supportive atmosphere.
His restaurant was removed once the focus of the Asylum shifted to exercise alone. He later renamed the studio “Slimmons,” and the establishment continued to serve thousands of people in Beverly Hills. The place eventually closed down in 2016.
Back in the ’80s, no video store was complete without an entire section devoted to fitness. Next to Simmons’ tapes were those of industry stars like Jake Steinfeld and Tony Little as well as Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Almost all his tapes involved perfectly proportioned motivators and models leading viewers through rigorous workout routines.
By 1988, Simmons started his “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” series, when he decided to populate his stage with regular people – not fitness models. The fitness guru noticed that consumers appreciated that he wasn’t holding them up to a fitness magazine ideal. The Sweatin’ series went on to sell 25 million copies.
Simmons was such a star that he once replaced a major TV personality during the ‘80s. In 1987, TV distributor Lorimar tried to capitalize on the home-shopping craze with Value Television. You might remember the one-hour show where people at home could place orders via telephone for featured products.
The co-host of the show was Jeopardy!’s very own Alex Trebek (who passed away in 2020). When the ratings turned out to be less than flattering, they fired the game show host and replaced him with the ever-so entertaining Simmons. Still, it didn’t work out and the show was canceled a few months later.
Starting in 1979, Simmons appeared on ABC’s General Hospital as a fitness instructor. That’s when he started making personal appearances at shopping malls along with the soap opera cast. Simmons was so amazed by the sheer number of people that he could reach in these malls that he continued even after leaving General Hospital in the early ‘80s.
“I travel almost 300 days a year,” he stated back in 1991. “I do mostly shopping malls, because everyone will come to a shopping mall, no matter what they weigh, no matter their economic structure, no matter what they drive. The malls are the meeting places of America. And so that’s where I go.”
There were times during his early career that he may have been just a tad overzealous. Simmons has confessed to his tendency to confront total strangers over some of their dietary choices. He told People in 1981, “I’ll see an overweight woman eating a butterscotch sundae, and I’ll sit at her table and say, ‘What is this?’”
He admitted to doing the same when he used to work at his early Los Angeles eatery – the one he called Ruffage – in 1975. He would sit down with his very own customers and tell them if they needed to lose weight.
In 2004, at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, a fellow passenger made a sarcastic remark about Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies tapes from back in the day. According to the police, the passenger spotted Simmons and yelled out, “Hey, everybody, it’s Richard Simmons. Let’s drop our bags and rock to the ‘50s!”
Simmons, then 55, saw it as heckling and didn’t appreciate it one bit. He reportedly walked over and slapped the man across the face. Simmons told police that he “had to b***h slap” the man, who then chose to press charges against the fitness star. He was cited with misdemeanor assault, but the case was later settled and dropped.
You might have seen Simmons on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows, where he came on frequently as a guest. Letterman played the “straight man” to Simmons’ hyper antics. But in 2000, Simmons took a break from Letterman after the comedian playfully sprayed Simmons (who was dressed as a turkey) with a fire extinguisher.
Why did he do such a thing? Well, Simmons was also playing around when he grabbed Letterman as if to give him a kiss or a hug, prompting the host to fire the extinguisher. He may have been playing around, but it prompted an actual asthma attack. Simmons had such a hard time breathing that the paramedics were called.
Simmons was so upset by the incident that he refused to return to the show for six years. He finally made his comeback in November 2006. And believe it or not, Letterman once again set him up for a prank. As Simmons was showing off a steamer branded with his name, Letterman placed a tray under the steamer which Simmons didn’t think belonged there.
When he turned the steamer on, the tray exploded and caught fire, and Simmons fled. Still, he took it fairly lightly, even joking that he “felt like Michael Jackson” (referring to an incident where Jackson’s hair was set on fire by a pyrotechnics accident).
As his name and fame were growing, Simmons became a fixture on TV and in print. In a profile for People in November 1981, he mentioned that he was getting 25,000 to 30,000 letters every single day, and that he tried to meet as many of his fans as possible.
“The day I don’t love any of this,” he said, “I’ll walk away.” Fast forward to 2014, and Richard Simmons is gone. The Washington Post did a profile on the now “missing” fitness guru in 2017, noting the felt absence of a man who inspired the world for decades. By 2014, his fitness studio in Beverly Hills was shuttered.
Even with all his fame and fortune, he was still treated as a punchline. David Letterman wasn’t the only one who pranked him. The King of Radio, Howard Stern, would also needle Simmons until he ran out of the studio in tears.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show, and the two even had a brief friendship off the air. But despite their apparent friendship, Stern would repeatedly insult him. At one point, Simmons resolved never to come back. But he did return to his show in 2006, 2012, and finally in 2013.
Inside the studio lay the ruins of a once lively scene – debris, insulation, drywall, and a lonely scale where his students once measured pounds. “I knew him very well, but I don’t know what happened to him,” is what Germen Helleon, the owner of a hair salon next door on Civic Center Drive, said.
If you take a short drive up into the Hollywood Hills, you’ll find his estate. And what an estate, too, with its cream-colored walls, white Corinthian pillars, and lace curtains. His Range Rover sits behind the white iron gate.
There’s no buzzer, but there is a mailbox that’s just a miniature copy of the house itself. And it’s sealed shut. Nowadays, star-seeking tourists sit in vans that pass his house, barely stopping. But in the past, Simmons was known to run out of his house to greet those celebrity gawkers.
For some reason, on February 15, 2014, Simmons didn’t show up to the regular $12 exercise class that he teaches at his studio, Slimmons. It wasn’t just his work that he suddenly cut off – he also cut off contact with friends and hasn’t been seen in public since that mid-February mark.
One of his regular students, filmmaker-writer Dan Taberski, decided to launch a podcast called “Missing Richard Simmons,” and for a while in 2017, it was the No. 1 podcast on iTunes in America, Australia, Canada and Britain.
“I think he’s important,” Taberski stated in Episode One, where he explains the reason for invading Simmons’ privacy in this journey of his. Not only is he important – he’s a true original. Today, we have cross fit obsessives and YouTube, but back then, it was Richard Simmons who was selling positivity to America.
Simmons was a popular go-to guest on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue, as well as on David Letterman. He was a regular face on General Hospital and, in 1980, The Richard Simmons Show debuted. Within a year, it was airing on about 200 stations.
His show featured comedy sketches, exercise, and audience discussions about anything from prenatal nutrition to hyperactivity in children. Simmons described his show as a mix between I Love Lucy, Queen for a Day and Lassie. (You gotta admit, the man was pretty funny, too).
The year his show debuted, he wrote a book, Richard Simmons’ Never-Say-Diet Book, which was a bestseller for more than a year. By the end of the decade, his Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos started appearing on the shelves.
Suddenly, people were seeing something unprecedented – overweight Americans doing aerobics with Simmons onstage. “I work for the underdogs: the obese, the people in wheelchairs, the elderly,” he told The Toronto Star at the time. “I adore Jane Fonda, but she has Stepford Wives with perfect bodies. I use real people.”
We know now that he was making a fortune in the process. His second Sweatin’ tape sold 1.5 million copies, which brought some real competition to Jane Fonda’s (boringly titled) “Workout” video. Over his career, Simmons claimed that he helped “the world population lose 12 million lbs.”
He also helped people gain something – self-love. He would throw in the occasional aerobic instruction of “Now hug yourself!” According to The Washington Post’s Dan Zak, Simmons was Oprah before Oprah was. Richards was saying, “Let’s move” before Michelle Obama even graduated college.
One of Simmons’ friends was Taberski, who always showed up to his fitness classes. Less than two months before he disappeared, Simmons was on CNN to speak about his new single, a dance song called Hair Do.
The conversation slowly turned into an on-air therapy session. “What do you say to yourself in the mirror in the morning?” news anchor Brooke Baldwin asked him. That’s when he started tearing up. His response: “I say, ‘Try to help more people,’ because there are more obese children and teenagers, young adults and seniors in the world right now — more than ever in the history of the United States.”
Six weeks later, the man was a no-show. His vanishing from the public led to a number of rumors and conspiracy theories. One theory referred to the then-68-year-old (he’s now in his 70s) as entering his “Greta Garbo phase” and simply wanting to be left alone.
Another (wackier) theory holds that he was being held hostage by his long-time housekeeper, who is supposedly a witch. There’s also the assumption that since he fought depression most of his life, he’s now losing his mind. Another theory is that his knees have paid the price and he can’t bear to be seen debilitated after a lifetime of dancing to the oldies.
As fun as the rumors can be, everyone who knows Simmons has denied such claims. “Richard is not missing,” Tom Estey, his long-time publicist, wrote in an email. “He is simply willingly living his life outside the public eye.”
Then, in April 2017, Simmons came out of the bushes to announce that he is indeed not missing – that he’s alive and well – and not being held hostage (squashing the nanny kidnapping theory). “I just sort of wanted to be a little bit of a loner for a while,” he told the Today show. “Right now, I just want to sort of just take care of me.”
One of the biggest questions about Richard Simmons concerns his sexuality. Interestingly, he’s never publicly spoken about his sexual orientation. What we do know, though, is that he’s suing the National Enquirer, Radar Online and American Media, Inc. for libel and defamation.
Since 2017, Simmons has been targeting a series of “cruel and malicious” articles which suggested he was transitioning from a male to a female – yet another theory of his three-year disappearance. These articles claimed such things as “shocking sex surgery,” breast implants, hormone treatments and consultations on medical castration.
In fact, Simmons’ case is the first-ever defamation lawsuit over published reports of a sex change. He’s also framing it as a stand for dignity and one’s right to have a gender identity. Apparently, some of the information these publications received was from someone who stalked Simmons for years.
Since 2015, Mauro Oliveira has “blackmailed, extorted and stalked” Simmons for several years with the intention of destroying his career and reputation, according to a statement. Oliveira reportedly offered her information in exchange for a fee. He’s also the one who started the nanny-kidnapping rumor.
According to Taberski, Simmons’ fitness class “is super gay” – and this is coming from a regular of the group. While he has never officially stated his sexuality preference, he’s made clever little mentions, like when he told Wendy Williams that “at any moment [he] could go up in flames.”
It’s ironic considering Simmons is considered by many to be a gay icon. “He was never embarrassed about who he was,” Taberski asserted. “I think gay people, in the best possible scenario, really love that about him, and aspire to not be ashamed and celebrate that.”
In June 2018, Simmons (and his live-in caretaker/driver, Theresa Reveles) sued a private investigator, Scott Brian Mathews, in L.A. for allegedly placing a tracking device on the only vehicle Simmons used for transportation for over a year (such tracking violates California law). A month later, Simmons revised his claim, stipulating that the investigator was hired by In Touch Weekly.
According to the lawsuit, Mathews planted the tracker to see whether Simmons was visiting hospitals in connection with the rumored gender transition, which was apparently dismissed on free speech grounds. Simmons’ case against Mathews is still ongoing (as of July 2021).
On Taberski’s podcast, he interviews a number of people who either personally know or admire Simmons. One of them is a woman named Kathy who met the fitness star in 1994 in front of a Nebraska factory that made low-fat cookies. Kathy recalled the moment she met him.
He walked right up to her and said, “Hi!” and she just burst into tears. “I felt pretty hopeless. I was morbidly obese, and I was in my 30s. I just felt like there wasn’t anything for me in my life. I wasn’t taking care of Kathy.”
She gave Simmons a note that said, “I love you,” with a big heart and her phone number. The next Sunday afternoon, Kathy picked up the phone and yes, it was Richard Simmons on the other end, singing! He called her just about every Sunday after that.
“I was a 450-lb. hairdresser. All of a sudden, Richard Simmons jumps in my life — who is full of color — and I feel, suddenly, hope,” she recalled. Over the years of talking to her mentor, Kathy lost 200 lbs. The point Taberski was making was that he helped thousands of people. So, doesn’t he deserve some alone time without any harassment?
“What we’re doing is something of a grand gesture,” 43-year-old Taberski stated. “We are reminding him that what he did was important.” His podcast is his message, akin to the one Simmons found on his car all those years ago.
“Not to worry, Richard’s fine,” Simmons said when he showed up on the Today show in 2017. “You haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll come back, and I’ll come back strong.” And I don’t know about you, but I believe the man.
What keeps Simmons “fine” is likely his dogs
Simmons has been a devoted Dalmatian owner since he can remember. Whenever he has to leave town, he calls his house each night to talk to the dogs and sing to them. Some of the dogs are named after characters from Gone With the Wind” (Scarlett, Pittypat, and Melanie).
One of the dogs named Hattie was Simmons’ constant companion – one of the Dalmatians that he took everywhere with him, including to his L.A. exercise studio. In 2014, Hattie, who’d been with him for 20 years or so, died, and the loss devastated him.