Missing: Richard Simmons

Richard Simmons on Capitol Hill in 2008. He has not been seen in public since 2014.
Richard Simmons on Capitol Hill in 2008. He has not been seen in public since 2014. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

LOS ANGELES • On Feb 15, 2014, flamboyant fitness guru Richard Simmons did not show up to teach his regular US$12 (S$17) exercise class at his studio in Beverly Hills, which was called Slimmons. He cut off contact with friends and has not been seen in public since.

One of his regular students was an actor-writer named Dan Taberski, who last month launched a podcast called Missing Richard Simmons. It is currently the No. 1 podcast on iTunes in the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain.

"I think he's important," Taberski says in Episode 1, justifying his loving invasion of Simmons' privacy.

Simmons, 68, is a gaudy rhinestone embedded in American culture: a true original whose commercial sorcery summoned the forces of positive thinking and negative self-imaging.

He was born a fat kid in Louisiana, three years after the war ended. His parents, a retired vaudeville duo, were impossible to please and he believed they preferred his "perfect" older brother. So he ate his feelings.

At 17, he moved to Florence to study art. A television agent discovered him at an outdoor cafe and put him in commercials for yogurt, husky-sized clothing and Italian tyres. After doing a promotion at a supermarket in the winter of 1968, Simmons found an unsigned letter on the windshield of his Fiat. "Fat people die young. Please don't die."

The letter saved his life, he has said over the years, but not before imperiling it. Over 21/2 months, he dropped from 121.6 to 50.8kg through a breakneck regimen of pills, hypnosis, bulimia and extreme fasting.

His hair fell out. He spent US$13,000 to tighten the loose skin on his face. While recovering in the hospital, he read books on nutrition and saw his path forward: He would be the buoyant champion of the overweight and he would show people how to become and remain fit without ruining their mood or health.

He returned to the US in 1971. In 1975, he opened a health-food restaurant in Beverly Hills named Ruffage, with an adjoining fitness studio. The clientele included Paul Newman, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand.

Taberski, a former producer for The Daily Show, narrates his search for why Simmons fled the public. In his podcast, he plumbs Simmons' biography, interviews long-time friends and beneficiaries, and arrives at an irrefutable and overlooked truth: Simmons changed and saved countless lives.

One of Taberski's interviewees is a woman named Kathy who met Simmons in 1994 on the front steps of a Nebraska factory that made low-fat cookies he sold at Walmart.

"He just walked right up to me and said, 'Hi!' And, of course, I burst into tears," Kathy says on the podcast.

"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."

On a whim, she gave Simmons a note that said "I love you", adorned with a big heart and her phone number.

One Sunday afternoon later, she picked up the phone and he was on the other end, singing. He called her nearly every Sunday after that. He became her pro-bono weightloss coach for years.

"You have to understand: I am in Nebraska," Kathy says. "I was a 450lb (204kg) hairdresser. All of a sudden, Richard Simmons - who is full of colour - jumps in my life and I feel, suddenly, hope."

Over years of talking with Simmons, Kathy lost 90.7kg. Over Simmons' career, Taberski reports, he did something similar for thousands of other people.

"What we're doing is something of a grand gesture," Taberski, 43, said on the phone recently.

"We are reminding him that what he did was important and that he helped countless people and they love him for it. There's something about him, maybe, that he doesn't believe and hopefully, this will jar that part of him."

The podcast, produced by First Look Media, has corporate sponsors, but Taberski says that is in the service of telling Simmons' story and finding out if he is okay.

The podcast is like the note left on Simmons' Fiat in the 1960s, except this time, it is signed by many.

A year ago, after a New York Daily News investigation into his disappearance, Simmons called the Today show to squelch the rumours.

"Not to worry, Richard's fine," he promised.

"You haven't seen the last of me. I'll come back, and I'll come back strong."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2017, with the headline 'Missing: Richard Simmons'. Print Edition | Subscribe