Saturday morning on a quiet side street in Beverly Hills. Audis and Priuses deposit a small squadron of weekend warriors in leotards and gym shorts at the front door of a low-slung building that houses Slimmons, the nearly eponymous exercise studio run by fitness maven Richard Simmons.
It's more than an hour before the start of the 75-minute aerobics class that Simmons teaches every weekend, and already the faithful are flocking. They come with sweatbands and homemade T-shirts that pay homage to their hero. They come with and without tattoos, with and without wrinkles, with and without love handles. They're gay and straight, young and old, and everything in between.
Several dozen people squeeze into the lobby. The ratio is 75-25, women. Most are of a certain age and girth. Some are model-gorgeous. A young man with a thick beard of the type seen in Brooklyn, "Portlandia," and the San Francisco Giants locker-room waits with his wife and parents. A middle-aged couple has driven from Orange County to celebrate the wife's birthday. A group of five women plays cards, happily snipping at each other.
Richard's familiar face peers from the wall, affixed to the various products that built a fitness empire: VHS cassette tapes in sun-bleached cardboard covers, DVDs, books, color photographs of him leading hundreds of his acolytes. For sale are shirts, towels and trinkets emblazoned with his caricature. The color scheme is the faded pastels of Miami Vice, augmented by white Christmas lights.
Suddenly, Richard walks in the room. His day-glo orange tank-top glitters with patterned crystals. The shirt matches his shorts – those trademark striped shorts that always seem a bit, well, short. He wears white tights, white socks and a gleaming pair of white New Balance sneakers. Covering most of his face is a pair of oversized, goofball glasses from the early Elton John collection.
At 64, he is a bit stooped. His kinetic hair, as familiar as Don King's, is not as full as it once was. His face is no longer youthfully cherubic. But his arms are wiry strong, and his energy level is switched to ON. He personally greets everyone in the room and breaks into song: a rousing chorus of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match!" is followed by "Hello Muddah, Hello, Fadduh."
The energy is contagious. It feels like we're about to go on a cruise.
He approaches me, a complete stranger, takes my face in his hands and kisses me on both cheeks. He smells of expensive moisturizer. He tells a slouching woman to stand tall: "Head up! String on your nipples!" he says, motioning with his hands as if he were raising her breasts with two drawstrings.
The energy is contagious. The chattering gets louder and more animated. It feels like we're about to go on a cruise.
Minutes later, two swinging doors open to reveal a long rectangular space. Mirrors line the walls. A shiny disco ball hangs above the polished hardwood floor. Two ceiling fans and an oversized window fan struggle to cool the room.
We scurry to find an open spot. Simmons fiddles with the stereo system. Music begins to play: Madonna's "Holiday," at volume 12. The crowd is clapping and swaying rhythmically.
Simmons faces the mirror with a mischievous grin. He starts moving. He looks like he's 30.
A countdown, straight out of A Chorus Line: ". . . 5, 6, 7, 8!"
I stand at the rear of the room, looking at the backs of about 75 people. My heart is pumping. It's my first-ever aerobics class.
I missed out on aerobics. Let me clarify that: I ignored it. Too much Spandex and bouncy disco for my taste. Too many headbands, a la John Travolta in Perfect, that god-awful movie in which Travolta, playing a Rolling Stone reporter, infiltrates the Southern California health-club scene. I was more into cotton Tees and the Grateful Dead.
But when I heard that Simmons still – still! – teaches aerobics three times a week, I was intrigued. Along with Jane Fonda, Simmons popularized aerobics, a key component of the fitness boom that began in this country in the early 1970s. His success was outsized: he had his own syndicated TV show, as well as a recurring role on "General Hospital" during its Luke-and-Laura heyday. His diet book was a national bestseller, as were his videos. The "Weight Saint" and his tight Dolfin shorts were a ubiquitous presence on every TV show of the era.
Taking aerobics with Richard Simmons would be like pumping iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger or training for a marathon with Alberto Salazar.
"I LOVE YOU MORE THAN CHINESE FOOD!"
The class begins with Simmons leading us through a series of practiced, high-energy movements. The feet and legs go shuffle-shuffle, side-to-side, punctuated by a kick move or a dip or a stretch. All the while the arms move in syncopation: thrusting upwards or to either side. Then, the motions are reversed.
It's a full-body workout, but mine isn't cooperating. I go left when the pack moves right. When they're raising their arms, mine are at my waist. I never clap at the same time as everyone else. Only when I start to follow the moves of a hefty woman immediately in front of me do I get into a semblance of flow.
Richard turns down the music and screams motivation: "I LOVE YOU MORE THAN CHINESE FOOD!"
Hoots from the floor. He lowers the volume again and, in unison, the class yelps the song's chorus: "It Would Feel Alright!"
I'm positioned by the emergency exit door, which is left open to circulate air into the room. As I twirl to the left, I see a family of Orthodox Jews walk by, on their way to the Chabad center next door. They are dressed for the Sabbath, in dark formal clothes, the men and boys in yarmulkes.
They stare at me as I pivot back into the room.
Richard is yelping: "SWEAT TILL YOUR UNDERPANTS ARE WET!"
It explains a lot about Richard Simmons that he was born and raised in New Orleans. He was the son of entertainers who left their hoofing and singing careers behind to raise two boys in the French Quarter. He was originally named Milton Simmons. He himself changed that in the third grade, first to Dickie and then to Richard.
Simmons became a food addict almost from birth. He gorged on endless po-boys, beignets, muffalettas and fried everything. He sold pralines, another of the Big Easy's sugary treats, on the street corner to make extra money so he could dine at Arnaud's, one of the top restaurants in town. Or, the family would go to the Blue Room, the supper club inside the Roosevelt Hotel, and listen to Liberace, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, and Doris Day.
"While other kids my age began exploring their sexuality, I spent time exploring food," Simmons wrote in "Still Hungry," his autobiography. "Food became sex for me – it became my pleasure. And my taste was maturing. Puberty for me was graduating from Thousand Island salad dressing to Caesar salads. It was like going from hot dogs and hamburgers to beef stroganoff, or from ice cream in a cone to crème brûlée."
He topped out at 268 pounds. He tried every diet and method known to mankind to shed weight: ex-lax, pills, throwing up after meals, starvation, Weight Watchers.
Nothing worked. Between his weight and his high voice, he became the brunt of bullying and harassment. Simmons parried those jibes with comedy and a flamboyant fabulous-ness that is second nature to those who grow up alongside the drag queens, strippers and burlesque dancers, musicians and artists who inhabit the Quarter.
His life changed via an epiphany. A nurse who saw his overweight condition asked Simmons whether he wanted to live or die. He chose life and recovery.
Today, at a lean 136 pounds, the 5’7 Simmons appears to be in superb shape. His pace never flags during the 75-minute class. "Holiday" segues to Aretha's "Freeway of Love," then "I'm So Excited" from the Pointer Sisters.
The beats drive our movements. I'm getting the hang of an important step in aerobics: a sort of jump-pivot that stops your body moving in one direction even as it begins to send you the other way. I'm now only a half-step behind the pack.
Richard interrupts with more motivation: "I DON'T WANT YOUR BABY; I WANT YOUR SWEAT!"
By the time Simmons moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he had shed his excess pounds. He still had never exercised regularly. He searched for a fitness regimen that suited him. He tried yoga and Pilates. Too serious. He trained with Russian gymnasts. Too difficult. He lifted at Vince's Gym, a muscle hangout on Ventura Boulevard run by Vince Gironda. Too strenuous.
He was working as a waiter when a customer told him about an exercise class taught by Gilda Marx from the patio of her home in the San Fernando Valley (and, later, at a studio in Century City). Marx was a tall, lithe dynamo with blond hair. She was married to the son of one of the Marx Brothers.
The number of pounds shed, of bodies and souls made healthy, of hugs exchanged, is incalculable.
Her program combined music and dance steps that made your body shake and sweat. It was Marx who whipped the tushies of L.A.'s top model-actresses into shape, including Susan Anton and Priscilla Presley. Marx worked with Jane Fonda so that the actress could slip (memorably) into a bikini for the film California Suite. (Fonda returned the favor by hiring one of Marx's instructors and launching her own fitness career.)
Simmons took one class with Marx. He loved the atmosphere, but Marx asked him not to return. He was the only male in the class and, supposedly, his non-stop chattering was disruptive. But he had discovered something from Marx's class. Getting in shape did not have to be grim-faced drudgery and eye-popping strain. It could be fun and joyous – and shared with others.
He found a space inside an old Wilson's House of Suede warehouse, just down the street from the police station where the real Beverly Hills cops practice their trade, and opened Ruffage and Anatomy Asylum. The salad bar and fitness studio concept combined the twin obsessions that have consumed Simmons' life.
He opted not to become, as he put it, "the Colonel Sanders of salads." He re-vamped Slimmons, in 1975, exclusively for exercise. He remains at the same location, more than 35 years later. Its well-worn wooden floors have absorbed an ocean of sweat and tears. The number of pounds shed, of bodies and souls made healthy, of hugs exchanged, is incalculable.
My (cotton) T-shirt is drenched as he arranges the class in a large circle. He stands alone in the center and selects three women to join him. They shimmy with him and ape his movements, and everyone applauds when they re-join the group.
He picks three men. He orders them to remove their shirts. They strip down, and all of a sudden a Chippendale’s performance breaks out. Simmons leers at their bodies with mock lust. The crowd roars approval.
The soundtrack changes to "Do That to Me One More Time," from – yes – Captain & Tennille, and Richard cracks a one-liner: "That's what I tell my proctologist!" It's retro, raucous and campy. Actually, is there a word for "beyond campy"? The middle-aged couple from Orange County is beaming, as is the young man with the Sergio Romo beard.
Simmons’ timing was perfect. Dr. Kenneth Cooper had just coined the term "aerobics" to describe a workout that boosted cardiovascular fitness. An old word, "jogging," took on new meaning as Jim Fixx, author of "The Complete Book of Running," and others inspired legions to hit the pavement. In Oregon, track coach Bill Bowerman and one of his former runners, Phil Knight, were experimenting with producing durable, comfortable and fashionable sneakers with a waffle sole. In Venice Beach, a few miles west of Slimmons, an Austrian-born body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger was pumping iron at Joe Gold's gym. "Six packs" didn't just mean beer anymore.
Southern California emerged as the epicenter of this modern-day exercise craze. The public rushed to buy Soloflex machines, health-club memberships, protein shakes. Exercise gurus and personal trainers – physical specimens all -- grinned from magazine covers: Kathy Smith, Karen Voight, Jake Steinfeld, Lou Ferrigno, and others packaged physical fitness as a commodity. They sold the promise that a new, improved body would yield a better you, a notion that resonated during the "Me Decade."
Many promised quick fixes. Others, like Fonda, traded on Hollywood glamour. Big-box gyms with Nautilus stations opened in every neighborhood; their clientele looked like they stepped from a brochure.
Simmons took a different approach. He wasn't particularly chiseled or buff. He was the court jester of exercise, the clown prince of fitness. He oozed the gooey spirit of "Up With People." He used humor, often self-deprecating, to made everyone forget that they were sweating.
It was the antithesis of the "tough love" of Jack LaLanne, the gruff godfather of fitness who zipped his blue pantsuit over his taut body and barked orders. LaLanne dared you to keep up with him and, ultimately, you couldn't. (I once interviewed LaLanne. He scared me so much that I swore off soda. I've never wavered, except for an annual root-beer float on my birthday.)
Slimmons functioned like a social club, and Simmons catered to people much like himself: the chronically overweight and the out-of-shape, the outliers who were too embarrassed about their size to set foot in a gleaming health club, much less stuff themselves into a leotard. He spent hours listening to his clients, and supporting their efforts to lose weight, because he related to them. He understood about food cravings, binge-and-purge routines, and starvation diets. He knew about getting teased and taunted, about feeling insecure and vulnerable.
The abuse was often self-abuse: an inner voice ashamed of one's appearance and lack of appetite control. That's where the final piece of his philosophy came in. Simmons motivated with acceptance. He refused to give up on anyone. He urged each client to "love yourself," to not dwell on the past or the problem, to think positively.
His advice was practical. He advocated watching what you eat (i.e., avoid heavy doses of red meat and sugar), practicing portion control, and exercising regularly. He devised healthy menus for the calorie-conscious. No steroids, no trendy diets, no magic pills. Just disciplined consistency and, always, movement, movement, movement.
"Fame" blares: "I Want to Live Forever! I Want to Learn How to Fly!"
Richard directs us to grab a pair of barbells from boxes along the wall. He demonstrates proper technique for a few lifts. He deepens his voice to mock muscle-heads who eschew aerobic or flexibility workouts, who mistake the appearance of big biceps as an indicator of fitness.
That describes a younger version of myself. I grew up undersized. I was the scrawny guy who got sand kicked in his face in those Charles Atlas ads in the back pages of comic books. I did endless pushups and bench-presses because I believed that a bigger, stronger me would be a more attractive and confident me.
The result: my right shoulder aches constantly. Too much compensation. I choose light barbells so that I can handle these exercises.
Simmons continues with his Catskills comedian schtick. "Are you here with anybody, sir?" he asks one man. When he indicates his mother standing next to him, Simmons asks her her age.
"62?" he says. "You have a great ass for 62. Most 62-year-old asses are flabby, like cottage cheese."
Simmons’ fame peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. His infomercials moved product; like Fonda, he made a fortune peddling workout videos. His "Cruise to Lose" outings sold out. He preached to thousands at malls and conventions and traded quips with Stern, Letterman and Oprah. He acquired the ultimate status symbol in Southern California: a mansion located not far from his studio.
He also acquired detractors. Simmons was mocked for being the antithesis of cool, for traipsing around in those ridiculous shorts. His shrill voice was considered too grating. He had too many hair transplants. He always seemed to be holding the hands of an impossibly overweight woman, the two of them weeping as they discussed her lifelong battle to lose pounds. One critic described him as "the result of a union between Ethel Merman and Jerry Lewis."
In 1990, Simmons was bypassed as chair of the President's Council on Fitness, Sport & Nutrition. President George H. W. Bush appointed Schwarzenegger, an admitted steroid user, to the position, followed by another overtly humungous bodybuilder, Lee Haney.
Implicit was a critique of Simmons’ stylings: the effeminate mannerisms, the obsession with Barbra Streisand and Broadway show tunes. Simmons made for an easy target, especially among those who expect their fitness gurus to have a certain macho swagger.
Simmons has always been reticent about his personal life. His autobiography contains no mention of a partner or love interest (besides food, that is). It's a curious omission for someone who is so open about his weight problems.
Helping others takes so much commitment, he counters, that he has no time for relationships. He has found comfort collecting dolls and Dalmatians. (He has had eight over the years. One remains: 16-year-old Hattie.) He is close to his older brother, who still lives in New Orleans.
With time has come acceptance and respect. In 2006, Simmons was inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame.
LaLanne initially scoffed at Simmons' efforts. Later, when they found themselves working the same health and fitness expos, urging the public to exercise and eat smarter, they struck up a friendship. Simmons was a keynote speaker at LaLanne's memorial service in 2011.
The toning continues. Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" provides backdrop. Then, an anthem from the disco era: Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money."
Helping others takes so much commitment, he counters, that he has no time for relationships.
Simmons instructs us to put away the barbells. We lay on padded mats and towels for stomach crunches and pushups. I welcome the cool-down period and breath deep.
The music is lowered. Simmons puts on reading glasses and addresses us. The rapscallion has disappeared, replaced by a more somber version.
In four classes that I attended at Slimmons, over the course of a month, he touched on myriad topics. He talked about how he suffered a seizure several years ago due to severe dehydration. He was unable to talk and had to learn how to speak again.
The lesson? "Count your blessings. You are one of a kind. There's no one in the world like you. You are amazing."
Another time he said, "I'm 64, and I'm still trying to find peace. Everyone moves so fast today. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Take a moment every day to find peace. Pull over to the side of the road, turn off the radio, and find peace."
He urged us to vote, and not to text and drive. He warned us about eating too much red meat. He provided motivational couplets that he made up in the bath:
"In order to cope
You must have hope."
"Every day you eat
You must get on your feet."
"Plan your meals
And your body will heal."
"Your scale doesn't lie
If you eat pie."
"Don’t drown yourself in pity and sorrow
Please remember there's always tomorrow."
Simmons’ brand of aerobics commands a large audience, especially among Baby Boomers, but he is no longer THE face of fitness in this country. The tattoed and pierced bodies of Generations X and Y have embraced younger mentors (Jillian Michaels, Denise Austin, Harley Pasternak, Tony Horton) and other options: boot camp, Tae Bo, kickboxing, MMA, spinning, P90X, the Elliptical, triathlons, ultra-marathons, vegan and organic diets. Yoga in its many incarnations has entered the mainstream. "The Biggest Loser," a popular reality TV show, chronicles the efforts of overweight people to drop pounds.
In this, Simmons has suffered the fate of every exercise guru who preceded him, from Bernarr Macfadden to LaLanne. Fitness evolves, even if the underlying principles of healthy living, including balanced nutrition and meals and regular exercise, stay the same. Only the package changes, and the proselytizer.
His pace hasn't slowed. He's up at 4 a.m., every day, to say his prayers and count his blessings. He works out daily in his home-gym. He is writing children's books and producing more DVDs and another infomercial. He has embraced Facebook and Twitter. (@TheWeightSaint). His email messages arrive in ALL CAPS.
He recently donned a suit and tie and went to Congress to lobby for physical education in public schools. Budget woes have forced the elimination of Phys. Ed. in many schools. Simmons argues that youth need regular exercise (and better lunches) in the fight against obesity and diabetes. The legislation has stalled.
He teaches aerobics at Slimmons three times a week whenever he is in L.A. (His assistants take charge on the other days.) He wears a different outfit, and a different pair of glasses, for each class. The music always changes: country one day, disco the next. For $12, it's a bargain.
One class I took featured the oldies: "Wooly Bully," "I'm a Believer," "Do You Like Good Music," "Wipeout," "Devil with the Blue Dress," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Born to be Wild." For the cool-down, Frank Sinatra sang "Strangers in the Night."
Great tunes, all of them. I was still a step behind the pack. My arms weren't cooperating with my legs. But at least I was grooving.
"Good Lovin’," that chestnut originally performed by The Rascals, started playing. It was a song the Grateful Dead liked to cover at their shows. I must've sung the words along with Bob Weir, and tens of thousands of other Deadheads, dozens of times.
I started chuckling. Richard Simmons and the Grateful Dead: what could they have in common?
I thought more about it later. Both are iconoclasts – Simmons in fitness, the Dead in music. Both ignored the nay-sayers and carved out a populist niche. Both built devoted fan-bases that proved incredibly lucrative. They followed their passion, cocksure that they knew what worked best. Simmons never abandoned his Dolfin shorts; the Dead never stopped jamming.
The relationship they established with their followers was deep and reciprocal. It was the fans’ enthusiasm and energy – their unabashed and requited love – that inspired and prodded Simmons and the Dead to keep moving and trucking, perhaps long past their expiration dates.
His eyes brim with tears. He looks, at once, exhausted and energized.
Simmons concludes each class by identifying the people who are celebrating a birthday. Everyone sings "Happy Birthday" under his direction. He gives each a miniature Richard Simmons doll.
The room empties slowly. Simmons stays to pose for photos and speak with everyone. His eyes brim with tears. He looks, at once, exhausted and energized.
His class produced a good sweat. My body feels the after-effects of the workout the next day. What I'll remember most is not the physical part, but Richard himself. He is a unique motivator, nudging you to eat right and take care of your body, to concentrate on the little things that add up to overall fitness.
And so, in your way, you do.
The second time I went to Slimmons, which was the second time I was in the same room as Richard, he looked directly at me and said, "You didn't say good-bye to me after class last time, sir. I'm very hurt. I get very insecure."
I hadn't done so because I didn't want to disturb the long line of people waiting to take photos with him. Later, when I interviewed him, he was equally solicitous and anxious.
I will never love again. I get that love by people who care for me.
Does being known as the clown prince of fitness diminish what he does? I wondered. "Absolutely not," he replied. "When the king is upset, he doesn't call for the chef. He doesn't call for the wife. He calls for the little man in the pointed hat. I love comedy. I love having a sense of humor. I had to use that as a child not to get beat up every day because I wasn't Mr. Masculine. That comedy was my sword and my shield. Still is. There is nobody I'm afraid of."
He starts to cry. "Whether they laugh at me or with me, it doesn't matter. Let them laugh loud."
What about the personal sacrifices he's made for his career? "I have loved deeply," he said. "I have lost intensely. I will never love again. I get that love by people who care for me. No, I don't take them to bed, but I take their friendship with me in my heart."
He is weepy. "Everyone should find someone to love. But I guess this little court jester wasn’t supposed to be with someone special.
"My job is very emotional. I have many pains in my heart – I always think that I'm going to have a heart attack. My emotions are bigger than anything about me. I'm not apologizing for that."
I asked him how long he planned on teaching. "I'm going to do this until I combust and God takes me to that little aerobics studio in the sky."
Until then, you can find Richard Simmons at that little aerobics studio in Beverly Hills. Appearing live, three times a week.
". . . and, 5, 6, 7, 8! I LOVE YOU MORE THAN HÄAGEN-DAZS!"
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