At a loss to where he is

Fit­ness guru Richard Sim­mons was last seen in pub­lic in 2014. A new pod­cast mulls over his many mys­ter­ies.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY DAN ZAK IN LOS AN­GE­LES

Richard Sim­mons is gone. His fit­ness stu­dio in Bev­erly Hills is shut­tered. On its stoop is a sun-bleached edi­tion of the Bev­erly Hills Courier from Jan­uary. In­side is the wreck­age of a liveli­hood: piles of de­bris, tongues of pink in­su­la­tion, a dust­ing of pul­ver­ized dry­wall on the bal­let bar­res. In the mid­dle of it all, a for­lorn scale where his stu­dents mea­sured pounds sac­ri­ficed to the oldies.

“I knew him very well, but I don’t know what hap­pened to him,” says Ger­men Helleon, the pro­pri­etor of a hair sa­lon next door, on Civic Cen­ter Drive.

A short drive up into the Hol­ly­wood Hills is the Sim­mons manse. It is the color of but­ter­cream. White Corinthian pil­lars di­vide its Gre­cian fa­cade. The lace cur­tains are drawn. A Range Rover sits in the short cres­cent drive­way be­hind a white iron gate. There is no buzzer, and the mail­box — a minia­ture copy of the house it­self — ap­pears to be sealed shut. A red van of star-seek­ing tourists idles briefly, barely stop­ping. In the past, Sim­mons would scurry out of his house to greet the gawk­ers. He was a par­tic­u­larly friendly mam­mal on the Hol­ly­wood sa­fari.

Now, noth­ing. There’s some­thing col­or­ful in the win­dow at the peak of the house. Bal­loons? One of his many feath­ered cos­tumes? Is Richard up there, in the at­tic, watch­ing us now? (Is he wear­ing a boa?)

On Feb. 15, 2014, the flam­boy­ant fit­ness guru did not show up to teach his reg­u­lar $12 ex­er­cise class at his stu­dio, which was called Slim­mons. He cut off con­tact with friends and hasn’t been seen in pub­lic since. One of his reg­u­lar stu­dents was a film­maker-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’s pri­vacy.

Richard Sim­mons is many things: manic, bril­liant, trou­bled, tough, hi­lar­i­ous, ridicu­lous. But im­por­tant, too?

Mil­ton Tea­gle Sim­mons was born a fat kid in Louisiana, three years after World War II ended. His par­ents, a re­tired vaude­ville duo, were im­pos­si­ble to please, and Mil­ton be­lieved they pre­ferred his “per­fect” older brother. So he ate his feel­ings. Mil­ton re­named him­self “Richard” around the age of 10 to im­prove his self-im­age, but he was ridiculed by school­mates for his weight. By his teenage years, he was a nearly 200-pound run­away. At 17, he moved to Florence to study art. A TV agent dis­cov­ered him at an out­door cafe and put him in com­mer­cials for yo­gurt, husky-sized cloth­ing and Ital­ian tires. He played a mu­si­cian in the orgy scene in Fellini’s “Satyri­con.” 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’s said over the years, but not be­fore im­per­il­ing it. Over two and a half months, Sim­mons dropped from 268 to 112 pounds through a break­neck reg­i­men of pills, hyp­no­sis, bu­limia and ex­treme fast­ing. His hair fell out. He spent $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 states in 1971 and be­came a maitre d’ at a posh L.A. res­tau­rant.

“I saw the rich eat,” Sim­mons told Los An­ge­les mag­a­zine later. “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 health­food res­tau­rant in Bev­erly Hills named Ruffage, with an ad­join­ing fit­ness stu­dio. The clien­tele in­cluded Paul New­man, Diana Ross and Bar­bra Streisand. He would run at fat cus­tomers and chant, “Thighs, thighs, go away, give them all to Doris Day!”

Un­til 1978, Sim­mons wore all black, all the time.

“I was in mourn­ing,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1981, “for the fat peo­ple of Amer­ica.”

Sim­mons 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 cast his spell us­ing old-fash­ioned vaude­ville tech­niques that he must have in­her­ited. Watch his low-im­pact aer­o­bics on YouTube and see a retro an­ti­dote to the bleed­ing palms of gen­er­a­tion CrossFit.

Amer­ica hasn’t had much use for Richard Sim­mons over the past 20 years, but the 20 years prior saw a re­mark­able run.

After mak­ing a name for him­self among Hol­ly­wood heav­ies, Sim­mons be­came a go-to guest on Merv Grif­fin, Mike Dou­glas and Phil Don­ahue. He made reg­u­lar cameos on “Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal.” In 1980, “The Richard Sim­mons Show” de­buted, and within a year it was air­ing on nearly 200 sta­tions. It fea­tured com­edy sketches, ex­er­cise ses­sions and au­di­ence dis­cus­sions about pre­na­tal nu­tri­tion and hy­per­ac­tiv­ity in chil­dren. Sim­mons de­scribed the show as a blend of “I Love Lucy,” “Queen for a Day” and “Lassie.”

In 1980, he wrote “Richard Sim­mons’ Never-Say-Diet Book,” which was a best­seller for over a year. The “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” videos started com­ing out in 1989 and fea­tured av­er­age over­weight Amer­i­cans do­ing aer­o­bics along­side Sim­mons. Men with thick glasses and jig­gly guts, women with hoop ear­rings and flabby arms — there was your plumber, your sec­re­tary, smil­ing along with Richard Sim­mons, shak­ing out the joy and shak­ing off the pounds.

“I work for the un­der­dogs: the obese, the peo­ple in wheel­chairs, the el­derly,” Sim­mons told the Toronto Star at the time. “I adore Jane Fonda [but] she has Step­ford Wives with per­fect bod­ies. I use real peo­ple.”

He made a for­tune in the process. The sec­ond “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” tape sold 1.5 mil­lion copies, ri­val­ing Fonda’s “Work­out.” Sim­mons claimed that over his ca­reer, he helped the world pop­u­la­tion lose 12 mil­lion pounds.

He also helped the world gain some­thing. One of his oc­ca­sional aer­o­bic in­struc­tions was “Now hug your­self!”

Richard Sim­mons was, in some ways, Oprah be­fore Oprah was. He set­tled on a “Let’s move” ethos be­fore Michelle Obama even grad­u­ated col­lege. In 2008, Sim­mons turned a con­gres­sional hear­ing on child­hood obe­sity into a de facto sup­port group.

“I’m still wait­ing to get picked for the con­gres­sional bas­ket­ball team,” ad­mit­ted com­mit­tee chair­man Ge­orge Miller, a Demo­cratic House mem­ber from Cal­i­for­nia.

But even at the height of wealth and suc­cess, he re­mained some­thing of a punch­line — the sissy boy who couldn’t help but at­tract bul­lies. David Let­ter­man pranked him dur­ing dozens of ap­pear­ances. Howard Stern would nee­dle him un­til he fled the stu­dio in tears.

All the while, Sim­mons made count­less friends — in­clud­ing fu­ture pod­caster Taber­ski — through his reg­u­lar fit­ness classes in Bev­erly Hills.

A month and a half be­fore he dis­ap­peared, Sim­mons was on CNN to talk about his new sin­gle, a ridicu­lous dance song called “Hair Do,” but the con­ver­sa­tion turned into an on-air ther­apy ses­sion — for Richard Sim­mons.

“What do you say to your­self in the mir­ror in the morn­ing?” an­chor Brooke Bald­win asked.

Sim­mons pursed his lips and looked away from the cam­era. His eyes moist­ened.

“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,” said Sim­mons, se­quins sparkling on his tank top. “And when you’re out of work, a dol­lar ham­burger looks great. And when you get a di­vorce or lose a job, you re­ally just don’t want to take good care of your­self.”

And then a ver­bal slide-to-theright.

“But just re­mem­ber: You’re one of a kind,” Sim­mons said into the cam­era, sound­ing like he was talk­ing to him­self. “And God could have made you a but­ter­fly that lasts three months, but he made you a hu­man be­ing.”

Six weeks later, poof.

There have been ru­mors and con­spir­acy the­o­ries: 1. Richard Sim­mons, now 68, has per­haps en­tered his Greta Garbo phase and just wants to be left alone.

2. Richard Sim­mons is al­legedly be­ing held hostage by his long­time house­keeper, who is also, sup­pos­edly, a witch.

3. Richard Sim­mons, who has fought de­pres­sion most of his life, is now also sup­pos­edly los­ing his men­tal fac­ul­ties — a down­ward spi­ral said to be prompted by the death of Hat­tie, his beloved 17-year-old Dal­ma­tian.

4. Richard Sim­mons’s knees are per­haps fi­nally shot and it’s spec­u­lated he can’t bear to be seen en­fee­bled after a life­time of pep.

In the ab­sence of sat­is­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion, the pub­lic has supplied its own in­trigue, which has been cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nied by the few peo­ple who re­main in his or­bit.

“Richard is not miss­ing,” his long­time pub­li­cist, Tom Estey, writes in an email. “He is sim­ply will­ingly liv­ing his life out­side the pub­lic eye.”

A year ago, after a New York Daily News in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his dis­ap­pear­ance, Sim­mons called the “To­day” show to squelch the ru­mors. His voice, nor­mally a joy­ous squeal, was soft and quiet. He was healthy, he said, and un­der no one’s con­trol.

“I just sort of wanted to be a lit­tle bit of a loner for a while,” he told Sa­van­nah Guthrie. “Right now, I just want to sort of just take care of me.”

And then, un­prompted, he gave Amer­ica a clue to his emo­tional where­abouts.

“Sur­vival has al­ways meant a lot when you’re an over­weight kid and you’re made fun of and you’re put down,” Sim­mons said. “Some of that stuff never leaves you, Sa­van­nah. It’s sort of like a shadow, like Pe­ter Pan.”

Richard Sim­mons isn’t miss­ing, at least not in the le­gal sense.

But he is be­ing missed.

Taber­ski, a for­mer pro­ducer for “The Daily Show,” nar­rates his search for why Sim­mons fled the pub­lic. In his pod­cast, he plumbs Sim­mons’s bi­og­ra­phy, in­ter­views long­time friends and ben­e­fi­cia­ries, and ar­rives at an ir­refutable and“We are re­mind­ing him that what he did was im­por­tant.”

over­looked truth: Richard 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, Kathy picked up the phone and Sim­mons was on the other end, singing. He called her nearly ev­ery Sun­day after that. He be­came her pro-bono weight-loss coach for years.

“You have to un­der­stand: I am in Ne­braska,” Kathy says. “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.”

Some­times, Sim­mons would call at night, in a con­tem­pla­tive mood, and the roles would re­verse. Kathy would lis­ten, soothe, en­cour­age. A Gre­cian man­sion was no re­place­ment for a sym­pa­thetic ear.

Over years of talk­ing with Sim­mons, Kathy lost 200 pounds. Over Sim­mons’s ca­reer, Taber­ski re­ports, he did some­thing sim­i­lar for thou­sands of other peo­ple — peo­ple who have been won­der­ing where Richard went and if Richard is okay. On the pod­cast, Taber­ski wres­tles with an im­por­tant ques­tion: What does Richard Sim­mons owe any­body? Can’t he van­ish with­out ex­pla­na­tion, with­out be­ing hounded?

Yes, Taber­ski says. But that choice can’t sup­press or erase the geyser of good will that Sim­mons un­leashed over the decades.

“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’s in the ser­vice of telling Sim­mons’ story and find­ing out if he’s okay. “If I can do all that and at the same time make sure that the peo­ple help­ing me make it don’t ac­tu­ally lose money,” Taber­ski said, “then I will be a happy guy.”

The pod­cast is like the note left on Sim­mons’ Fiat in the ’60s, ex­cept this time it’s signed by many.

Episode 4 came out March 8. Taber­ski, who used to be a din­ner guest of Sim­mons’s, has been in touch with his man­ager but hasn’t heard from the man him­self. Taber­ski doesn’t know how the pod­cast will end, but he’s al­ready ar­rived at some un­ex­pected con­clu­sions.

“Spend­ing so much time think­ing and talk­ing about Richard Sim­mons and re­ally un­der­stand­ing who he is — or try­ing to — has re­ally showed me just the im­por­tance of kind­ness,” Taber­ski said.

Or self-kind­ness. Kathy just needed to take care of Kathy. And Richard, per­haps, just needed to take care of Richard.

“Not to worry, Richard’s fine,” Sim­mons promised on the “To­day” show last year. “You haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll come back, and I’ll come back strong.”

Dan Taber­ski, cre­ator of the “Miss­ing Richard Sim­mons” pod­cast.

FIRST LOOK ME­DIA

Dan Taber­ski, a reg­u­lar stu­dent of the fit­ness in­struc­tor, launched the “Miss­ing Richard Sim­mons” pod­cast. It is the No. 1 pod­cast on iTunes in the United States, Aus­tralia, Canada and Bri­tain.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST/MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Richard Sim­mons on Capi­tol Hill in 2008. He be­came an an­tiobe­sity cru­sader with a fo­cus on boost­ing self­es­teem.

COUR­TESY OF DAN TABER­SKI

Film­maker-writer Dan Taber­ski, right, was one of Sim­mons’s reg­u­lar stu­dents.

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