Fitness gurus don’t, as a general rule, have long careers. When was the last time you heard anything about Susan Powter, the “Stop the Insanity” lady? Or Tamilee Webb and her “Buns of Steel”? Or Tony Little, “America’s Personal Trainer?” But then there’s Richard Simmons.
During the height of his fame in the 1980s, Simmons was a pop culture juggernaut. He seemed to be literally everywhere; playing himself on General Hospital, getting mercilessly teased by David Letterman on “Late Night,” and showing how much fun a workout could be in his bestselling fitness tape Sweatin’ to the Oldies. He opened his own gym in Beverly Hills called Slimmons, hosted a nationally syndicated (and Emmy winning) variety show, and published nine books, including the 1982 New York Times bestseller Never-Say-Diet. But as famous as he was, he never seemed poised to become the next Jack LaLanne. He was good campy fun, sure, but very much a product of his time, destined to disappear along with parachute pants and Aqua Net hairspray.
As it turns out, not so much. Thirty years later, Simmons, now 63, hasn’t come close to fading into obscurity. He’s still got the same frizzy afro, too-tight Dolfin shorts and over-the-top personality of his prime. And he’s more omnipresent than ever. In just the last year, he’s smooched a stunned passenger in an Air New Zealand in-flight safety video, coached Chaz Bono on ABC’s Dancing the Stars, and shimmied through the crowd in a rainbow fringe top on The Wendy Williams Show. He’s still making exercise videos — he’s starred in 50 and counting, many of them with titles that could be mistaken for adult videos. (“Pump and Sweat,” “No Ifs Ands or Butts,” “Tonin’ Downtown,” et al.) Most remarkable of all, he’s still teaching classes at his gym in Beverly Hills (every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), but only when he’s in town and not jet-setting around the globe, teaching the world how to shed pounds by shaking their money makers.
Our conversation with Simmons was, in many ways, exactly what you’d expect from the clown prince of American fitness. “Hello, is this Domino’s Pizza?” he asked the moment we picked up the phone. “I’d like to order the one with the stuffed crust and eleven different meats.” During the next several hours, he joked, he preached, he burst into show tunes apropos of nothing, and he always wore his big, blubbery heart on his sleeve. As tempting as it can be to make fun of Simmons (and he makes it really easy sometimes), you’d have to be dead inside not to root for the guy.
Men’s Health: You seriously still teach workout classes at Slimmons?
Richard Simmons: I do. Three days a week, I teach a full hour and twenty-five minute class.
MH: That’s insane. It’s like Kenny Rogers working the deep fryer at Roasters.
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) Oh come on now!
MH: You know you don’t have to do that anymore, right? You’re in your 60s, for God’s sake.
Richard Simmons: I’m 63. I’ll be 64 this summer.
MH: You could retire. I don’t think anybody would accuse you of slacking.
Richard Simmons: Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t be able to sit still. If I have to die, I want to combust in the middle of one of my classes.
MH: What kind of people come to a Slimmons workout? Is there a certain age or sex?
Richard Simmons: I get such a diverse group of people there. I guess because of Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff, half my class is under the age of 30. They’re very career oriented but for whatever reason they just haven’t focused on taking better care of their bodies. And I teach a pretty hard class. They’re going to do 800 leg lifts and 300 jumping jacks, they’re going to do toning for their whole upper body, they’re going to do stretches. They’re going to do a complete workout and burn hundreds of calories and feel good about themselves. Even the guys come up to me after class and they’re like, “Oh my gooooooood! I need to take a nap!”
MH: What kind of music do you play? Are they sweating to the oldies?
Richard Simmons: Oh, it’s a little of everything. My nickname is Dickie Jukebox. I own thousands and thousands and thousands of songs. Some days I’ll be getting ready for class and I’ll put together a list of every song with the word “Dance” in the title. You name it, “Dancing in the Streets” and “Dancing in the Dark,” whatever I can find. And then the next day I’ll look for songs that are all different dances. I’ll have a workout mix that has the Hustle, the Congo, the Charleston, the Twist, the Can-Can, the Mexican Hat Dance, the Mash Potato, the Cha-Cha and the Macarena. You put all those songs together and speed them up a little and you’ve got people just sweatin’ and sweatin’ and feeling good and singing along. If I’ve got the right songs, I can weave a spell over everyone.
MH: Is part of the reason you still run these classes because it motivates you to exercise?
Richard Simmons: That is not my personal workout. For my workout, I’m up at 4am. I say my prayers, count my blessings, and I work out right away. I just get it done. One day I’ll tone — chest, back and shoulders — and the next day it’s biceps and triceps. I also do 45 minutes of cardio every day. I do that before I even leave the house.
MH: You have a home gym?
Richard Simmons: I do. And the music in my gym goes on really loud. I work out when my housekeepers are asleep and my 16 year old dog, Hattie — she’s a Dalmatian — when she’s asleep. I just get it done. And then I really feel the power. Because if I get it out of the way first thing, I don’t make any whining, pity party excuses. If I don’t take care of myself, if I don’t feel good about myself, how can I help others? I’m 135 pounds, and I need to stay at this weight if I’m going to continue wearing these tiny Dolfin shorts.
MH: You could always start wearing pants.
Richard Simmons: I might have to. They don’t make Dolfin shorts anymore.
MH: At all? Are you sure?
Richard Simmons: It’s true! I’m not lying. They’re from 1979, and they don’t make them anymore because the material is flammable.
MH: Literally flammable?
Richard Simmons: Literally flammable! They’re not allowed in the United States anymore.
MH: You must have a secret stockpile.
Richard Simmons: I’ve got 400 pair. People write to me all the time and say, “Dear Richard, I was cleaning out my garage and you’re just never going to guess what I found. I got two pair of Dolfin shorts!” And they send them to me.
MH: What? No. People send you their Dolfin shorts?
Richard Simmons: I’m not lying!
MH: I’m not saying you’re lying, I’m just wondering if it’s wise to wear booty shorts mailed to you by fans.
Richard Simmons: They usually wrap them in a baggie with a little note. (With a Southern accent.) “I washed these before I sent ‘em.”
MH: Yeah, but even so.
Richard Simmons: I wear a lot more than just the Dolfin shorts. My closet is filled with all sorts of costumes. I have an entire section just for crazy tank tops. Leslie Wilshire has made my tank tops for years. And then I’ve got my tutu and ballerina section. I’m going to donate all my clothing to the Smithsonian after I die, because I want my own wing. I don’t want just like a Fonzie jacket. I want the Richard Simmons wing.
MH: How do you decide what to wear every morning?
Richard Simmons: I just ask myself, what do I want to be today? Am I going to be a ballet dancer? Am I going to be an Indian? Will I wear wings and a tutu? People dress up in costumes to come to my class all the time. It’s like the Rocky Horror Show, sort of.
MH: But way gayer.
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) Ha! Well you know, I do consider myself a clown and a court jester, and I do love to make people laugh, whether they’re laughing with me or at me. I just love what I do, and I’m a teacher more than anything. When the king gets depressed, he doesn’t call for his wife. He doesn’t call for the cook. He calls for the court jester.
MH: Is it difficult to work out in a tutu?
Richard Simmons: No, no, no!
MH: A frilly pink dress doesn’t seem very conducive to cardio.
Richard Simmons: It’s fine. Actually, if anyone’s depressed for any reason, whether a relationship has fallen apart or they’re having money problems, wearing feathered wings and a tutu takes you into a whole other world. (Sings.) A whole new woooooorld, a world of bright and shining stars!
Richard Simmons: That’s from Aladdin.
MH: Yeah, I got that.
Richard Simmons: It’s so funny, people line up after class to take photos with me. And sometimes I make ‘em put the tutu on. Some of them don’t want to take it off. I think being silly is great. It’s much better than just seeing doom and gloom everywhere and only thinking of their past. That’s what people do. I wrote a short book called “Walking Among the Ruins” because that’s what the majority of people in the world do. They walk among the ruins of their life. Things that didn’t work out, relationships that went sour, jobs that disappeared. All they can think about is their ruins, and when you focus on that you can’t build a new you.
MH: You’re always so full of manic energy. Do you ever get into a mood where you just want to be mellow and quiet and actually hear yourself think?
Richard Simmons: I don’t have time for that.
MH: You really do though. Can’t you find five minutes for yourself, to not be constantly bouncing off the walls and full of goofy optimism?
Richard Simmons: I find my moments where I can. After I talk to so many people who are so unhappy about their weight and so depressed that they don’t see any rainbows in their life, after I talk to about 30 of those, then I try to walk away and pet my dog, just do something that makes me happy. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard. I take it all very personally. I’m just that kind of guy. When someone gains weight, it’s my fault. I know it’s not, but that’s just the way my mind works.
MH: What do you think about weight loss reality shows like Biggest Loser?
Richard Simmons: I am not into any show that makes people compete when they lose weight. I think the show has some merit and they do some good. But voting off people every week because they didn’t lose enough weight, or giving somebody a car or money because they did lose weight? That’s terrible.
MH: You don’t think bribery works?
Richard Simmons: My father offered me a dollar for every pound I would lose as a kid. It didn’t work. And it doesn’t really work in the long run. Who are you competing against? It’s you. You need to be doing this for you and only you. Not to win a car, not to stay at a fancy resort, not to get a treadmill or an elliptical for your home. The real pride, the real present, is your health and your longevity. My whole career I have never done anything where competition was involved with weight loss. (Sings.) I am what I aaaaaaaam!
Richard Simmons: (Laughs) I’m sorry.
MH: No, no, that’s great. Feel free to break into song at any point in this interview. I encourage it.
Richard Simmons: I feel that interviews should have commercials. I just did a little La Cage (aux Folles) for you. Now we can go back to the questions feeling more refreshed.
MH: In your book Never-Say-Diet, you wrote “The only time I wasn’t fat was the day I was born. I went directly from pabulum to crepes suzette.” Did it really happen that fast?
Richard Simmons: I was raised in New Orleans, in the French Quarter. I grew up one block from the Antoine’s, around the corner from Brennan’s, three blocks from Arnold’s, two blocks from Galatoire’s.
MH: It’s definitely a big food town. There’s all that delicious gumbo, jambalaya….
Richard Simmons: There’s po-boy places and muffaletta places.
MH: You’re making me hungry just talking about it.
Richard Simmons: Imagine how I felt! I was completely obsessed with food. I began reading cook books when I was six, cause my father had hundreds of cook books in the kitchen. I was obsessed with cooking and tasting different recipes. I got lost in being a compulsive eater. It brought me much happiness. Sadness too, sure. But I have to say, and compulsive eaters will agree with me, for that few seconds that you’re eating, food tastes just great.
MH: Few seconds? I think I see your problem right there.
Richard Simmons: Nothing could slow me down.
Richard Simmons: When I was younger, I ate nothing but fried food. Everything was fried, from oysters to chicken to potatoes to vegetables. When you die in New Orleans, they deep fry you before they put you in the coffin. When we baptize children in New Orleans, we baptize them with a bordelaise sauce, we don’t use water.
MH: All jokes aside, how bad did it get for you? How overweight were you as a kid?
Richard Simmons: I was 200 pounds in the eighth grade.
MH: That’s definitely big.
Richard Simmons: Now when I talk to kids who are overweight, I see my face on their bodies. I’ve been working six years to get PE back in the school system. I created the FIT Kids Act with some Congressmen. I went to Washington twice for congressional hearings. This bill has been in limbo for six years and they’ve diluted it and put it in the new education bill and that hasn’t been passed. Washington has its own trials and tribulations. But this issue doesn’t get fixed if we do not get healthier meals in our schools and we do not bring back PE. Do you know that some schools don’t even have recess anymore?
MH: That’s crazy talk.
Richard Simmons: If this continues, we’re looking at a very sad and unhealthy next generation. There are more obese kids, more depressed obese teens, more obese adults, everything in between and seniors.
MH: You’ve been visiting a lot of college campuses lately.
Richard Simmons: I have, yes. Those kids have it the worst. They’re looking at the unemployment numbers, they’re scared out of their minds, they’ve got student loans, they’re trying to please their parents because their parents sacrificed for them. They don’t eat right and they don’t make time to exercise. I go there and I teach a tough class. But then I sit down with them and talk with them like their parents would. Because the stress out there can kill you. And if you don’t find an outlet for it, it will get the best of you and ruin your life. That’s where exercise comes in.
MH: Do you know why you overate? Was it a way to deal with self-loathing? Or some other emotion you were trying to avoid?
Richard Simmons: Not really. For a lot of us overweight people, we don’t always hook it onto “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m going to have a pity party.” We just love the taste of it. Sometimes it’s just “Oh my God, I love the taste of fried oysters on french bread with mayonnaise and an order of french fries.” I’m not going to lie to you, I deal with that temptation every single day, many times.
MH: Is there a certain genre of food that most tempts you? Your culinary Achilles’ heel?
Richard Simmons: There’s a list of foods I can’t have in the house. Peanut butter, can’t have that in the house. Potato chips, can’t have that in the house. Random little small mini candy bars, don’t even think about it. I just have to watch everything. I have to stay between 1500 and 1600 calories a day. That’s it.
MH: I heard you were born without a full set of bones in your feet. Is that true?
Richard Simmons: Yes, that’s true. I was born with a crippled leg. I wore a corrective shoes since I was three years old and I still wear them. It’s something that I don’t talk about, I just deal with it. Thank goodness for ice and hot baths.
MH: That must be part of the reason you need to keep your weight under control.
Richard Simmons: It’s a big reason. When you gain weight, for every pound that you gain, it adds four pounds of stress on your knees. So if you gain five pounds, you’ve got twenty pounds of stress on your knees. So that’s why I’m extremely careful with my portions and my workout, because I can’t be overweight. Even a few pounds could have a terrible effect on my feet.
MH: Your parents were former vaudeville performers?
Richard Simmons: My father was a singer and dancer, and my mother was a fan dancer. They traveled all over the world and then they ended up living in boarding houses right next door to each other in New York. One day my mother came out of one and my father came out of another and they met and fell in love. And then they went to New Orleans and decided to get married and have a family. They gave up it all for my brother and I. They were my main reason for being successful.
MH: How so?
Richard Simmons: Everything I did with my life I did so that I could give my parents everything they didn’t have because of me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New Orleans, but we have a candy there called the praline. It’s candy with brown sugar and pecans, looks like a patty. Every day after school, for three hours a day, I would sell those pralines on the street corner. I was just eight years old. I’d bring the money home to my parents and say, “This is just the beginning.” Are you close to your parents?
MH: Very much so.
Richard Simmons: You know how important it is for them to know that you’re happy and that you’re peaceful and that you’re making a good living.
MH: Oh sure. It makes them sleep better.
Richard Simmons: But above anything, you need to repay them for everything they sacrificed for you. Don’t you think? When I talk to these college kids, I like to remind them, “You know, if your parents didn’t have you, they’d be living in a nicer home, driving a Mercedes-Benz, with money in the bank and a boat. But noooooo. They had to have you! You’ve got to give back!” Don’t you think part of your success is wanting to make your parents happy?
MH: Probably. I guess you’re right about the sacrifices. All parents sacrifice something for their kids.
Richard Simmons: They did! They absolutely did! And I knew it, too. I said to my parents (sings) I can do it, all I need is a haaaaaaaaaand! Mama is gonna see to it! Curtain up! Light the lights!
MH and Richard Simmons: (singing in unison) We got nothing to hit but the heights!
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) That was great!
MH: I did not see that coming.
Richard Simmons: You don’t usually sing Gypsy in interviews?
MH: I don’t, no.
Richard Simmons: Your editor’s going to love it.
MH: Maybe. But I have some explaining to do to my wife.
Richard Simmons: Singing is good for the soul. It’s the first thing I do every morning, after my blessings and my grace. I put music on and I sing.
MH: Was there a lot of music in your home when you were growing up?
Richard Simmons: Absolutely. There was a record player in our living room, and we played it all the time. We listened to Mario Lanza and Doris Day and Pat Boone and opera. My father would sing and my mother would sing and I would dance with my mother. I grew up in such a loving, musical place. I mean, it wasn’t perfect. My father was very strict but I found ways around it.
MH: How do you mean? Like you didn’t get caught?
Richard Simmons: No, I just…. (Long pause.) I guess because he tried show business and maybe he wasn’t as successful as he wanted to be. Maybe he didn’t want me to go down that road and get hurt. But I’m not an actor, and I’m really not a singer or a dancer. That’s never what I set out to do.
MH: But you did commercials overseas. When you were a teenager, studying art in Florence, Italy.
Richard Simmons: That’s right, I was an extra in a Fellini movie.
MH: Satyricon, I think it was.
Richard Simmons: Yeah, yeah. And I was in a few commercials as an overweight guy.
MH: There are internet rumors that you were a dancing meatball in one of those commercials.
Richard Simmons: Yeah, that happened. (Laughs.) I just stumbled into it. I was sitting in a cafe in Florence one day and met somebody in casting and did a little something and then I met somebody else and they asked me to do something. It was exciting, but you know, it’s just lousy waking up every day and looking in the mirror and seeing an overweight you. Cause we overweight people, we say terrible things to ourselves.
MH: Like what?
Richard Simmons: Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. “You fat pig. How can you do this? You’re a disgusting jerk.” And that gets you nowhere. That gets you right back into a bowl of pasta fregola.
MH: What was your heaviest weight?
Richard Simmons: I got up to 268.
MH: What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? When did you finally decide that enough was enough?
Richard Simmons: There was a nurse when I got down to my very, very lowest point. And she’s the one who asked me that scary question that every overweight person needs to hear. “Do you want to live or do you want to die?” I was maybe 19 or 20 at the time, and nobody had ever asked me that question. None of us think we’re going to die because we overeat.
MH: Nobody thinks they’re going to die at that age anyway. Most overweight people at 19 are thinking about whether they’re attractive, not whether they’re getting heart disease someday.
Richard Simmons: But that’s where my head was at. All of a sudden, I’m thinking that if I keep eating the way I’m eating, I’m not going to live long and I’m going to die. Having those thoughts as a young person can be very haunting.
MH: So you decided to diet?
Richard Simmons: I took desperate measures to lose weight and did terrible things to myself. I went from diet pills to thirty laxatives a day to throwing up.
MH: You were bulimic?
Richard Simmons: Bulimic, anorexic, you name it. And after all the throwing up, I would starve myself. Which meant eating lettuce and water for two and a half months. I almost lost my life. I seriously almost lost my life. Some people reading this will not be able to relate to that, because they don’t care that much about food. Or they have an addiction to some other area, so they don’t understand what it’s like to go into the kitchen and look through the refrigerator and then take out a piece of tupperware and crack it open and there’s that satisfying (popping sound) of the tupperware opening, and you see what’s inside. When we’re binging, we do not think about death. We just think about how good it tastes.
MH: I don’t think I’ve ever seen pictures of you as a fat kid. Are they all in a storage locker somewhere?
Richard Simmons: I didn’t keep a lot of stuff. Some people like to look at pictures of themselves before they lost weight. I don’t particularly care for that. Whenever I was overweight, it was a very sad time in my life.
MH: But don’t you want anything to remember those moments, even if they were sad? Don’t you want to remember what it was like to be 19?
Richard Simmons: Oh I was never 19. I went from 8 to 42.
MH: You skipped your childhood?
Richard Simmons: I really did. I was always into staying busy, into my goals, into making notes and planning. I’m not one who truly lives in the past. I have baggage, just like everyone has their baggage. But I really — how do I say it? — I really attack the present. I plan for the future, but the only day I really worry about is the day I’m living right now. It’s the day that I’m talking to you right now. That’s where I put all my focus on. And when I go to bed, I ask God to give me one more day tomorrow. When I get it, I’m excited and grateful.
MH: Tell me about Slimmons. Why’d you open your own gym?
Richard Simmons: When I moved out here to Los Angeles, in 1973 I think it was, I got a job as a waiter at an Italian restaurant called Derrick’s. I made Fettuccine Alfredo and Caesar salads and had never exercised before. I wanted to get into shape, so I tried pilates, I tried tap, I tried jazz. Anything that was offered I tried. I even went to a gym once, Vince’s Gym on Ventura Boulevard. It’s been there forever. The sign outside said “$50 for a new body,” which sounded good to me. I went there and trained with this guy, I think he was an ex-policeman. He put me through this agonizing workout routine. I had to call a cab to go home. I couldn’t drive. You’re laughing but it’s true.
MH: No, no, I believe you.
Richard Simmons: I was in bed for four days, because I overdid it. So I decided then, I need to open a gym for people like me. A place for the overweight and out of shape. And I’m just going to act silly and dance and get them sweating. I saved my tip money from waiting tables, and it took me a year and two months to save $25,000. I found a little place on a tiny street called Civic Center Drive, and I opened Slimmons. I really created my career out of my own compulsion. Because I knew if I owned an exercise studio and I had to teach my classes there, I wasn’t going to gain my weight back.
MH: There was a restaurant too for awhile, right? Called Ruffage?
Richard Simmons: Yeah. The name was a pun of roughage.
MH: I figured.
Richard Simmons: That was my salad bar. It was the first salad bar in Beverly Hills. We served four to five hundred salads a day, and I did that for six years. But the exercise studio became so crowded, I had to make the studio bigger. So I sacrificed the salad bar.
MH: It sounds like Slimmons was practically an overnight success.
Richard Simmons: It felt like that. I never spent any money on any kind of advertising. It was all word of mouth. People would come in and then tell their friends, “You’ve got to go see this guy. He’s so hysterical.” They’d bring their sister, and then their sister would bring their mother. It became a family thing. And that’s still what it’s like.
MH: You see a lot of families working out together?
Richard Simmons: Oh yeah! This past Saturday, I had probably six or seven families at my class. There was a mother, dad and their kids, and a brother and his sisters, and a bunch of sisters, and a few husbands and wives.
MH: Obviously now people know what to expect from you, but in the beginning, when you were still relatively unknown, and you’d crawl onto people’s laps and kiss their cheeks, did it freak out any of your gym customers?
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) Oh no, never! Everybody’s always loved it.
MH: Nobody ever said, “Who is this weird little man in short-shorts invading my personal space?”
Richard Simmons: Never. I’m like a stuffed toy. You’ve never met me, but if you did, you’d just want to take me home and put me in your child’s room.
MH: I don’t know about that.
Richard Simmons: Trust me, you would. You know what it is? I give people permission to be kids again. I’ve never swayed from who I am. People have seen me on television all these years, and they know what I’m like and they know what I do and they respect me for what I do. They know that I’m huggy and kissy. I always tell people, “If you let me hug you, you’ll lose two pounds with every hug.” Once they hear that, they want to stay overnight!
MH: Didn’t you have your own syndicated show in the early 80s?
Richard Simmons: “The Richard Simmons Show!” I did that for five years and I loved it. I also did “Here’s Richard,” which was a night time variety-type show. I think I did that in 82 or 83. And then there was “Slim Cooking” a cooking show. And I did 31 informercials.
MH: Good God, Richard.
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) I know, I know. It was a lot. I was always working on something.
MH: Well if the demand was there. People wanted to see you.
Richard Simmons: They did. I think any popularity I had was because I don’t lie. I don’t say, “Eat this, buy this, do this and you’ll lose weight fast and easy!” I never sold any of those “lose 10 pounds every week” scams. I’ve not changed my tune in all these years. I’ve seen everything pass by me, and I’ve been offered millions of dollars to put my name on products that were just lies. And I never did it.
MH: Can you name names?
Richard Simmons: No! Are you kidding me?
MH: Well how about a genre? Was it a workout machine, something like that?
Richard Simmons: I’ve been offered big money to promote machines. And high protein diets, when that was really popular. There was always some new powder or diet plan that somebody wanted to put my name on. Anything that had to do with quick weight loss. “It’s a special powder that you sprinkle in your water and drink six times a day and then the weight just falls off.” I just don’t believe in that stuff. There is no magic milkshake or workout machine. I think the real machine is your body. I do love treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, free weights. But like I say to my students, “If you want to get the body you’ve always dreamed of, you have to earn it.” You know what I mean? You can’t buy it, you can’t rent it. You have to earn it. My formula has always been love yourself, move your body, watch your portions. And it sounds so easy, but it is not.
MH: You’ve been in the fitness industry for over four decades and it doesn’t seem like much has changed in terms of national obesity. If anything, we’ve gotten fatter. Does that discourage you?
Richard Simmons: It makes me want to work harder. I call 40 to 50 overweight obese people a day. Some of them are house bound. Some of them have been trying to lose weight for 30, 40 years and they just can’t seem to get the food right or make time for the workouts. But I’m still always there to support them. I talked to a 650 pound man today.
MH: That sounds exhausting.
Richard Simmons: It’s just talking on the phone.
MH: Yeah, but you have to listen to everybody’s problems and pretend to be interested in their lives even when you might not be. It must be like being a priest in confessional.
Richard Simmons: I sort of think of myself as part priest, part clown. I don’t make anybody say Hail Marys or Our Fathers, but I listen to them and try to give them the best advice that I can. You have to be a good listener. Because they all have a reason they gained forty pounds or a hundred pounds. But what I do more than anything is try and give them the courage and hope to start again. I just want people to get off the back burner of their life and start to take better care of themselves and their children.
MH: Making all those calls can be risky.
Richard Simmons: Risky? No, I don’t do anything that’s risky.
MH: But it’s like Russian Roulette. You never know when you’re going to call somebody and they’ll mistake your kindness for an actual relationship.
Richard Simmons: People have always treated me like family because I’ve always treated them like family. I’ve never put up any barriers. I look people straight in the eye, no matter who they are. And I think people have respected me for that. My father said to me years ago, “Know no strangers. Just treat everyone like you know them and it’ll work for you.”
MH: That’s okay for the rest of us. But when you’re famous, treating strangers like family can lead to stalkers.
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) Oh, that’s silly. I don’t worry about that.
MH: You’ve never had a stalker?
Richard Simmons: I don’t know how anyone would stalk me. I’m never home. I go to my studio. I get on a plane and go to other cities to teach classes. But I don’t go to movies. I rarely, rarely ever go out to eat. And I only go home to sleep.
MH: So if somebody wants to stalk you, don’t bother hanging out on your front lawn. They just have to sign up for one of your classes.
Richard Simmons: (Laughs.) I guess so. I love my work, whether it’s in town or out of town. That’s my priority.
MH: You have hobbies that aren’t about exercise, right? Don’t you have a big doll collection?
Richard Simmons: I have a one of a kind collection of dolls. My house is like a museum.
MH: How many do you have?
Richard Simmons: Oh, I’ve lost count. But I have at least 400 dolls in my house at all times, and then I switch them out. We all collect something. Your mother could’ve collected salt and pepper shakers. It’s fun when you’re younger, but then we get to our 60s and think, “What am I doing with all this stuff?!”
MH: If your house was on fire and you were only able to save one doll, which one would you grab?
Richard Simmons: Oh goodness. (Long pause.) There’s a doll artist, her name is Annie Wahl, and she only does senior dolls. She only does older men and women. It’s hysterical. I have one of her dolls, like a Follies doll, that reminds me of my mother Shirley. I guess that would be the doll I would take out of here.
MH: Your mother’s passed?
Richard Simmons: She died in 1999, when she was 87. It was exactly fifteen years after my father passed, who also died when he was 87. Losing a parent, it’s just horrible. Luckily I still have family. I have a wonderful brother in New Orleans and his great wife, and I’m very close to them. And of course there’s all of the people that I entertain and make sweat and laugh. They’re my family too.
MH: You really believe that.
Richard Simmons: I do! I’m not lying.
MH: It sounds like something a politician running for office would say, but when you say it, it seems so genuine and uncynical.
Richard Simmons: There’s nothing cynical about it. About 80 tour buses go by my house in a day, and if I’m there and I’m outside getting the mail or walking the dog, I’ll go right up to that truck and say hello to everyone. I’ll ask a little bit about where they’re from and wish them a really pleasant stay in Los Angeles. Some of them will go to my website and write “I met you on this tour, you were so nice to my daughter, thanks for singing happy birthday to her.” I live for those things. Those things make me feel good. I don’t do anything that doesn’t make me feel good. It’s not worth it.
MH: Have you ever said anything cruel in your life? Even by accident?
Richard Simmons: Not if I could help it. I have two rules for living in the world. I never say anything negative about anyone, because that won’t get you anywhere. And two, if people confront me with certain questions, if they are not right, I will not answer them. I follow that whether it’s Howard Stern or just a person on the street.
MH: It seems like every time you’ve done Howard Stern’s show, you end up in tears. Are they crocodile tears?
Richard Simmons: No! Those are real! I’m not going to lie to you. I use at least a half box of kleenex when I talk to Howard. I’ve known him for so long, and sometimes he asks me things…. he just hits me for a loop. I can’t believe some of the things he asks.
MH: He does that with everyone.
Richard Simmons: I know, I know. I’ve been doing his show for 22 years. I’ve always loved him, but he just likes to rile me up. I’m just an emotional kind of person. I sit there and bawl. Thank God they make kleenex now that’s cold. Have you heard about this?
MH: I haven’t.
Richard Simmons: You pop them out of the box and they’re already chilled. Don’t ask me how they do it. They’re great for tears. I recommend them for anyone who has an emotional job and career as I do.
MH: What about David Letterman? You haven’t been on his show since 2006. Are you mad at him about something?
Richard Simmons: I love David. (Long pause.) He’s more complicated than any of them, that David. I’ve done his show so many times. You know I’ve actually never met him?
MH: How do you mean?
Richard Simmons: Even when I would do a remote with him, we’d go in separate cars and he wouldn’t talk to me.
MH: He didn’t want to socialize with you outside of the show?
Richard Simmons: I guess so. Everybody on his show is so kind, (Executive Producer) Maria Pope, everybody, all the new interns, oh my God, it’s like a party fest. And then they take me upstairs and lock me in a room. I’m not kidding! It makes me feel like Patty Hearst. And then they take you down to the studio maybe two minutes before you’re going on. The studio is 43 degrees, and I’m in those farkakte little shorts. I feel like that Christmas story about the little girl selling matchsticks in the snow. Anyway, so you do the show with him, and then when they go to commercial they remove you.
MH: Remove you how? Like drag you off the set?
Richard Simmons: You’re just not allowed to talk to him. Or if you are, he’s very stand-offish. Then the commercials are over and you’re back, you sit down again and finish the show. Maybe that’s just how he is with me, I don’t know. But I’ve never even had a chance to say goodbye to him.
MH: Will you ever do his show again?
Richard Simmons: I don’t know. Maybe one day, when the time and everything is right. Because I do love him.
MH: You guys have great chemistry together.
Richard Simmons: I don’t know why.
MH: He clearly adores you. You can see it.
Richard Simmons: No he doesn’t.
MH: Not even a little?
Richard Simmons: The last time I was on, we went to commercial and I was like, “I’d love to meet your wife!” He was like, “You never will.” And then I was like, “And see your son!” And he was like, “You’ll never see him.” And then we come back from the commercial break and he’s all friendly with me again, “Okay, we’re back with Richard Simmons.” You think I’m kidding, but I’m not making this up.
MH: What about General Hospital? Would you ever return to soap operas?
Richard Simmons: Oh yes, of course! I just had dinner not long ago with Tony Geary and Jane Elliot who are now married on the show. I’d never done anything like General Hospital before or since. It was such an education.
MH: You played yourself on the show?
Richard Simmons: That’s right. I was Richard Simmons as…. Richard Simmons!
MH: Did they give you any direction at all, or was it just “Do what you do?”
Richard Simmons: Gloria Monty would give me advice. Everything I do is always big. I wake up and it’s like I’m on a Broadway stage. She had to bring it down a little bit for the size of the TV. She would be like (very melodramatic) “This is not a stage, this is a television show.” They were all so wonderful to me. I walked on that show and I must’ve been like an alien to them. But they were so kind and they really taught me a lot. And then meeting the General Hospital fans in different shopping malls around the United States, the whole experience was just mesmerizing to me. I couldn’t believe that all of these people would even come out and see me.
MH: This was before Sweatin’ to the Oldies?
Richard Simmons: Yeah, that was a few years later, in 1988. That was even stranger.
MH: It wasn’t a new formula. Exercise video tapes were already pretty common. Why do you think your video connected with such a wide audience?
Richard Simmons: It was real people, it was real music, it was real steps. People just embraced it. I can’t really understand it at all. And I’ve always had problems (long pause, his voice breaks)… wanting to know why I did so well when I’m not really that special.
MH: You don’t feel special?
Richard Simmons: Being successful (voice breaks) is something that’s sometimes hard to deal with. Walking down the street and having people come up to you and hug you and tell you that you’re (voice breaks)… I’m sorry… tell you that you’re doing good work. (Sniffs, pause.) I have a difficult time with it. It can make you feel crazy sometimes.
MH: Not everybody who comes up to you gets a hug. You were arrested in 2004 for allegedly assaulting a man at a Phoenix airport. Was that-?
Richard Simmons: No, no, no! No one can make fun of overweight people in front of me!
MH: Is that what happened?
Richard Simmons: You can make fun of me. That’s fine. You can say anything you want to say about me. But don’t you dare address overweight people with terrible names and ugly remarks. That is what upsets me.
MH: He claimed he was just joking with you. He said something like “Drop your bags, let’s rock to the 50s.” But that’s not what happened?
Richard Simmons: No, he was making fun of people in my videos who are overweight.
Richard Simmons: You just can’t do that in front of me. You can say anything you want to me, but you better not say anything that’s going to upset me about obese people. I’ve gotten emails where they go, “My wife’s a fat pig. She’ll buy your videos but then she eats Doritos.” I’ll email that man back and say “You should be ashamed of yourself! You are there to support your wife, not call her animal names. How dare you? This is the woman that loves you! She’s the mother of your children. You need to embrace her, tell her that you love her, and never call her names or embarrass her in front of other people.”
MH: You’re such a nice guy, Richard. I can’t even stand it.
Richard Simmons: I just strive to do better. Every time I meet somebody, I ask myself, “How can I help this person? What more can I say? What song can I sing them? What blessing can they tell me about that can keep them on the right place in their mind?” My life is just a never-ending work in progress.
MH: You put too much pressure on yourself.
Richard Simmons: Maybe, but that’s important. Everyone’s under pressure and you just have to learn how to deal with it. And I deal with it through prayer and staying busy. People need the court jester, so I keep that smile on and keep going out there to do what I do.
MH: But sometimes being the court jester can be grueling work. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to plaster that smile on your face and jump around the room even when you’re not in the mood. Don’t you think people need to know how hard your job is?
Richard Simmons: No one needs to know that about me. (Long pause.) No, nobody needs to know. I’m the clown you take out of the box and wind up when you need a good laugh. And then, when you’re done with me, I go back in my box.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)