What caught Richard Simmons' eye was the lump in white-napkin wrapping that the woman was cradling delicately in her hands, rather like a little girl carrying home a wounded bird.

"Now, now, what do we have here?" he said and snatched the napkined lump before she realized what was happening.

"No, no, no, ummm-ummm!" His head was cocked slightly to one side, his lips pressed together in a look of mock disapproval. He makes you feel as if you're back in the third grade with Mrs. Gabbert when he does this.

"Cookies?" he asked, pursing his lips.

She shook her head.

"Cake?"

She smiled sheepishly. "Yes, cake."

"No, no, no, nooooo!"

This woman was in no way what you consider fat. She was neat, well-dressed, probably too young for moonscape-dimpled thighs -- what Simmons describes as cottage-cheese lumps -- and probably too young for a mushy tushy. He reminded her anyway of the evils of cake and cookies and turned and walked into the Four Seasons, leaving her standing on the curb, dumbstruck, her hands still cupped in front of her, cradling absolutely nothing.

Now that Richard Simmons is the latest wonderboy of the lo-cal life style, he does this all the time. It's expected of him. You cannot be pushing carrots and cauliflower and touch your toes, two, three, four, and stand by idly and watch someone fill his face with mashed potatoes and gravy. What surprises those to whom he lectures is that at the end, he will drop their $1.65 investment in two scoops of rum raisin into the trash and walk off. No one ever says a word to him. After all, he is the new wonderboy.

Just last October, his exercise show ("The Richard Simmons Show") went into syndication, and already he's in 91 markets (80 percent of the country) and by April 15 will be on the air in 132. Admittedly, it's not difficult to break into the 6:30 a.m. time slot, as he has done in Washington on Channel 7. But then, in other markets like Channel 11 in Baltimore, he has been bumping Merv and Dimples Davidson out of their 9 a.m. slots, and going head-to-head with the silver-haired a.m. heartthrob himself, Phil Donahue. Amazingly enough, he's holding his own. According to Ed Akin of Petry Television (a research firm in New York), when they break down the audience in places like San Diego, Orlando and Spokane and study the cruicial 18-to-49 age group, where all the money is, Richard Simmons is dancing on the heartthrob's head.

Then there's his book, "Never Say Diet," which has moved to No. 2 on The New York Times' best-seller list, and there are the massive station wagon jams outside half the Safeways of America whenever he appears, for he also happens to be the biggest draw in shopping centers today.

And there's more. He also appears once or twice a week on ABC's afternoon soap, "General Hospital." He's so hot right now he plays himself. aNot bad for a former fourth-grade fatso of New Orleans, La.

We will never see Richard Simmons at 65 towing 65 boats loaded with wood pulp acros a Japanese lake, which is what Jack LaLanne did last at 65. Simmons is not that kind. And his show is not at all like the usual exercise show, where at the end of 30 minutes you feel like you've been doing morning calisthenics with the marines. Part of the show is talking to passers-by in a shopping mall. Part is cooking up some new dish of lo-cal liverwurst. Then there's the exercise.

The one thing it doesn't give him much of a chance to do is play off people's questions. There one gets to see his wit. Like the time one woman called into the "Charlie Rose" TV show and asked guest Simmons how she could improve the diet of her family of four when she had only $35 a week to spend. She said she ended up buying all canned stuff, Spaghetti-Os, things like that.

He agreed $35 wasn't much. "But you can find a lot of things out there, fresh things, if you shop well . . . Or if you shoplift well."

And when he told one woman, "I know how it goes. You come home and eat a salad, hold yourself down, then Helen calls and wants you to go eat and you say you've already eaten but you'll come and have a Coke. And you go and eat everything on the table but the sugar cubes."

And when he told another: "Honey, between your rib bones and your hip bone, there's a whole meal hanging there."

It was this sense of humor that got him the role on "General Hospital." He was on his way to Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters convention, hoping to sell his show, and found himself talking to a woman on the plan. She introduced herself as Jackie Smith, vice president for daytime programming at ABC. "I thought he was funny," she says. She told him she was interested in putting him on the air.

"A lot of my life has been like a dream," he says.

Richard Simmons says his parents had five babies die, but his father still wanted children and so his parents tried again and his brother, blond and blue-eyed and athletic, no doubt, was born to them. In the aftermath, he says, his mother suffered complications and had a hysterectomy. And then, then he was born, Milton Teagle Simmons. That's what he says. He says a lot of things. He says Charles Revson scooped him up when he was working as a waiter at the Autopub in the General Motors building in New York and made him a marketing director. He says his restaurant in Beverly Hills, Ruffage, was the first salad restaurant in the United States. He says he could have chained it across the country. "I could have been the Col. Sanders of salad dressing," and he lapses into a Southern dialect.

"Hiya, folks, won't ya try mah new hick'ry-cucumber dressin'. It's mah finest." He's good at dialects, mimicry. It makes him a good storyteller, and his stories are funny and fast and often come complete with a moral; they also could be viewed as rapid and hazily sketched. As when he tells about the woman he says he studied under in Romania, Dr. Anna Olsen? Oslin? Osland?

"How do you spell that, Richard?"

"Forget it," he said. "Doesn't matter."

The one spelling that does matter is his: Simmons. If Paul is Rhymin' Simon, then Richard is Grinnin' Simmons. "Richard Simmons," he said. "Like the mattress. S-I-M-M-O-N-S."

When Rose blew his name in the middle of the show and called him Richard Simons, he shot back, "Thank you Charlie Rose-ay."

Anyway, he says he was fat baby, later to become a fat first-grader, followed by a fat second-grader, third-grader, and, well, you get the idea. "The last one picked for any team and the first one in line for lunch," he says. His redeeming values was that he says. His redeeming value was that he was the funniest kid in his class, always quick with a line, and never inhibited, as you might have guessed already.

When he was 10, he went to his parents about his name. "I said, 'I don't know what kind of mood you were in when you named me, but this isn't going to work.'" No more Milton Teagle Simmons. "A week later, my mother was calling me Dickie. I didn't know which was worse."

When he was 14, he says, he ran away from home. He says he lived in a seminary for seven or eight months. Eventually, he ended up in Europe, and when he was 17, he says, his face was smiling back at him from all over Italy, in magazines and on television and plastered on billboards, in hype for Pirelli tires and Dannon yogurt. "I was making three-quarters of a million to a million a year," he says. He says he grew infatuated, if not with all of his 268 pounds, at least with his face. Maybe going through life as a four-door Mercedes wouldn't be so bad.

Then one day, he says, he received a note from someone he didn't know. It said, "Fat people die young. Please don't die, Richard."

That was the origin of his cause.

Until two years ago, he wore nothing but black. "I was in mourning for the fat people of America."

There were only five or six men in the audience, and they were husbands in tow. The other hundred or so who sat in a semicircle around the set of "Charlie Rose" were women of the coveted 18-to-49 set, who seemed to be very different from each other except for the giggly grins on their faces when Richard Simmons came bouncing out on cue. He always bounces; he appears to be carbonated, and if not carbonated, certainly full of carrots. Simmons is very California, right down to the iridescent running shoes that appeared to be passing through fuchsia on their way to magenta.

Simmons grinned and waved and giggled and mugged and bounced onto the tall wooden stool on stage, sliding back onto it like a little boy sliding back into a great big chair. Then he grinned and mugged some more, doing his best little-boy blush, his eyes not daring to look up from his wildly waggling feet, all of which the women loved even more. He had them. He had just come out, and already he had them.

Little boy is his best act, though he would have made some high school a nice cheerleader as well. He's big on fan participation and locomotive yells and gimme-an-A. With Simmons, they're facial exercises.

They were going into a break on "Charlie Rose" and Simmons got up to demonstrate. He asked the women to go along. He didn't have to ask twice.

"Aaay.

"Eeee.

"Iiii.

"Oooh.

"Uuuu."

He was stretching his face with each letter.

"Faster!

"AAA!

"EEE!

"III!

"OOO!

"UUU!

"Faster!

"A-E-I-O-U! AEIOU!"

He was climbing up the side of the stool.

"AEIOU!AEIOU!AEIOUAEIOUAEIOU!"

The women broke out in applause as the show went into the break. Their faces were flush with this giddy foolishness.

The husbands were noticeably less enthralled. At this point, some of them might well have been thinking of Simmons as the same kind of little twerp who was a boy cheerleader in high school. A great proportion of the men in America, particularly those out in mid-America, those who have not lived in neighborhoods where every siderwalk is an encounter group, have difficulty handling themselves around personalities like Simmons. No doubt, Simmons knows those men instinctively, for if he had snatched the beers out of their hands, he would have had his hair transplants re transplanted by now.

That hasn't happened.And Simmons says he has men thanking him for motivating their wives.

"I'm not a threat to them. I'm not going to steal their wives or girlfriends. I'm not 6-3 and 200 pounds, drinking Coors and smoking Camels and going to Gilley's wearing a cowboy hat. Do you know how silly I look in a cowboy hat? Like Shirley Temple at a rodeo."

Still, he will never possess with these men the magic that he has with women.When he told them on Charlie Rose's show about the note begging him not to die young, they moaned. Then he told them how he starved himself to save himself, how he lost 123 pounds to get to his current weight of 137, how his hair fell out and he was hospitalized, and how no one should ever starve himself and make himself miserable to lose weight. They don't need to.

By then, he might have even gotten to a husband or two. His mannerisms are often more boyish than effeminate, which makes the women want to mother him and allows the men to accept him.

"You know," he said later, "if I said to those women, 'Kick off your shoes and slip off those skirts and get up here and exercise,' they'd have done it."

Some of them would have, yes.

"All of them," he insisted. "By the time I got through talking to each one, all of them."