The first thing you notice about Richard Simmons is that he's little and loud. But adorable. And the ladies--well, the ladies just love him.
Yesterday, 100 congressional wives, daughters and friends crammed into the Congressional Wives Club to dine with the hyperactive television hero of the waistline. The women were not your basic blimps--but they sure were fans. He was poked, grabbed, kissed, hugged and generally worshiped. He autographed everything but their linen skirts. He also teased, yelled and massaged a lot of necks while the women ate.
"I'd much rather have them in warm-up suits, I usually never do lunches," said Simmons afterward. "It's boring for me. Why would I want to talk to you while you're eating? I don't compete well with bread and butter."
But the constant poking and fawning--no problem. "I love people. What I don't like is going to dinner and having people come over to my table and stare at what I'm eating," he says with a good deadpan delivery. "Also, as soon as they see me coming, the dessert spoon goes flying across the room. I mean really, I'm not big on walking up to people and saying 'you fat pig, put the chocolate cookies down.' "
Simmons, 34, has been called everything from the Clown Prince of Fitness to the Guru of Gastronomy since his half-hour syndicated exercise/diet show hit the air two years ago. He receives more than 40,000 fan letters a week. And most of the luncheon ladies said they tune in daily at 9 a.m.
Like Stacy Hefner, 22-year-old daughter of Rep. W.G. Hefner (D-N.C.). She's 5 feet 1, weighs "93 to 95" lbs., and never misses the show. And luncheon chairman Lois Breaux, wife of Rep. John Breaux (D-La.), equally tiny.
"I'd been watching--note I said watching--every morning for two weeks," said Breaux, "until one morning he said put down your coffee and put your buns on the floor." She's lost five pounds.
Simmons works a room almost as well as any politician. He kisses hands and squeals, "You all look so pretty," every few minutes. "What does your husband do--a congressman?" he asked Valery Moorhead, wife of the California Republican, Carlos Moorhead, while rubbing her neck. "I can feel the pressure." Moorhead said she watches "all the time."
His outfit--a white linen suit with white bucks--was not exactly a politician's pin stripe. Even he noticed.
"I feel like the Glad man," he said, rushing into the kitchen on arrival. "Do you love this wedding suit or not? I usually wear shorts. I feel like I'm dressed for a bar mitzvah."
Simmons provided the luncheon menu. Salmon steak poached in grapefruit juice, spinach salad and homemade orange sherbet. No salt, no pepper, no butter. Except for the sherbet, the food was not a big hit.
"What's the matter with your salmon?" he screeched to one woman as he was table-hopping.
This caused a little stir at another table, where Tricia Lott, wife of Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) wasn't about to touch her salmon. "Oh gosh, he's coming over here," she said. "He's going to notice." She quickly gave half her fish to Bonnie Livingston, wife of Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.). Simmons never noticed.
He had time for a few questions.
One woman, concerned about the perils of being a congressional wife, asked: "What can we do about eating, when we're campaigning and traveling a lot, and people cook for us for days?"
"At the dinner party, just say you're a diabetic," advised Simmons.