The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Richard Simmons missing? Or is he just dearly missed?

“I think he’s important,” says the producer of a new podcast probing why Richard Simmons has retreated so dramatically from friends and the public. (Washington Post illustration; Jason Kempin/Getty; iStock)

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 health-food 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-the-right.

“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 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 comes 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.”