Simmons didn’t leap into the national spotlight by accident. However much we may bemoan the prying eye of the media, in most cases you have to work hard to get there. And to stay there for decades, as Simmons did, you have to work relentlessly. If you know about him, it’s because he forced himself on us, using all the tools of media culture at his disposal. VHS tapes are quaint relics today, but when Simmons chose to build his empire out of them, he was a true media revolutionary, turning his living image into something you could possess.
But you didn’t have to buy in to be exposed: In a three-network TV landscape, Simmons became as reliable a talk-show fixture as the mug on the host’s desk. In eight years, he did Letterman 30 times and Leno 24 times. At the supermarket checkout, there was Simmons, gyrating on the cover of TV Guide with half a dozen hula hoops or doing the bump with Mickey Mouse on the cover of People. He has been noisy on social media. He made himself literally (some would say exhaustingly) unavoidable.
Becoming a celebrity on the scale of Simmons is inherently an aggressive, competitive act. You need to believe that what you have to offer has real value, that it’s better than what the people who go unseen have to contribute. For ages, Simmons was on firm moral ground here. He made the members of a painfully overlooked constituency — not just the overweight, but the morbidly obese, people whose health had often turned them into shut-ins — feel loved and accepted at the same time that he encouraged them to strive toward their better, happier selves. He didn’t believe anybody was a lost cause. No one was too big to fail at losing weight. A sensible diet and plenty of vigorous exercise would put a brighter future within reach: Simmons made people believe it and act on it. That is not an easy thing to accomplish. Even if you build a corporation on that basis, you are changing lives, you are performing a public good.
But it’s the nature of his good works that makes Simmons’s’ disappearance troubling. When you suddenly and without explanation retreat from the assertive position that brought you to prominence and gave others comfort, it makes it seem as though you no longer believe in the product your celebrity was based on. And if an essential aspect of your brand was building a personal connection with people at the level of their fundamental self-worth, they are going to feel wronged when you drop them. That’s what happens when you make yourself matter to people. You can’t blame them for feeling they’re due an explanation when you ghost.
The vanishing act is even more puzzling given Simmons’ compulsion (I think you’d have to call it that) to go above and beyond the call of duty. The mansion he’s now holed up in was once a regular stop for tours of the homes of Hollywood stars because he’d flag down the buses and run outside to meet tourists for photo ops. One driver guesses he saw Simmons 200 times. Simmons would also go out of his way to become telephone friends with people who needed him. Taberski recounts the story of one Nebraska hairdresser who lost 200 pounds as Simmons talked her through it, week after week, for free. The regular support was an essential part of her healing.
But Taberski loses his footing when he likens Simmons to a therapist and asks whether it’s justifiable for a quasi-practitioner to suddenly stop seeing patients. It’s an odd argument, because a better analogy — to a profession just as intimate and powerful and yet far less formalized and regulated — is well within reach. Taberski seems on the verge of making it, when he points out Simmons’ kinship with the televangelists of the 1980s, such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who brought the up-close-and-personal fervor of the tent revival to the cool, coast-to-coast glow of the cathode ray. Simmons himself considered his path a holy one. He had attended seminary for nearly two years, planning to become a priest. He explained his decision to drop out on Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s TV talk show: “I left because I felt that my pulpit could be bigger, I guess … . I just felt that I could help God and help the world by doing what I really wanted to do.” Simmons has carried that mission forward, all the way to his clunky but sincere Twitter handle, @TheWeightSaint.
While the dominions of the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart eventually crumbled through predictable moral lapses, Simmons’ disappearance hints at a deeper crisis, one that strikes at the heart of his followers’ devotion. If a preacher loses his faith, the only decent thing for him to do is to keep it to himself and keep playing the part. Part of the responsibility of shepherding people is not to let the flock think you have lost your way. In Simmons’s case, to walk away is to imply that the exchange of goods and services for dollars was the only relationship that mattered, that it was all about business. But Simmons conducted his true commerce in the currency of belief. He sculpted bodies, sure, but he sculpted souls and wills first.
But isn’t a parson allowed to put himself out to pasture? Ordinarily, yes. Because churches are usually set up to outlive whatever leadership they currently may have. There’s a succession plan in place. That’s not the case here. The Beverly Hills exercise studio that Simmons brought to life throughout his career, from obscurity through full media saturation and right up to his sudden departure, is the Simmons empire in microcosm, its name a corny pun away from being synonymous with the man himself: It’s called “Slimmons.” When Taberski covered its November 2016 closing, the question was whether its proprietor would show up for one last dance. Everyone wished he would, but nobody expected it at that point. Also, nobody argued that Slimmons should continue without him. The instructors who’d filled in since the disappearance scarcely rated a mention.
The thought of Slimmons (or any other part of the Simmons empire) continuing without his active leadership makes about as much sense as Flannery O’Connor’s Church of Christ Without Christ. Jenny Craig without Jenny Craig? Not a problem: The company boasts “2,000 personal consultants.” But Simmons built his empire on a single inimitable persona, loud enough to cut through the noise, boisterous enough to energize the unmotivated, and undeniably Richard. It’s not a mantle that just anybody can take up and wear plausibly.
And that’s why it’s unacceptable for him to walk away without ceremony. It’s unfair to call the Church of Richard Simmons a cult of personality, because it never had self-aggrandizement as its ultimate aim. But he did make himself central to many people’s lives. I’m less concerned here with the mechanism, whether Simmons insinuated himself into a follower’s day-to-day through TV, social media, satellite radio, private phone call, cruise-ship confab or organized class. What’s important is that he had the emotional bandwidth to care personally about a very high number of people who normally would have remained strangers. That Nebraska hairdresser who got a call from Simmons “at least every Sunday” for years? Taberski figures that “over the past four decades, Richard has done this for thousands of people like Kathy.”
Unlike many faith healers, Simmons also offered proof of efficacy. You could draw a direct line from the manic ministrations of this kind and concerned man to the efforts of the faithful to their marvelously altered lives. Once an overweight kid filled with self-loathing, he wrought change in himself, then he did it for others.
No one works off half their body weight and turns their health around without having upended their sense of the possible. The incredible made credible through the intercession of a suffering striver is at the heart of many faiths. Belief in Richard Simmons is no exception.