For many people who grew up in the 1980s, Richard Simmons is seared into our minds: the short shorts, the spangly red tank, the hair. And the voice. That loud and uninhibited voice, booming. But there was always a darker side to Simmons which the fitness guru allowed to see – the teary, emotional side. It’s these extremes that mark his public persona. Simmons was firmly lodged into pop culture for over 30 years, hawking his diet and weight loss products while simultaneously inspiring many to better their lives through exercise and self love. Yes, to some, he was a joke. Though he made frequent appearances on late night TV, the bro culture of late night often meant that Simmons was the butt of barely-disguised homophobic humor. (even though Simmons never acknowledged if he was queer) But for his fans and admirers, Simmons was an unrelenting, unstoppable beam of pure light.
And then the light went out. Simmons hasn’t been seen in public since 2014. Rumors started popping up that he was being held hostage by his housekeeper, or that he was laying low because he was transitioning. Some suggested that he was ill. For such a gregarious figure, his sudden ghosting from public life seemed strange. For his many friends, the disappearance is painful. Enter Missing Richard Simmons, a podcast created and hosted by filmmaker Dan Taberski, a friend who also was left wondering what happened to Simmons. The six-part podcast is a combination of a loving tribute and a mystery, in which Taberski interviews people intimately involved in Simmons’ life – including brother Larry Simmons – to figure out just why the popular exercise icon vanished.
Even though Missing Richard Simmons is ostensibly about Richard Simmons, it’s also about celebrity culture, the nature of friendship, the power of uplift and inspiration, and at its core it’s about people who have been forever changed – for the better – by a man who was constantly searching, seemingly in vain, for happiness and self-worth. A large part of Simmons’ celebrity was his willingness to be emotional, but for some interviewed in the podcast, most notably comedienne Lauren Weedman, the openness was dark and somewhat disturbing. When asked if Richard Simmons was happy, comedy duo the Sklar Brothers both quickly answered no. Just a quick search on the Internet for Simmons’ interviews with Howard Stern show a man who is struggling with dark emotions, but feels compelled to offer a joviality in response.
Others interviewed include Simmons’ manager Michael Catalano, brother Larry, and former client and friend, David Garcia (Taberski’s ability to nab subjects for his project is impressive). Also, others who thought they knew Simmons well – clients, friends, associates – appear on the podcast to voice their disbelief at Simmons’ sudden departure from public life. These soundbites are the most poignant because it shows that beneath the fluffy exterior is a man who did a lot of good.
But Taberski, despite being a friend, isn’t intent on hagiography. When talking to Catalano or Winifred Morris, a nutritionist who worked with Simmons on his Cruise To Lose, another, slightly more complicated image of Simmons emerges: one that is somewhat capricious and fickle. Morris’ excerpts imply that Simmons is invested in relationships in which he can be a savior, but that once the person attains his or her goal weight, Simmons moves on to his next project. Catalano is even more frank suggesting that those who feel abandoned by Simmons may have exaggerated or inflated their relationship with Simmons. It’s not that Simmons is opportunistic or brutal, but that his empathy is so overwhelming it can create a false sense of intimacy and closeness.
It’s this balance of honesty and affection that make Missing Richard Simmons such a great listen. The subject does invite some camp, and Taberski doesn’t avoid it (though he stays clear from mugging for his audiences). When clips of Simmons’ talk show appearances are heard, listeners get to hear just how insane some of his onscreen antics were (the visuals help too). And Taberski is a thoughtful and helpful guide in this story, gently taking his audience on a long and winding tale, that is at times, quite humorous, but for the most part is sad and touching. His connection to his subject ensures that he’s not going into this for a cheap laugh, nor is this a grim and callous way of profiting from someone’s pain. It’s a fascinating and touching tribute to a man who spent most of his adult life trying to convince people to love themselves.