His reputation as a pioneering fitness guru with his classic line of Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos is the stuff of legend. His colorful personality has earned him both kudos and ridicule. Once seen never forgotten, Richard Simmons is an enduring presence in American media. But what motivates the motivator? Here are 10 revealing facts about the finely-tuned fitness instructor…
10. Religion was nearly his calling
Simmons nearly wound up wearing a dog collar instead of spandex. Born in New Orleans in 1948, he embraced Catholicism from a young age. After leaving high school he spent nearly two years at a Dominican seminary in Iowa.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1984, he said “I didn’t look anything like a priest… I was rather on the loud side. I mean, there was nothing calm or poetic about this mouth of mine.” However the experience did inform his later life. “I may not be performing my exercises in a church,” he commented, “but my exercise studios are a religious experience.”
9. He was a pioneer of video
Not in technical terms, but in relation to his audience. Video put famous faces like Jane Fonda in people’s homes, though the chances of viewers resembling celebs were unlikely.
With his Sweatin’ To The Oldies (as in music) series, Simmons put all types of people in the frame, which made his productions stand out as well as sell in the millions.
“Being an instructor, you have a lot of responsibility,” he told Biography.com in 2014, saying amongst other things that “you have to keep them motivated” and “you have to kind of spin a web around someone, a spell, that they don’t think they’re working out.” This sensitive approach was much appreciated by the public.
8. He appeared in two Fellini movies
Simmons is something of a performer — his long-standing role on General Hospital (between 1979 – 83) was testament to that. His interest in acting led to him working for one of the all-time great art house directors, Federico Fellini. Satyricon (1969) and The Clowns (1970) feature Simmons, though not in the form audiences know him today. A 2017 Mental Floss article writes that at the time “he was enjoying the cuisine of Florence, Italy, where he was studying art in the late 1960s.”
When Simmons slimmed down, he reportedly destroyed pictorial evidence of his former self. This makes Fellini’s movies an unexpected but unique record of how things used to be.
7. He replaced Alex Trebek on a home shopping show
Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek was the initial host of ValueTelevision, a 1987 home shopping show. Occupying an hour slot, it was hoped distributor Lorimar would have a hit on their hands. Unfortunately viewers simply weren’t buying it.
So Richard Simmons was brought in to replace Trebek and get the nation purchasing. Even his enthusiastic sales pitch couldn’t inspire couch potatoes, and the program went off air soon after.
6. He avoids restaurants
In 2008 Simmons was being interviewed by the Denver Post, where it was revealed that restaurants weren’t exactly his favorite places. “Rarely does he do restaurants because people are always curious about what’s on Simmons’ plate,” the piece states.
He also reportedly felt uncomfortable about eating around other diners while staying in hotels. This was due to the pressure his presence would place on their meal choices, meaning he often kept out of the way and ordered room service.
5. David Letterman nearly put him in a hospital
Soap operas, game shows and movie makers were only too keen to have the eye-catching Simmons appear onscreen. He had some small screen shows of his own, and naturally the talk show circuit wanted a piece of the fitness craze action.
He visited the Late Show With David Letterman on numerous occasions, where the host would have fun pranking his larger than life guest. But talking to Men’s Health in 2012, Simmons was under the impression he wasn’t liked. “You’re just not allowed to talk to him,” he said. “Or if you are, he’s very standoffish… Maybe that’s just how he is with me, I don’t know.”
Tensions existed between them when in 2000 Letterman sprayed Simmons with a fire extinguisher, triggering an asthma attack. Despite expressing love for the awkward interview master, Simmons stayed away from the Late Show for six years following the incident.
4. He really, really loves his dogs
For Simmons, man’s best friend is definitely his dog. Or rather, dogs. The Denver Post writes that he named his three canines “after characters from “Gone With the Wind” (Scarlett, Pittypat, Melanie)”.
While he’s away, he wants them to know they aren’t far from his thoughts, so “he calls his house every night to talk with his dogs and sing to them.” Now that’s doggy devotion.
3. He doesn’t do sarcasm
Simmons comes across as a fun personality, but like anybody he has sore spots. A passenger at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix found that out the hard way in 2004 when he made a less-than-courteous remark in the fitness fanatic’s direction. According to Mental Floss, the man “spotted Simmons and shouted, ‘Hey, everybody, it’s Richard Simmons. Let’s drop our bags and rock to the ‘50s.’”
The rocker in question responded by going up to the man (described by Today as a “motorcycle salesman who stands more than six feet tall and competes in the martial-arts sport of cage fighting”) and slapped him in the face. An assault charge was leveled but the matter was settled out of court.
2. He doesn’t shy away from advising overweight strangers
He dislikes competitiveness and shaming in the field of fighting fat. However this doesn’t stop Simmons talking to strangers he feels need a quiet word about their weight. A patron at an eatery may well receive a surprise when Simmons takes a seat and talks to them about their ill-advised yet delicious food choice.
Interviewed by Biography.com, he said of his interactions with the public that “my job is to give them hope. Because with hope you can cope. I’m a good listener, and then I try to give them the best advice I can give them.”
1. An anonymous note concerning his weight started his fitness career
Simmons’ career in fitness began via unconventional means. The New York Times did a feature in 1981 referencing an unsolicited source who left a note on Simmons’ car in 1968. It read “Fat people die young. Please don’t die.”
Whether this was down to his job as a plus size model or other reasons, the young Simmons took the random communication to heart. “Rattled by the message,” Mental Floss writes, “the then-268-pound Simmons developed an eating disorder, surviving on water and lettuce for more than two months.”
Whatever the misguided intentions of the anonymous writer, it took Simmons’ life in a positive direction. “Hey, I became a millionaire,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I became successful, but I still don’t look like Tom Selleck. I look like the best Richard Simmons I can be, and that’s good enough for me.”