You know Richard Simmons even if you don’t follow him. For 40 years, his singular claim to fame has been his career-making zeal as the champion of health and fitness for the every man and woman. He’s the peppy guy who donned micro shorts and an Anglo Afro at the height of his popularity in the 1980s and 1990s to prod average Americans and their un-ripped bodies from their sofas and recliners to sweat to the oldies. Now he’s the center of a mystery only he can accurately resolve. A new six-episode podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, examines when – and tries to explain why – the king of aerobic exercise went silent.
For Simmons’ devotees, his effervescent enthusiasm and bubbly demeanour made working out seem a little less unpleasant, even fun. A progenitor of body positivity who overcame obesity after a 123-pound weight loss journey, he seemed to be having a ball, too. He used his celebrity to advocate for children’s physical fitness in schools. He was a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman and The Howard Stern Show. He appeared in commercials for Sprint and Yoplait. His brand as irresistibly up-beat guy was so recognisable, he even poked fun at it in a Geico commercial. Then, with no real explanation to assuage fans and followers, Simmons dropped from the public eye in 2014 and reportedly extricated himself from personal friendships one by one.
Filmmaker Dan Taberski was one of the people in that inner circle who lost touch with Simmons when the fitness aficionado went dark. In Missing, he threads archival soundbites of Simmons and interview clips of his friends with his own narration to create a chronological timeline of the days following Simmons’ first noticeable absence. It’s compellingly produced storytelling to explore, postulate and, some say, even sensationalise what really happened. Here, everything you need to know about the new podcast Missing Richard Simmons.
Who is Dan Taberski?
A writer and producer from New York City, Taberski recalls in the first episode of Missing how he met Simmons when he joined the class Simmons had led for decades at his Beverly Hills studio. “Exercise was never my thing – until I started exercising with Richard Simmons,” recalls Taberski over syncopated background music. “In less than 30 minutes of a 90-minute class, I found myself bare-chested surrounded by step-clapping middle-aged women as Richard wiped the sweat off my torso with my T-shirt – and then shoved it down his shorts.” Eventually, a friendship developed between the two and Taberski said he’d even talked to Simmons about filming a documentary on his life. Though that endeavour never materialised, Taberski uses his media chops to harvest personal stories about Simmons, both from others’ experiences and his own.
Who is the Richard Simmons that Taberski knew?
The empire Richard Simmons has amassed by being Richard Simmons – video franchises, a dozen books, infomercials, fitness cruises, not including appearance fees, endorsements and other business products – is reportedly worth a cool $15 million. But there was a lot more to the man than just a go-go-go fitness guru. Missing reveals the authentic man who, for all his vibrancy, struggled at times with depression and body image. Taberski calls the podcast a “love letter” to his former friend and he succeeds in humanising the pop culture icon through personal commentary collected from his deep well of interview material and input he harvested firsthand from people close to him. But Missing also begs the question: Would a man whose high-energy lifestyle propelled him forward for 40 years willingly embrace forced solitude and separation from a dynamism of his own creation?
What could have happened to him?
Rumours sparked, then flared, after a New York Daily News story claimed that Simmons’ housekeeper-cum-best-friend of 30 years, Teresa Reveles, was purposely isolating him and controlling his life. Friends claim he was summoning some, calling others to explain that he could no longer maintain contact. Maurio Oliveira, who last saw Simmons in 2014, told the News that she worried that he looked gaunt, too thin for his already petite 5-foot-7 frame. She blamed his “tormented” appearance on witchcraft leveraged by Reveles. It’s a claim adamantly refuted by both Simmons and Reveles, who declined to be interviewed for the story in the New York Daily News.
Is Richard Simmons really missing?
It’s unclear exactly when Simmons dropped off. Taberski remembers February 15th, 2014 as the first day their spirited leader failed to show, which was out of character. Other accounts substantiate that as the beginning of Simmons’ mysterious silencing, as well. At the time, Simmons posted a message to assure those concerned that he was recovering from a knee injury. Then, he fell into another round of silence as he uncharacteristically missed friends’ funerals and neglected to respond to fan letters. Then in 2016, Simmons emerged in a phone interview on The Today Show to again soothe personal friends and public concern, assuring those listening that he was essentially just taking advantage of some self-care time. In a new statement to People, Simmons’ rep insisted that his client is “simply taking a break from the public eye and working behind the scenes.” Still, Taberski launched the first instalment of the podcast’s on the second anniversary of when Simmons went silent, acknowledging that his test subject “may sue him or excoriate him” but steadfast in his claim that something is wrong.
Is it fair for Taberski to be making a public spectacle out of his friend’s silence?
Abrupt departure aside, it is possible that Simmons really does just want to be left alone. After 40 years of giving himself to better the lives of others, he may legitimately need to give the public face of Richard a rest. It’s a fact only he can verify. Until then, the mystery remains – but it begs an ethical question: is the best way to express concern about a friend’s wellbeing to create a podcast about their insidious absence? The delivery is commendable – one of the most compelling podcasts since Serial changed the game in 2014 – but, as the season continues sans Simmons, it remains to be seen if Taberski is crowdsourcing help for his friend, or capitalising off his pain.