As the first celebrity to publicly decry fat shaming, Richard Simmons quickly became a hero to millions of Americans fighting the weight-loss battle. Born Milton Teagle Simmons, he grew up known as Richard “Dickie” Simmons, in the capital of rich Cajun cuisine: New Orleans, Louisiana.
Little did the world know that the overweight kid from New Orleans would go on to shape the fitness landscape. Here’s a deeper dive into Simmons’ background, fitness philosophy and lasting footprint on the American exercise landscape.
Richard Simmons’ early years
A severely overweight kid, Simmons was unfortunately all too well-acquainted with the torment of peer bullying. Finding consolation in his hometown’s famous comfort food, Richard graduated from high school at 5’7”, weighing 268 pounds. By today’s standards, that height-weight combination constitutes a BMI of almost 42%—placing the teenage Simmons in the realm of morbid obesity.
Filled with self-loathing, Simmons began a roller coaster of extreme dieting and dependence on diet pills. He developed an eating disorder, was hospitalized and almost died. Eventually, Simmons reoriented his routine to healthy dieting and exercise, finding solace in the value of “balance, moderate eating and exercise.” This transformed his life and cemented his new mission: helping others find their way back to health.
A shift toward the fitness spotlight
In 1973, determined to help others who endured his troubles, Richard Simmons moved to Los Angeles and opened an exercise studio to accommodate the extremely overweight. In his gym, The Anatomy Asylum, the goal was to foster an environment where exercisers never felt embarrassed, regardless of their stage of the fitness journey. The Anatomy Asylum was eventually rebranded as “Slimmons,” and stayed open for more than 40 years before closing its doors in 2016.
In the 1970s, people who frequented gyms wore spunky spandex exercise outfits with matching forehead sweatbands. Most overweight people wouldn’t be caught dead in a gym surrounded by the beautifully-outfitted “already in-shapers.” Simmons became a pioneer in the world of exercise by advocating self-love no matter one’s clothing size. After opening his gym, Simmons’ kind, inspiring enthusiasm quickly garnered thousands of devotees.
Simmons and the height of fitness fame
Simmons gained popularity with his gym, but he found fame on television. In 1979, Simmons appeared as himself, leading an aerobics class, in the iconic soap opera General Hospital. In 1980, he hosted his own talk and exercise program, The Richard Simmons Show. The show focused on personal fitness and health, featured a daily aerobic workout segment and ran for four years.
Meanwhile, the relatively fresh format of video had become massively popular. Simmons capitalized on the new technology by developing an aerobic exercise workout video set to old pop-dance music. Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies video series was carefully choreographed to make exercise possible for people of all sizes. It was an instant phenomenon, giving people the ability to exercise in the privacy of their own homes.
Simmons had quickly grown into a bona fide fitness celebrity, spending time on talk and variety shows, traveling across America visiting malls and speaking to enormous crowds. Permanently ensconced in his iconic “short shorts” and sporting his ever-present curly perm, Simmons drew massive audiences ready to embrace fitness. His mixture of compassion, sparkle and quirk proved to be a magnetic combination.
Simmons was everywhere. His irreverent humor and unabashed exuberance claimed him a regular guest spot on late-night talk shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman. He reportedly made as many as 250 personal appearances each year.
Simmons also wrote several books, including the iconic self-help book Richard Simmons’ Never Give Up: Inspirations, Reflections, Stories of Hope, and the autobiography Still Hungry After All These Years: My Story. He also wrote two cookbooks: Richard Simmons: Never Say Diet Book and The Richard Simmons’ Farewell to Fat Cookbook: Homemade in the U.S.A.
A lasting fitness legacy
Simmons taught his last class at Slimmons in Beverly Hills in 2014. Since then, he has all but disappeared from the public eye. But it was his lack of public appearances, ironically, that recently landed him back in the headlines. Rumors fueled by the popular podcast Missing Richard Simmons speculated about his unusual absence from the limelight after years as a public figure. But Simmons fans need not worry: the icon has since confirmed that he is not missing.
Simmons’ fitness legacy lives on today as a testament to his loving sparkle and encouraging panache. Thanks to YouTube, a whole new generation can now sweat to the oldies—and discover the acceptance and support Simmons dispensed so freely to his adoring public. And for those who are a little more “old school,” the complete set of DVDs was re-released in December 2017. The book Reach for Fitness: A Special Book of Exercises for the Physically Challenged features exercise programs Simmons designed, cementing his legacy for helping people of all abilities engage in exercise.
Whether you remember Simmons most for Sweatin’ to the Oldies or his colorful personality and short shorts, there’s no denying that the once-overweight kid from New Orleans has left a lasting mark on the fitness landscape. Perhaps his legacy can be best summed up in this recent quote from the fitness icon himself. “No one is perfect. Love yourself for all of you, and everyone else will too,” Simmons wrote on Facebook in 2016.