(Image via Buzzfeed; Evan Hurd Photography / Getty Images)
Remember how I talked about the Missing Richard Simmons podcast last month? Well, it wrapped, and while it did make me think, it won’t hold too much space in my personal pop culture collective. Maybe it would’ve had more room if I hadn’t listened to the very powerful S-Town last week. Still, there IS a there- there, and Pier Dominguez, writing at Buzzfeed, expounds on it. Namely, the very peculiar religiosity within Simmons:
But the real problem with Missing Richard Simmons is that the show’s narrative added to the confusion around Richard Simmons the cultural persona and Richard Simmons the person. The fascination with his disappearance is ultimately a cultural conundrum that can be traced through a consideration of the way Simmons’ celebrity evolved, especially the persona that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s as a kind of Mother Teresa of fitness. That image worked — apparently too well — by disrupting gendered boundaries between personal and professional, between commercial and spiritual, between camp and sincerity. And it is by understanding how that image functioned — and how it was received — that the fascination with his retirement makes a different kind of sense.
In an episode of his own talk show, The Richard Simmons Show, which aired from 1980 to 1984, Simmons hands his guest (the dreamy General Hospital soap star Tristan Rogers) a bouquet of roses before giving him one of his usual long and tight hugs, which appear both innocently enthusiastic and carnal. “Today’s guest is a…real heartthrob,” he announces. Sandwiched between Rogers and Rogers’ wife during the show’s cooking segment, Simmons clings to Rogers’ arm and kisses his shoulder twice. “Hold the kisses,” says Rogers, half joking, as Simmons sidles up to him.
“Tell me about the first time you kissed him,” Simmons says to the wife.
“I don’t remember,” she says, unimpressed.
“I would’ve remembered!” says Simmons excitedly.
This wink-wink attitude toward men desiring men permeated many of Simmons’ daytime television appearances, and it seemed to make sense within the supposedly feminine sphere of morning and daytime television, even throughout the ’90s. As a guest on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee in 1995, for example, he arrives on set and hands Kathie Lee a rose, adding, “This is for Frank,” meaning her husband Frank Gifford, the football player. “Thank you, precious,” Kathie Lee replies, and then she plays along by saying, “Frank will appreciate it. Hasn’t stopped talking about Richard.”
People were already speculating about Simmons and his private life, but Simmons had answers for them: It was all devoted to public service. In the 1981 People profile, he “insists he has little time for a private life — and no plans to start one. He has few close friends.” Simmons goes on to tell the writer (in a way that sounds defensive, and that he would repeat in almost every interview he gave): “What’s more important, a one-to-one kid-and-family situation or helping 60 million people get their act together?” He was able to frame his difference from the norm as a kind of selflessness. It was as if he had turned into the priest he once dreamed of being, a goal he mentioned in a 1997 profile in the St. Petersburg Times and other interviews, shifting questions about the sexual and familial onto the transcendental and spiritual. While that displacement initially worked to keep the contradictions of his image intact, it would be harder to maintain over the years.
And some more…
Richard Simmons’ saintly image became fully complete in the ’90s, when bursting into tears became an integral part of his public persona. These moments turned into a constant theme of his interviews and television appearances, helping to affirm the sense of priestly spirituality that he talked about in profiles. Eventually, he became American fitness’s Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, a role that was sometimes framed by Simmons or in newspaper accounts as an evolution from his Catholic upbringing. But given its repetition, Simmons’ sincerity eventually came into question.
Reporting on one of his many mall and health expo appearances, a Baltimore Sun journalist wrote in 1993 of one fan encounter, “The elevator doors open once more and the man disappears with a wave. Speechless for once, Mr. Simmons rides to the lobby with tears in his eyes.”
In 1999, a Los Angeles Times reporter described a similar scene as Simmons sorted through fan mementos: “Needlepoint portraits of him, hand-drawn photo albums, handmade stuffed animals. The givers’ emotional attachment seems intense. ‘Yes,’ Simmons says, ‘it is.’ As a testament to his sincerity, a tear forms in the corner of his eye and slides down his cheek.”
Up to Missing Richard Simmons, I never thought of Simmons as any kind of mother (really!), certainly not a Teresa. So that’s something.