For many weight-watching women, Richard Simmons has long been a god-sent savior from snack-food hell. With his frizzed, white-man's Afro and fashion-impaired running shorts, the Peter Pan of fitness burst into Middle American homes a quarter-century ago exuding an "I-Feel-Your-Pain" ethos that would make Bill Clinton look aloof, and a you-go-girl spirit even Oprah would envy.
His career-establishing years of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a different cultural era, but the image Simmons projects hasn't changed much since he first hawked workout audiocassettes and diet books. The silliness, the funny faces, the occasional hints at being gay -- it's all very pre-Stonewall, and some gay critics say Simmons' shtick is demeaning. That won't stop his adoring fans from coming to see Simmons, who now qualifies for AARP membership, when he hams it up Friday at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart for the Southern Women's Show.
"I just try to give [people] hope," Simmons said by phone recently from his home in Los Angeles. Although it was just after noon on the West Coast, Simmons, who has a reputation for phoning his struggling fans at their homes, said he had already made 60 calls of encouragement that morning. "That's my job, when I come to the Southern Women's Show -- to make them believe in themselves again and give them the courage and the guts to try again."
But is Richard Simmons really just an endearingly innocuous fitness guru -- or is he a dangerously outdated stereotype?
Depends on whom you talk to. His persona as a relentlessly upbeat clown for weight loss and sympathetic friend to overweight or obese people (mostly women) hasn't changed much since the Reagan era. But attitudes about celebrities' gender identities have.
The number of celebrities living in what Outing Yourself author Michelangelo Signorile calls "the glass closet" seems to have dwindled, while other celebs have adopted a stance journalist Andrew Sullivan has termed "Kinda Ask, Sorta Tell."
David Moore, editor of the Charlotte-based gay and lesbian newspaper QNotes, takes another position on Simmons' persona. "The man is who he is, right?" said Moore. "Society needs to get beyond the notion that your gender requires you to behave in a certain way."
No one can accuse Simmons of not behaving as he wishes -- whether he's working a convention center, a "Jiggle for Jesus" church gathering, an exercise studio or an emergency shelter. About a week after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Simmons visited his hometown of New Orleans with Entertainment Tonight and urged people who'd escaped floodwaters to work out. "And you know, I made them laugh and I carried on and was crazy and put on some music on a boombox and we exercised to all those songs. It was great," he said. ". . .I worry these people are not eating the best of foods, because you know, it's shelter food, really. And they're not moving. I don't want them to gain weight and to get sick and hurt themselves and get back problems and diabetes."
Red Cross and United Way spokesmen said they are sympathetic to Simmons' concerns, but some feel his offer is a bit misguided. "Certainly exercise is important, but the time and place are probably important to the reception of that offer," said Cecily Durrett of the United Way of Central Carolinas. "I think Simmons is a terrific guy and I think he's well-intentioned, but the United Way is focused on meeting urgent needs, so we would certainly want to put those first."
Who but Richard Simmons would worry about flood victims' exercise regimen? After all, he's built an empire on exercise videos, Deal-a-Meals and pep talks for the ever-expanding majority of us who see a few too many pounds (or more) in the morning mirror. On October 2, he'll begin a weekly Sirius satellite radio show. And for years, he's endured jokes about his image from talk-show hosts and stand-up comics, most notably Eddie Murphy's portrayal of "Little Richard Simmons."
He's also consistently ducked queries about his personal life, whether reacting with mock anger at David Letterman's barbs or coyly dancing around any mention of a personal life in his autobiography, Still Hungry -- After All These Years.
Simmons says what you see is what you get. Growing up heavy, not fitting in with the guys, he didn't feel comfortable with people. Now he lives with two Dalmatians and his housekeeper and doesn't go out much, even to eat because, he said, people feel guilty when he walks in.
At least once, Simmons has been quite defensive on the subject of his sexual identity. "Look, I'm not your average, you know, man in his 50s," he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1999. "I don't have the gray hair slicked back, I don't have glasses on. I'm not in a coat and tie. . .," he said. "My persona has always been what a man was never supposed to be. Outrageous, gregarious, crazy, silly, funny. But my mother told me, and it's also in the book, never change, be who you are and do the good things that you do and let people think whatever they think . . . I don't talk about two things. I don't talk about my personal life and I don't talk about death. So you can ask me any other area but those."
Such reticence is understandable, considering that Simmons' empire of products and public appearances -- as well as his desire to please -- depend on a sympathetic persona, a persona that's been open in just about every other area and has been predicated on others opening up so much about themselves.
But Simmons hasn't budged. He's a classic entertainer of the old school, where private life doesn't matter but public image does. The determinedly confessional Simmons has never felt a need to bare deep dark secrets -- unless they're sugar-coated in positivity (or chocolate).
The organization Equality North Carolina encourages gay people to come out of the closet and strengthen the community, but executive director Ian Palmquist said ENC doesn't force the issue. "I think [coming out] is easier today, but there are still challenges for people, and it can be used against them," said Palmquist.
"To my knowledge, Richard Simmons has never actually come out, although I don't think he's in denial about it -- he just doesn't talk about it," said QNotes editor Moore.
Few celebrities have fans like Simmons' flock -- people who feel so personally that the object of their adulation relates to and cares about them. Simmons can draw women into his fold in a way Tae-Bo king Billy Blanks or fitness godfather Jack LaLanne couldn't. "I have to make those people laugh," Simmons said. "Some are not eating well. Some are feeling bad about themselves, and I've got to go there and I'm the court jester, I'm the clown, and I have to make it work for them."
Additional reporting by Sam Boykin.