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A Conversation With The Man Trying To Find Richard Simmons

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Richard Simmons in 2008. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Richard Simmons, through the sheer force of personality, has long seeped into the public consciousness. There's the frazzled hair, the short shorts, the shine of his irrepressible energy.

Appearances aside, he has also worked tirelessly as one of our more vocal advocates of health and fitness. It is all the more alarming, then, that Simmons has disappeared from the public eye; it has been three years since the fitness guru made an official appearance. Acquaintances say they're worried, that something may be amiss. There are even claims that he may be manipulated by a confidant.

As we'd noted late last month, filmmaker Dan Taberski is on a quest to find out what, exactly, has happened to Simmons. Taberski, a former student of Simmons' at his Beverly Hills workout studio, is documenting his mission on Missing Richard Simmons, a podcast that has quickly garnered a wide audience (since its debut, it has been in the top ten of most listened-to podcasts).

Taberski spoke with LAist over the phone to talk about his relationship with Simmons, what the fitness advocate was like away from the camera, and why he's using a podcast to frame his efforts to find a friend.

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When was it evident to you that he was really gone?

I moved back to New York a couple months before that, at the end of 2013. So I wasn't there when he first stopped showing up. Basically, what happened was, he didn't show up for a class and he didn't tell anyone why. And he didn't answer any phone calls or emails or texts. So already it was surprising. It wasn't like, after a few months, he was like "Hey what's up." I mean he was teaching there since Gerald Ford was President. For him to not show up, and without an explanation, was bizarre. And he just never came back. It was immediate to people that something was wrong.

So it wasn't a gradual fade-out.

After that first class, maybe there was a trickle of a few emails. But it was a pretty hard cutoff.

I should add that it's so hard for me to explain his class. This is not like zumba. It's not like a cycling class. This was his family. A lot of the people in his class he'd known for 10 to 30 years. These are the people he knows and loves.

I've never met him but I know the public persona: effervescent, friendly, and vocal. Is that the person you know in real life?

Yes. He is a true original. He is a force. He's effervescent and he's insane in the best possible way. He's hilarious, super foul-mouthed. He is shocking. But also incredibly kind and quick to cry. He is incredibly emotional; he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and not just the happy ones. He's exposed. He's like a raw nerve. And sometimes it's amazing and wonderful. And sometimes it's intense and heartbreaking, and he doesn't shy away from those things.

From what I've gathered, he wasn't just a trainer or the like. It seems that he entered a somewhat emotional space with the people he helped out. Is this why people are concerned, and maybe even feeling a little betrayed?

Richard was friends with those people. There were people who had been taking the classes since the beginning. This was his second home. I'll tell you this: there's no way he was making money off of that place, unless I'm missing some enormous cash flow source. I mean it was in Beverly Hills, and it was a couple classes a week, and it was $12 a class. And supposedly the lease there was month to month.

There's no way he was making money. He was doing it because this was who he was. So it was alarming that he stopped coming.

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And I guess there were instances where he became more than a teacher to people? What are some examples that come to mind for you?

He'd wake up at four in the morning and called 20, 30, 40 people a day. Around the country. People who reached out to him and said they were alone, and said they needed kindness and help. And he did a lot of that without it being publicized. It was his job; the job he gave himself. He took the job seriously and I think it affected him a lot. He's helped thousands of people. And he's certainly, absolutely, saved hundreds of lives.

And it was ongoing. It was probably relentless for him. And it was a really special gift he has for showing empathy and kindness.

That's got to be taxing, right? From an emotional standpoint, and otherwise. To let so many people into your life must be hard.

Yes, for sure. There are priests who will up and quit after years of service because they can't handle it—overseeing a congregation, and constantly hearing about problems and deaths, and being at funerals. Someone's always at a hospital, or someone's always having a crisis. And they, sure, I imagine it would be very taxing.

And I'm in an interesting position here, because I've talked with dozens and dozens of people that he has helped. And not just in small ways. These are year-long, decade-long relationships he's had with people—people who needed help.

And the thing with obesity, especially in America, it is not a problem that is getting better. In the last four years it has only gotten worse. Even if he were assuming the burden of solving the obesity crisis in American—which I don't think he did, but I think he felt a certain responsibility to help people—this is a problem that renews itself. Once one person has been helped and has gotten better, there are five more people to take their place. I'm not inside Richard's head, but I imagine that must be overwhelming at times.

I know that the burnout rate for a field like social work is very high.

There are things you need to do to protect yourself. Make sure you can have longevity.

What does the format of the podcast bring to your search? Why even do a podcast?

Well, it certainly is a flexible story-telling format. Someone has to narrate it, and it allowed me to sort of guide it in a personal way.

Also, a lot of people I'm talking with aren't comfortable with their bodies enough to be speaking on camera.

And these are people who were helped by Richard.

Yes. A lot of the people Richard has helped are seriously obese. Even if they don't have the problem any more, they still feel that inside. And so, having it being audio only, it allows people to be more relaxed and authentic and not too distracted.

Is the podcast a limited series? Is there a set number of episodes?

At this point, it'll only be six episodes. Although we'll open it up to an additional one if we do end up talking with Richard, which is the goal. So regardless of what happens, there'll be at least six. It'll probably stop at six.

I don't want to reveal too much. But are there certain revelations or breakthroughs that you make? Maybe with people who are very much in his inner circle?

Yes. [Laughs after pause]

Let me put it this way. There are a lot of surprises. We have been completely respectful of Richard's space. I call it "benevolent stalking." We're not loitering outside his house for hours on end. We're giving him his space. That being said, we're treating this as an investigation, not just to find out what happened to Richard, but to remind people of who Richard Simmons is, and how different he was, and how he changed fitness forever. He was one of the first to become famous for just being an original. So, we spent a lot of time investigating. We went to places that I did not expect to go. We talked to a lot of people I did not expect to talk to. We definitely get some answers. We don't necessarily have all the answers, but we definitely get closer. It's ongoing.

Is there a tip number or email that you've used to collect information?

It's (402) 93-SWEAT. People can also go to the website. People have been calling with stories of ways Richard has touched them. They've also been calling with information that helps shed light on the situation.

Do you personally have an idea of what's happening to Simmons?

I do. I won't mention it at the moment. But I will say that a part of the podcast is my process of figuring that out. And by the end of the podcast I'll definitely get to my own conclusion, or I'm hoping to. It's not done yet but I'm certainly getting there. And yes, I'm heading towards some resolution in this for myself.

Here are the three installments of Missing Richard Simmons that have been released thus far: