If there’s anyone who knows about New Year’s resolutions, it’s Richard Simmons, the 65-year-old fitness guru who made a name for himself on his low-impact workout videos that featured obese people and an oldies soundtrack. The flamboyant Simmons might be the butt of a few jokes, but he’s impervious to judgment, thinking of himself as a court jester in crystal-studded workout clothes, put here to make people feel good. And even after 40 years in the business, he never forgets the people who look up to him and his own weight-loss success. He still teaches fitness at his Beverly Hills studio, Slimmons, and he personally answers any and all requests for advice from fans in need of motivation.
Hi, Richard, how are you?
Fabulous, except this is the time when my emails and letters quadruple because it’s the end of the year, and many people have not done well.
What are some of the letters you’re getting, and what do you tell people at this time of year?
The whole thing is, ‘I started in January with good intentions’ and then they list all the things that got in the way, all the detours of their life. Whether it be the loss of a job, or not being able to deal with their past, because that is a huge problem. A teacher could have said something 20 years ago saying ‘You’re not good enough,’ or a parent could have compared them with another sibling. Our mind is like a computer and it can bring up negative thoughts or positive thoughts, and a lot of people choose to bring up the negative thoughts.
And then there are disappointments—’I didn’t go to college, didn’t get the job I want.’ It’s a spiral way down the Alice in Wonderland well. And my job is to give them hope. Because with hope you can cope. I’m a good listener, and then I try to give them the best advice I can give them.
How many letters do you have?
A lot of people still don’t have computer savvy—they still write letters. So when I go to my studio Slimmons to teach, you can’t imagine how many letters I still get. I do what I ask them to do. I plan my day. I get up very, very early and make a list, and this is one of the resolutions I tell people. It’s all about making the list. It’s all about writing down what you want and what you need to do that day. I have 18 things to do today before I teach my class tonight. And I will get them done because I woke up at 3:30 this morning.
Isn’t it taxing, to have to answer all those people?
I have to be very honest. I’m very emotional. If somebody gains their weight back, I just feel awful. Or so many people I know have gone from walking, to a cane, to a scooter, then to be housebound. That gets me. The realization is that I can’t help everybody. But I darn well try every day. And each person is very delicate. Weight gain and weight loss is extremely emotional, so you have to be very careful for what you say or the advice you give, because it can’t in any way affect them in a negative way. So I do take a deep breath.
And then a lot of people have a wall up, a defense wall. No matter what you say to them, they’ll have a reason for being obese or being too thin or being depressed. So it’s a very fine line to walk.
Why do you think we need the New Year to make changes? Wouldn’t it be better if we could do it all year?
It’s a hype, it’s a big January hype for weight-loss products, for self-grooming, for anything that’s gonna make you feel good. I’ve been around for almost 40 years. And why I think I’m still alive and respected is because I’ve never lied to people. I’ve never said you’ll lose it overnight. I’ve never said all of a sudden you’re gonna have more energy the next day. I’ve seen snake oil salesmen and fads come and go for all these decades. But I’ve always simply said love yourself, which is the hardest, watch your portions and move your body. Really, every day that God gives you is January first.
And don’t share your resolutions with other people. You don’t need dialogue about what you want to do. You don’t need to bounce off what’s inside your heart with other people. You just need to write it down and do it.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for yourself?
I’m very tough on myself. This year I went to Brazil and I went to an orphanage and it had contaminated water and I built them a well. I do two to three charity events a month. I feel I can do more. We do not take care of our veterans in this country and all of our seniors. And all over the world there are so many orphans, and I have sleepless nights about them. So I guess I want to do more charity work. Teach more classes. Help more people. And still be really cute.
Speaking of looking cute, are you wearing sequins right now?
No, I wear Swarovski crystals! Strippers wear sequins!
Leslie Wilshire has been helping me in designing and doing these tops for me for 31 years. It’s just my uniform, like Superman or Batman. When you get down to the root of it all, I am a court jester. I’m a clown. In this world of fitness, everyone is sort of serious and it’s faster, harder, stronger. And that has never been my philosophy.
I see all these photos of you on Facebook in wigs. Are you doing drag?
No, but I’ll do anything to make people laugh. One day I’m an astronaut, and the next day I’m wisteria wonderland. Tonight I’m a fireman and on Thursday I’m a bowler. It’s just making people laugh and putting myself out there and having fun. Where else can you go and your teacher is dressed like Kim Kardashian?
Do you watch The Biggest Loser? How do you think your approach compares to a competition setting for weight loss?
Mine is not competitive. That’s why I never cared for sports as a child. I don’t think putting people up against people and saying, ‘Oh you’ve lost more weight than them,’ that has never been my philosophy. I just don’t get it. That’s not how I operate. I think that you are you, and you’re not anybody else. You can’t compete with your past when you lose weight. I have this lady, ‘Oh I’m 58 years old, and I want to be 119 pounds again,’ well that’s not going to happen. And I don’t think you should compare your weight loss with others when your body is different. So I’ve never been a huge fan of those shows.
Are there any popular fitness gurus out there today whom you do enjoy?
I loved Jack [LaLanne]. Jack and I were friends, and I did part of his eulogy when he passed on.
Being an instructor, you have a lot of responsibility. A, you have to make sure they’re not going to hurt themselves. B, you have to keep them motivated. And C, you have to kind of spin a web around someone, a spell, that they don’t think they’re working out. So I think there’s some very good teachers out there that do that. But if any of them are into, ‘Well you didn’t lose as much weight as Claire!’ Oh my god, help me!
What is your workout regimen, and how has it changed with age?
Well I’m 65 and it really hasn’t changed. I get up in the morning and I do my stretches, say my prayers and count my blessings. Then I go up to the gym and do chest and back one day, arms and shoulders the next day, and legs a third day, and alternate. And then I not only teach my class at Slimmons but I teach it around the world.
You know, the little fat kid has not totally left Richard Simmons. So I have to be careful with my portions because food knows my name in 12 languages. I could be passing Latino food, and it goes ‘Hola, Ricardo.’ I could be in the Italian: ‘Buon giorno! Fettuccine alfredo?’ No matter where I am. I just have to watch it.
I’m 141 pounds. And I have to be a good example. There are so many celebrities out there that went on weight-loss plans and got paid millions of dollars and they gained their weight back. I don’t think that’s responsible.
Are there any foods you miss?
Well I was raised on fried foods. In New Orleans, we fry everything. Vegetables, fish, starches. Now, when you die in New Orleans, before they put you in the coffin, they fry you. Regular or spicy?
But I’ve learned to bake. I can take oysters and bread them and bake them. I can do the same with chicken. As you get older, fried foods are not your friend. You just have to watch everything. But I’ve been cooking since I was five. I was raised with a can of lard on the stove, and a teaspoon of lard went into everything. I don’t have that anymore.
How do you stay motivated even on bad days?
I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s looking in the mirror and giving yourself compliments. Most people don’t do that. A lot of people get up in the morning and go [in a New York accent], ‘Look atcha hair! Look atcha eyes! Look atcha skin, you’re a mess! Go back to bed!’ So when I do my motivational classes around the world, I have people give themselves compliments and tell me what their good points are. I also think that you are what you eat from your head to your feet. Those who have lost weight don’t want to gain it back. By being a good example, they see that ‘I can do it, too.’
Do you have any new projects coming in the New Year?
I’m doing a lot of traveling, and I’ve been asked to do a new docu-reality show. And a one-man show on Broadway that would travel. But my main thing is motivating and teaching. This is what I was put here for.