High-energy fitness guru Richard Simmons was a television personality who brought a gospel of self-confidence and manageable weight loss to millions through his Emmy-winning television series and countless best-selling videos and books. Overweight and depressed throughout his childhood, he found a new lease on life via his own fitness program. His approach to exercise, which was equally driven by zany humor and heartfelt motivation, quickly caught on with national audiences, who made him one of the leading figures in the exercise movement, as well as a pop culture icon. Though many pundits - especially late-night talk show hosts -dismissed him as a flamboyant pitchman in striped short-shorts and barely there tank tops, Simmons' track record and sales figures proved him to be one of the most successful figures ever in the business of improving people's health.
Born Milton Teagle Simmons in New Orleans, LA on July 12, 1948, the story of Richard Simmons' childhood was well-known to fans and the media alike. The son of show business parents, he suffered from obesity throughout his childhood and weighed 268 pounds at the time of his high school graduation. While attending Florida State University, he studied art in Florence, Italy, where he was allegedly an extra in Federico Fellini's "Satyricon" (1969). After graduation, he traveled to New York City, where he worked in a variety of jobs, including advertising and cosmetics. In 1973, Simmons took money that he had earned as a child model for plus-size clothing and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a maître 'd. He also began to develop a fascination for fitness, but was disheartened by the unhealthy fad diets of the day, which he himself had tried, only to be met with failure. He was also concerned that gyms and exercise studios catered to customers who were already physically fit. In Simmons' eyes, the people most in need of exercise and healthy food habits were the obese, who were often put off by the focus on body image.
He opened his own exercise studio, initially called The Anatomy Asylum, where he placed the emphasis on healthier eating and exercise that was fun and non-competitive. The club, later called Slimmons, was a success, and Simmons' larger than life personality, which though extremely flamboyant - complete with short-shorts and tank tops - contained enough humor and heart to help people in need break through their stigma of exercise and change. Simmons also broke down the wall between instructor and client by personally contacting many clients to give them the motivation to continue with their weight loss goals. His approach soon attracted the attention of the reality series "Real People" (NBC, 1979-1984), which devoted a segment to Simmons. The coverage helped to spread Simmons' message to a national audience, resulting in a recurring four-year stint on the daytime soap opera, "General Hospital" (ABC, 1963- ), which in turn, led to his own morning program, "The Richard Simmons Show" (syndicated, 1980-84), which brought Simmons and his unique brand of inspiration into American homes. The show, which saw Simmons dress in outrageous costumes to visit individuals and lead impromptu workouts in shopping malls, won four Daytime Emmys, including Outstanding Series in 1982. Its popularity made Simmons a sought-after guest on talk shows, game shows and even episodic television, including "Fame" (syndicated, 1982-87) and "CHiPs" (NBC, 1977-1983).
Simmons soon branched out into direct marketing through television, which brought him even greater fame and fortune. He created the Deal-A-Meal and FoodTracker programs, which helped dieters keep track of their food intake, and launched a series of exercise videos called "Sweatin' to the Oldies," which combined nostalgic songs with Simmons' high energy exercise routines. The videos, which eventually numbered 50 in total, sold over 20 million copies, which, when combined with his 12 books, including three best-selling cookbooks and his 1999 memoirs, Still Hungry After All These Years, made him one of the leading figures in the health and exercise movement. His popularity and outrageous personality gained him greater exposure on national talk shows like "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (NBC, 1992- ) and "Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ), where he endured ribbing from both hosts with considerable good humor. Occasionally, the gags crossed the line, such as a 2000 appearance on "Letterman" where Simmons was sprayed by the host with a fire extinguisher, causing him to have an asthmatic attack. As a result, he stayed away from "Late Show" until 2006, preferring instead to endure bouts of frequently cruel mockery at the hands of Howard Stern on his syndicated radio program.
Despite such undermining, Simmons remained exceptionally popular with Middle America, and used his standing to promote broader health programs and initiatives. In 2004, he launched "Hoot Camp," which educated fitness teachers and coaches to motivate their students with humor and imagination, and in 2007, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for The Strengthening Physical Education Act of 2007, which required physical education to be part of the academic curriculum for all public school students. He was also a vocal advocate for the FIT Kids Act, which amended the No Child Left Behind measurement to include sufficient time for physical activity at all grade levels, and include cardio and other aerobic exercises in physical education classes. In 2010, Simmons appeared on "The Dr. Oz Show" (syndicated, 2009- ) to celebrate helping his clients lose an estimated 3 million pounds over the course of his 35-year career. During this period, Simmons also launched a line of dolls that he sold through the QVC network, and made frequent appearances as himself on television shows ranging from "Arrested Development" (Fox, 2003-06) to the animated "Hercules" (ABC, 1998-99).