Is It Fair to Consider Richard Simmons a “Gay Icon?”

Richard Simmons, wearing his signature shorts and tanktop, leads Capitol Hill staff and visitors through an exercise routine July 24, 2004 in Washington, D.C.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

“I went to dinner with him once,” Dan Taberski recalled, chatting with me about his friend Richard Simmons. “He got up to go to the bathroom, and we were wondering—‘what happened to Richard? Where did Richard go?’ And we see people jumping up and down outside the window of the restaurant. We realized he’s outside the restaurant making people exercise.”

Those were the good old days, before Simmons abruptly retreated to his mansion in late 2013 and proceeded to cut off contact with almost everyone he knew, issuing only sporadic public messages since. It was an abrupt change for a man who was once a perpetual motion machine and a magnet for attention. Taberski, a longtime friend, was flummoxed. A producer who worked on The Daily Show and directed the documentary These Cocksucking Tears about gay country singer Patrick Haggerty, Taberski had been talking to Simmons about making a documentary about Slimmons, the Beverly Hills exercise studio notorious for frantic workouts that were part-burlesque, part-therapy.

“It’s incredible,” said Taberski of the studio. “It’s like a class? Cabaret? Body burlesque? He screams and he’s loud and hilarious and super foul mouthed.” And, Taberski added, “his class is super gay.”

But that’s surely not how Simmons would have described it. Despite the campy, flouncing persona and rumors running back decades, Simmons has never publicly shared his sexuality. (Though he has come just up to the line with cute dodges, like the time he told Wendy Williams that “at any moment I could go up in flames.”) It’s for this reason that he always made me, as a gay man, uncomfortable. Even when I lived just a few blocks from Slimmons and my friends raved about the classes, I never attended. The innuendo and winking unspokenness of Simmons’ sexuality reminded me too much of the old-fashioned closet—of the unhappy secrets of celebrities like Rock Hudson and of self-loathing, internalized homophobia.

After Simmons retreated from the public eye, Taberski decided he’d make a documentary anyway—not about his class, but about his disappearance. That’s taken the form of a Serial-esque podcast called Missing Richard Simmons that debuted in February and just concluded, a mystery show that investigates where Richard might’ve gone and the impact he had on those who met him. Taberski’s podcast prompted me to give Simmons a second look. After just three episodes, the show reached the #1 spot on the iTunes podcast chart, with widespread coverage in major news outlets. Despite the attention, little has been confirmed about Simmons’ condition: Though one of Richard’s former companions claims that his housekeeper is holding him hostage, publicist Tom Estey has said that Simmons simply wants to be left alone after a lifetime of performance. Those closest to him flatly deny that Simmons is being held against his will.

But the show’s popularity also stokes old questions about Simmons’ role as an icon among gay men. A recurring theme of the podcast is Simmons’s kindness, which makes me feel like a jerk for my dislike of his schtick. But I’m far from the only gay man hesitant to claim Simmons as family.

“Seems like a nice guy, but,” wrote one friend when I asked for thoughts on Simmons. “He could have been more of an open, accessible gay role model.”

“So loving,” said another friend who used to attend Slimmons. “But a deeply sad person.”

“In the early ‘80s, my gay friends and I thought he was an embarrassment,” said Steve Kmetko, a former E! reporter who was a high-profile out celebrity in the ‘90s. “We talked and behaved like him only in our own company and in the privacy of our own homes. But looking back from 2017, he was breaking barriers with his flamboyance. He deserves more credit than he was ever given. I can remember when and where I saw him, and I probably said ‘Oh my God’ out loud and in a derogatory manner. Today, I tip my tiara.”

“He was never embarrassed about who he was,” Taberski insisted. “I think gay people, in the best possible scenario, really love that about him, and aspire to not be ashamed and celebrate that.”

I struggle to square that description with the Simmons I saw. He had no problem with innuendo—his appearance on Whose Line is it Anyway? is so homoerotic that the audience can be seen literally leaping from their chairs in hysterics. But to be openly gay is a political act, and one that I’ve always felt is important for public figures to take. When a person with a large audience remains closeted, they’re cooperating with the forces that keep other people in the closet. It exasperated me that Richard Simmons, of all people, wouldn’t discuss his sexuality—but then again, what does Richard Simmons owe me?

“Maybe he didn’t want to be classified. I’ve had many thoughts about why he led his life the way he did. He never had a personal life,” said Joe Greene, who did Simmons’s makeup for years. “He was always working.”

When Greene met Richard, he was 300 pounds. Richard worked with him to lose 70 of those pounds over the next six months. “I was just amazed that he took the time to look at what I was eating,” Greene said. “When I went away for Christmas, he called me on Christmas day and talked to my mom and was concerned about what I was eating that day. He wasn’t getting paid to do that.”

“I’m not good for one person,” Taberski told me Simmons once said. “I’m good for a lot of people.”

With his relentless push for physical and mental health, Simmons probably saved thousands of lives, and if that’s his contribution to the world, why should we also need confirmation about his love life? Whenever he danced across my radar, I cringed at his oversized antics. But there was more to the man than just his schtick: Simmons demonstrated radical self-esteem for people who’d given up on ever fitting in, told them that everyone is worth loving, and lifted spirits up when no one else would.

“I can’t speak for Richard,” said Taberski, “but I don’t think Richard thinks of gay people as his people. I think he thinks of other outsiders as his people. People who were fat, or sick, or lonely, or isolated. People who needed love he could give.”

As a thin white man, I often forget that queers aren’t the only ones who feel like outsiders. We live in a time when the weapon of otherness has been turned against not only LGBTQ people but also against women, fat people, people of color, Muslims, the mentally ill—the list goes on. To proudly proclaim one’s homosexuality is an act of strength and rebellion and defiance, but so is being proud to be feminine, proud of the body that you see in the mirror, and proud to have endured being weird or misunderstood or rejected. The qualities that we perceive as our weaknesses, Simmons declared, can become our strengths. He might not have come out, but the rule-breaking, community-building, pride-screaming career that he leaves behind is as queer as they come.

“I cannot imagine any situation where Simmons fit in,” said Taberski. “He turned that into his most special quality.”