Podcast: “Missing Richard Simmons”

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I hate going to the gym, especially when I have to go alone, so listening to a podcast while on the treadmill makes it a lot more tolerable. That’s when I do most of my pod listening. Mostly I just listen to a bunch of politics shows, a couple of pop culture ones, and a food one, but not many that tell a story over the course of a few episodes. I have yet to find something that captivated me in the same way that Serial‘s first season did a couple of years ago (the less said about the second season the better). I’m always looking for something that will keep my interest, not annoy me, make me want to listen to more, and, most importantly, distract me while running on the treadmill. For a few weeks I did manage to find something that fit the bill: Missing Richard Simmons.

Growing up in Europe I never knew who Richard Simmons was. When I moved to the United States I remember seeing this very over-the-top flamboyant personality on a couple of episodes of Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show and maybe a couple of other places and dismissed him as mostly a joke, a bizarre and campy remnant of a bygone era that saw personalities like Liberace find fame. I was even slightly aware that he hadn’t been in the public eye for a while, I think it made headlines once or twice, but aside from knowing that Simmons was a weird little man with frizzy hair who wore short shorts and tank tops and liked to exercise a whole lot, I really didn’t know much at all. So why did I give the podcast a chance? It was in first place on the iTunes chart, I was desperate for a compelling story that was not about Donald Trump, and I was curious to see if it did anything different. Worst thing would be I would turn it off after a couple of minutes and go back to Code Switch or NPR’s Politics Podcast. But I didn’t turn it off. I kept listening. And I waited each week for the new episode until the end arrived, because the show is well produced and the story compelling.

As I said earlier, a few years ago Simmons stepped away from public life. What I didn’t know, though, is that he did so completely and absolutely. He apparently had a studio in Los Angeles where he taught aerobics to mostly good and loyal costumers who over time became his closest friends. Simmons walked away from them as well. One of these people was a documentarian who grew so worried he decided to make this podcast in an effort to reach a man who had become a recluse, a man many had reached out to in every other way but was continuing to not respond, a man who didn’t want to be found, but rather forgotten.

The series walks a fine line between being a genuine love letter to Simmons and a troubling expose bordering on tabloid behavior. Most of the time we are listening to a compilation of people who truly loved Simmons, who were impacted by him, whose lives were changed for the better because of him. Some of these stories might bring you even to tears – I came close on more than one occasion. But other voices made me feel uneasy. Simmons’ former masseuse and possible lover seemed to be preoccupied with promoting himself and a novella that tries to profit off of his role in the narrative, and this character left a really bad taste in my mouth, especially because of how much promotion the self-published story gets in one particular episode. The podcast makers also seem at times very invasive: of Simmons, his brother, his housekeeper, his agent. They push more than they should, sometimes appearing to be more interested in making great content than with their supposed goal of reminding Simmons how much he is loved and how many people’s lives he’s impacted.

It sometimes is troubling to figure out how much this podcast is great entertainment, which it is, and how much it is an invasion of the privacy of someone who has repeatedly expressed wishes to be left alone. His disappearance may have been out of character, but he has never expressed distress or a need to be saved, in spite of many welfare check visits from the police. Is the podcast compelling? Absolutely. It definitely satisfied a missing space left by the first seasons of Serial and Making a Murderer. But I also wondered, should it exist? Maybe, yes. Should it be made public to millions instead of just being hand delivered to Simmons himself? Maybe, no.

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