Simmons Says Through the 'biscuit belt' with the zany fitness guru

September 04, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Greensboro, N.C. -- In the back seat of his limo, Richard Simmons opens the window and pokes his Little Orphan Annie-esque head into traffic.

"I smell redeye gravy," gasps the Beverly Hills diet darling, inhaling a lungfull of Greensboro. "Yes. Pig drippings in coffee."

With a look of regret he closes the window. "I know cities by their food," he sighs. "We're not in the Bible belt. It's the biscuit belt."

The limo moves on, heading for the next radio station, the next TV studio, the next look-alike disc jockey or anchorman. After a long day crisscrossing the region to promote his appearance at a shopping mall -- something he does 300 days a year nationwide -- the people with the microphones blur into an endless, canned baritone.

"Richard Simmons, fitness guru!" bubbles a DJ at a station in High Point. "Why do we gain weight?"

For a moment Mr. Simmons, tanned and happily absurd in his pink, rhinestone-covered tank top over pink and white striped shorts, blinks in disbelief.

"Because we eat!" erupts the reformed fat kid from New Orleans. "What do you think, it's like the Body Snatchers? We eat! And we eat because there's never gonna be a 'No Eating French Fries After 10 p.m.' law!"

The DJ arches an eyebrow and nods sagely: Excellent point.

At a television station in Greensboro, Mr. Simmons waits his turn in the lobby as the TV monitor shows the guest ahead of him, an animal trainer, displaying a lizard to the camera.

"I would have dipped it in batter," says Mr. Simmons to the enthralled woman manning the station's switchboard. He turns as a vendor bearing a crate of pastries walks into the lobby.

"Bill," he smiles, reading the name stitched in red over the man's pocket, "are those Krispy Kremes or are you just happy to see me?"

No, it never ends. Like an incorrigible second-grader he will burst into a radio station's control room and kiss the hand of a woman about to read the news; in the parking lot he will hop into an executive's car and drive off, leaving the man wide-eyed.

At his shopping mall shows he tells women, "you've got to take care of yourself or you will die and your husband will marry some younger blond he met here at the mall."

He calls what he does aerobic vaudeville. And while there may be a zillion diet and fitness celebrities out there, none is as shticky as Richard Simmons. He is a man who, with a zany personality and low-cal credentials -- he was once a 268 pound kid -- has transformed himself into a rich, slender, comedic patron saint to America's overweight.

And they love him.

"People are reaching for help," says Liz Stone, a fan from nearby Bassett who came out the next day to the Four Seasons Mall to see him. "And he cares. And he doesn't put you down."

"I'd been eating all day and was up late at night eating when I saw his show come on at 2 a.m. on TV," adds Allison Gentry of Greensboro. "I ordered the program and I've lost 60 pounds."

Mr. Simmons says he appeals not to the thin beauties of the world but to people struggling with real weight problems and who need constant reassurance and humor as much as a way to count calories.

"I am the black sheep of the aerobics family," he grins. "The rest of them all have hard bodies, legs up to their nostrils. A lot of them don't want overweight people working out at their clubs. It doesn't look good. But I accept you whether you're thin or not. I'm the last hotel on diet boulevard. I always say, 'Like yourself. Don't eat in front of the refrigerator in your underwear at midnight.' "

Spreading the word

He has been spreading that message for the past 15 years -- as a guest on late-night talk shows and at his Slimmons fitness center in Beverly Hills. He has also produced a variety of books and videos and has recently gone to 30-minute "info-mercials" promoting his "Deal-a-Meal" diet plan.

His main activity, though, is his unending tour of the nation's malls, for which he earns from $2,500 to $5,000 per stop. He draws young and old, black and white, but almost all women. And while most go away happy, a Philadelphia woman recently sued Mr. Simmons, alleging humorous remarks he made about her figure humiliated her.

"He was totally shocked by it," says Michael Catalano, his promotions manager. "For someone who spends so much time fighting cruelties done to overweight people, it doesn't make sense."

"Yes, we're god-awful to fat people," says Mr. Simmons. "They are treated as less than garbage. I try to educate people to be kinder to overweight people. To understand them. Because I still feel like a fat kid inside."

He grew up in a family, he says, where his late father constantly battled him because of his weight and his mother constantly fed him. His main weapon for surviving the cruelties that befall a fat kid was a sense of humor.

"I grew up with a lot of laughter," he says, "but fried baloney sandwiches were really my world."

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