Richard Simmons breezes in with energy, charm, cookies

December 10, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT HAD BEEN 14 YEARS since I'd had a "Richard Simmons experience." I had forgotten how hilarious, highly charged and theatrical the encounter would be. I was quickly reminded when I encountered Simmons, probably America's best-known exerciser, in the lobby of The Sun. He was perched atop a counter where customers were placing classied ads. Clad in gym shoes, exercise shorts and a red, sequined tank top, he was performing for all within earshot. Everybody was laughing.

"This place needs a piano bar," he said of the newspaper's quiet lobby.

His prescription to liven up the work space -- add music and some low-cal munchies -- was similar to the remedies he offers in his workout videos, food products and books on how to reshape bodies. Simmons stresses plenty of movement, loud music and cutting down on the calories.

The latest effort in Simmon's low-cal, high-stitch approach to diet and health is "Sweetie Pie," a dessert cookbook ($22, GT Publishing, 1997). The front of the book has recipes for desserts that reduce fat and calories by substituting "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" for real butter. Simmons brought me some cookies made from these reduced-fat recipes. The cookies looked OK, but tasted a little gummy.

After I got Simmons out of the lobby and seated in the company cafeteria -- a room he said also needed a juke box -- I asked him about his views on food and exercise.

He said he wrote this book because he wants everybody, even people battling their weight, to be able to enjoy some kind of dessert. Simmons is 49 years old, with no flab showing on his 5-foot-7-inch frame. But when he was a kid growing up in New Orleans, Simmons was overweight, and his parents, he said, tried to use desserts to control his behavior.

"As a child, dessert was the first thing my parents took away," he recalled. "If I did something wrong, I didn't get dessert. It was food as punishment. But the next day, if I got a good report card, I would get to eat creme brulee at Commander's Palace."

Now, rather than seeing dessert as a kind of behavior modification device, Simmons says he treats it as a normal part of life. For him, the key to living with dessert is to set limits. You don't ban it, you control it.

His current fondness for aerobic exercise also is a reaction to his childhood, he said. As a fat kid he avoided organized sports. He spent his spare time selling pralines in New Orleans' French Quarter. But when he took up aerobics in his 20s, he went at it with a passion.

Now, he said, he begins his day with 300 sit-ups and 300 push-ups. His exercise empire, based in California near his Beverly Hills home, sells a line of athletic shoes, fitness equipment and videos with names like "Disco Sweat."

"I am a compulsive person," he said. He used to be compulsive about eating, and now he's compulsive about exercise.

"I know how to get that overweight woman to exercise," he said. "I know because I was that overweight person."

Simmons is a charming performer. Walking through The Sun building, carrying a plate of cookies, he overwhelmed everyone he met. He sang out their names, hugged them, gave them autographed pictures for their mothers and daughters, and in one instance, grabbed a phone to converse with a reporter's astonished wife.

After Simmons left the building, people who had met him talked about how he looked -- good for someone pushing 50 -- and how he smelled -- musky.

I don't happen to share Simmon's attitude toward dessert. Instead of cutting back on the ingredients in desserts, I prefer to make the desserts with real butter and cut back on how often I eat them. Simmons believes there are plenty of people like him, who, after they start eating cookies, can't stop until the cookies are gone.

But even if I disagree with the guy, every time I have been treated to the "Richard Simmons experience," I have ended up liking the man.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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