Last Thursday night marked the first time in over a month that I took an aerobics class at Slimmons. A busy travel calendar kept me away, and I was excited to return. The Slimmons classroom has a long history, and it’s a very important place for me. And the reason why is evolving.
Richard Simmons opened the doors at Slimmons 41 years ago. He wanted to create a fun, judgment-free place where anyone could come and have a great workout, no matter their size, age, or fitness level. Since then, it’s drawn crowds of people, all wanting to burn a few calories, elevate their heart rate, and, most of all, exercise with Richard, because he made each class he taught an unforgettable experience.
It all happens in a standard, no-frills room. Despite its Beverly Hills address, Slimmons isn’t a state-of-the-art facility or an architectural marvel. It doesn’t even have air conditioning. It’s a group fitness classroom. Before Richard took it over, it was a warehouse. He lined it with mirrors and painted it in pastel colors. If the small lobby wasn’t full of Richard photos and merchandise, you’d never think this place was run by one of the world’s most iconic fitness personalities.
When I arrived on Thursday, after a month away, my mind became foggy with echoes of the enthusiasm that Richard brought into that room. I could hear his voice bouncing off the walls. His classes were exhilarating, riotously funny, and endlessly entertaining. He screamed every chance he could: when a new song started, when he turned on the disco ball, and to push us further and harder with his dance aerobics steps. He wore costumes, devised themed classes, and never taught the exact same class twice.
Richard refused to use a microphone, but he never stayed quiet for long. He’d just run to the stereo, turn down the volume, and then shout things like “I love you… but I don’t want your baby, I just want YOUR SWEAT!” or “Lower. Get lower. LOWER! Pretend there’s a Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano on the floor!” Then he’d crank the music back up, and resume dancing at the front of the room.
I’m using the past tense, of course, because Richard hasn’t taught a class in about eighteen months. He hasn’t been seen in public since early 2014, and he stopped corresponding with me and everyone I know around the same time. Nobody knows much about what’s going on. A tabloid story pops up every few months, but very rarely do they have anything new to report, and who knows how truthful they are, anyway. It’s been over a year since I first wrote about the disappearance of Richard Simmons, and, sadly, not much as changed since then.
When Richard stopped teaching, the crowds evaporated. The other Slimmons instructors have been substitute teaching every one of Richard’s classes since his absence began, and class sizes have shrunk from over a hundred to about a dozen or so. With a few rare exceptions, class attendees are mostly regulars, like me, who have been coming for years, or even decades.
I started coming five-and-a-half years ago, and at the time, I weighed 402 pounds. It’s a story I’ve shared often (and has been told on TV): I met Richard when I worked at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and he offered to help me lose weight. I started coming to Slimmons every week, and, with Richard’s guidance and support, made a bunch of other changes in my life. I’ve lost 160 pounds and I’ve kept it off.
One of the things I’ve been asked is why I continue to go, with Richard not teaching. I understand the curiosity. The class isn’t convenient for me – it’s on the other side of town, and my drive is during rush hour traffic – and I have plenty of other resources for exercise, including a gym membership, equipment at home, and a fondness for outdoor activities.
For a long time, my answer was simple: it’s a great workout. I take Anne’s class, and I leave a sweaty mess. She knows how to push us, educate us, and I like the music she plays and how she leads the class.
That answer, while truthful, only skims the surface. The bigger truth is that I feel a connection to that room, and Richard’s absence has, oddly enough, strengthened it. My relationship with Richard is one that I’ll cherish my whole life, but that room has hosted a fountain of other memories, including 18 months worth that are Richard-free. Classes may be small nowadays, but I know nearly every other student on a first-name basis. Most of them are friends, and we cheer each other on. They may not even know it, but the women in that class (I’m often the only guy there) have been a huge, consistent source of support for me, and I’m utterly appreciative.
In addition, it’s a room that has seen me at every stage since I began this journey. I’ve literally sweated pounds off my body in this room over the years. Slimmons isn’t the only place I work out, but it’s the only place where the mirrors have reflected back to me every single version of myself – from my heaviest to my leanest. There have been long periods of time where I’ve avoided the mirrors in my own home, but I can’t avoid the ones at Slimmons. They’re everywhere. And because Richard built Slimmons on a foundation of positivity and self-love, I always turn away from those mirrors and head out the door feeling good about myself and how I’ve spend the last 80 minutes.
I miss Richard. I hope he’s doing well. I hope he’s happy and healthy. I hope there comes a time that he resumes teaching – although I realize, with each passing month, that this is becoming more and more of a long shot.
In the meantime, I continue to be grateful for Richard. He’s been an instrumental figure in my life, and he inspired me to make changes I never thought were possible. Lately, though, I’m grateful that he created Slimmons, even if he’s unable to attend personally. I’m grateful there’s a place where I always feel surrounded by love and support, and where, moments after stepping through the door, no matter how crummy my day could have been, I feel steeped in all sorts of wonderful emotions that honor what I’ve accomplished so far and what lies ahead.
And that, my friends, is why I’ll continue going to Slimmons.
Keep it up, David!
PS: Richard’s birthday was on Sunday, so send some good healing vibes his way! You can also write to him through his website.