The doorbell rings at the ersatz American Colonial in the Hollywood Hills, the door opens, and there's a very tanned Richard Simmons in red tank top and red-striped exercise shorts.
"Hellllllloooooooooooo," he coos, smiling and striking that Richard Simmons pose the stand-up comics love to spoof.
"Hello, Mr. Simmons."
"I'm Richard, " he says, patting my shoulder.
I brace for what's next. Plenty of slim, fit writers work in the newsroom, but they assign Simmons to me, a man whose weight is slightly above average--for a family of four.
What will he say about that? I've heard of him accosting strangers, scolding them and snatching the Fritos from their hands. He once shrieked at a passerby: "It's a Coke! Oh, my God, say a prayer for him, girls!"
It's all for real, one of his neighbors had assured me. "There is no sham, no charade. I've spent a fair amount of time with him, and what you see is what's there. He really is the kind of individual who will reach out to someone and try to make it better."
Reaching out has earned him thousands of followers and millions of dollars through sales of six books, six audiotapes, nine videos and Deal-A-Meal--a folder of cards, each representing a portion of food allotted for that day. All espouse only mainstream ideas for controlling weight: eat less, exercise more, bolster your self-respect.
His "Sweatin' to the Oldies" exercise video has been on Billboard's best-selling charts for 38 weeks, currently at No. 9. He's sold about 5 million videos in all, enough, if laid end to end, to reach from here to my favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco.
And now I'm going to be spending the day with him, chauffeuring him to The City mall in Orange and watching one of his shopping center shows. He's been doing them for 12 years, but this is his first in his home territory, Southern California.
"Come innnnnn," he says.
Inside it's pastel and plush, but the huge pile of Toys-R-Us bags grabs the attention. Before his show at The City, he'll tour the Orangewood Children's Home across the street, so he spent part of the previous day buying toys to hand out.
The bags just fit into my tiny Honda, and we head off 10 minutes behind schedule.
Simmons had offered to drive, but it's a good thing I had declined. Once under way, he admits he hates driving and never goes above 45 m.p.h.
We've been on the road only five minutes, and already other drivers are waving at him. He makes no attempt to remain aloof. There is no bodyguard, no disguise. He's easy to recognize; he looks exactly like the Richard Simmons on the tube.
"When you have a face and a voice like a box of Duz, I mean, people know you. So they wave and say hello. It's nice. It's nice to be liked, 'cause growing up I didn't particularly like myself. And if you don't like yourself, I don't think other people like you that much either."
When he waves back, he turns on the performer for a moment--not so much a change as an exaggeration. He mugs and waves with boyish enthusiasm. Only when he relaxes do you see the 43-year-old face that with a tie and different hair could belong to a school principal or lawyer.
We head out Sunset Boulevard and get down to business. He recounts the now-familiar biography peppered with one-liners:
* Was addicted to food and obese as a child. "My mother took me to an aquarium and said, 'Those are fish,' and I said, 'Where's the crust?' "
* Went to Southern Louisiana University and Florida State University, majoring in art "because I couldn't major in food."
* Peaked at 268 pounds while studying art in Italy, where some anonymous acquaintence left a note on his car: "Fat people die young."
* Reacted by going anorexic and wound up in a hospital.
* Worked as a book and fashion illustrator, then a cosmetics demonstrator, wound up in L.A. waiting tables in an Italian restaurant, then opened his own combination salad bar and aerobics studio in Beverly Hills.
* It was a hit.
* The rest is fitness history.
"I travel almost 300 days a year. I do mostly shopping malls, because everyone will come to a shopping mall, no matter what they weigh, no matter their economic structure, no matter what they drive. The malls are the meeting places of America. And so that's where I go."
He started doing malls as part of the cast of "General Hospital," a TV soap opera in which he portrayed himself. But soon he went out on his own.
Now he's doing more than 100 malls a year for fees ranging from $2,500 to $7,500. "The demand has just been enormous," Michael Catalano, his booking agent, had told me. "In L.A., there are so many celebrities walking around. But Richard goes to a tiny town in New Hampshire and it's like Elvis coming through."
The malls are his natural habitat. Most of their shoppers are women; his audience is mostly women--95% at first, now more like 65%.