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Heavy Duty : Health: Richard Simmons has made thousands of followers and millions of dollars with his cheerful spin on mainstream ideas of weight loss.


"There's not too many guys in this field. I think a lot of guys thought aerobics were kind of sissy. But I don't go out to make someone a jock. I'm not a jock." This is true. He shoots baskets two-handed. His stride is splay-footed and short. He is not hard and muscular. At 153 pounds, he looks like he could still stand to lose a few. The only obvious evidence of exercise is his thighs, which bulge somewhat.

I suppose some men are . . .

"Jealous," he cracks. "You're right!"

I try again. I suppose some men are nervous about the anti-macho image you project.

"This is just who I am. I was this way when I was a kid, you know. Some people love me and some people don't understand me." It doesn't affect his life, he says. He walks freely in public.

"I don't live in fear. I take it one day at a time, and I try to be who I am and stand for what I believe in. And truthfully, you don't think a lot of people get up in the morning and say, (the macho voice again) 'Well, I don't like Richard Simmons so I'm gonna rush to the mall.'

"There's a lot of wives who do bring their husbands. 'You're going to that mall! You're taking me to see him!' I meet these guys in line. They see what I do and they look at me and go, 'You know, I always thought you were a little nuts, but you helped my wife lose 50 pounds, Richard, and I really respect that.' I get a lot of respect for what I do, and I think that's what counts more than a deep voice. But maybe I'll reach puberty one day and it'll change."

I've seen some of your videos . . .

"Did you do them or did you watch them?"

(Uh-oh, here it comes.) I watched them.

"Ohhhhhhh, I'm a failure, " he wails and dissolves into mock sobbing.

I knew a jab would come sooner or later.

"No," he said, suddenly dead serious. "I'm not like that. You can't force people; it just makes them angry. Whenever my mother said something about my eating, I ate more."

I've seen some of your videos, and what they recommend is very conventional. Most people already know this stuff, don't they?

"They know it from a doctor, but they never heard it from a clown. That's the big difference. You go to a doctor and you sit down and he says, (forbidding voice) 'Mrs. Anderson! What? Do you own stock in See's Candy?'

"OK, I don't do that. I went through that since I was 7 years old. That don't work. They don't want to hear that. They know I'm a compulsive eater and I would arm-wrestle Mother Teresa for an ice cream bar. They know that I face food every day. They don't hear it from anybody else like they hear it from me. I gift-wrap it for them."

We pull up to Orangewood, and the waiting group of officials, mostly women, are jubilant. Now he's on.

He's led to Orangewood's children, age group by age group, and clowns all the way. The toddlers are puzzled. The preschoolers are amused. The 10-year-olds play with him as if he were one of them. Some of teens recognize him as a TV personality.

But his biggest hit is among the women who work there. They all get hugs and kisses, the harmless kind you get from an attentive son or an affectionate brother. They beam and applaud.

These woman are veterans of the calorie wars, remarks Marilyn Lamas, Simmons' secretary. "They love him because he's been there. They think he's God."

Within an hour, he's gone across the street and inside the mall, clowning his way toward the distant stage. It's slow going; he stops to talk with many alone the way, including an obese woman with two children in tow.

I recognize her from his description. He had said there would be many at the show, "women who get married and have three children and do everything for everybody else and one day look in the mirror and say, 'I'm 220 pounds!' "

She smiles at him, and he lets fly a loud "How arrrrre you?"

"Fat," she replies.

"Don't say that," he says, instantly serious. "Don't ever say that." She breaks down and weeps openly. He talks to her softly. You can't hear what he's saying. She nods between sobs. He whispers something to an aide and motions toward her. The aides takes down a name, address and phone number.

"Uh-oh, gotta fluff and run," he shouts, and jogs out of sight down the mall. The sound of rock music rises from somewhere down there, then is drowned in a din of shouts and screams. By the time I get there, he and an immense woman are dancing to the music on stage. His groupies are down front and center in their Simmons T-shirts, but there are hundreds more surrounding the stage--perhaps 800 or 1,000 altogether.

His show lasts 39 minutes, a combination of one-liners and dance-exercise. He calls people up--first children, then teen-agers, then single women--and leads them through simple choreographed routines.

And he confronts the men and calls for them to come up on stage. Women are pointing to their husbands, and he has to coerce most of them: "Come up here. Come here! Come HERE!!"

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