For all intents and purposes, Missing Richard Simmons, the new hit podcast by Dan Taberski, is investigative journalism. But Taberski isn’t investigating corporate corruption or political malpractice; he’s invading someone’s private life, a celebrity who left the public eye over two years ago for reasons that Taberski, and his burgeoning audience, are desperate to find out.
Within this investigative setup, there’s a strange lack of empathy in the show, which devotes time to explaining how fitness guru Richard Simmons changed people’s lives less as a way of recontextualizing Simmons’s public image than as justification for a project that’s proceeding without his consent. The invasive nature of the show and its performative concern for Simmons the person makes it feel like TMZ dressed up in Equinox workout clothing. But whatever Taberski lacks in journalistic skills or ethics, he uncovers something interesting about his and his audience’s relationship with celebrity.
Missing Richard Simmons spends a lot of time juxtaposing the public image of Simmons (loud, flamboyant, energetic, loud) with a more private idea of the person (still very flamboyant, but sensitive, sexual, empathetic). Taberski uses archival clips from Simmons’s many public appearances on talk shows and some from Simmons’s own workout tapes, trying to illustrate just how big of a cultural figure he was, both in his notoriety and in his personality. Richard Simmons wasn’t just your oddball, kooky, loud-as- all-get-out fitness guy, the show wants to point out. He was an incredibly successful and visible one, sitting atop a respectable entrepreneurial empire during the 1980s and 1990s. He took an extra step in his effort to change people’s lives via his workout videos and Slimmons, his weekly workout class; he facilitated seemingly intimate dynamics. He lived briefly as a meme. And in February 2014, he “disappeared,” which is to say he abruptly left the public eye, cutting off people in his life who thought they had intimate relationships with him. He still speaks with his manager, his family, his housekeeper, etc. And as worry swirls among a small contingent of people, larger since the premier of the podcast, swirled, he has (previously) gone on the record several times saying he’s fine.
Taberski supplements Simmons’s professional persona with testimonials from people whose lives Simmons changed. “As far as I’ve been able to tell over the last few decades, Richard has done this for thousands of people,” Taberski says, describing a woman Simmons emotionally supported, for no (monetary) compensation, on her journey to triple-digit weight loss. The testimonial in and of itself is touching, but time and again, Taberski uses anecdotes likes this as justification for making assumptions about Simmons’s life and for the invasiveness of the project itself. The notion that people like Simmons are more complex than what they seem to be in public is wild and surprising, Taberski seems to think. It’s a mildly condescending approach, as if we need tearjerking testimonials from people Simmons helped to rethink our idea of someone whose job was, after all, to help people. This is in service of the idea that the public should “get to know the Real Richard Simmons,” understand that there’s more to him than his wild persona, and that this bevy of anecdata will justify why Taberski and the plethora of people he interviews (friends, former colleagues, alumni/ae of Simmons’ workout group) feel entitled to an answer and explanation as to why he’s ghosted them.
But the “Real Richard Simmons,” the person removed from the character Simmons created in conjunction with his workout empire… isn’t all that interesting. At least, no more or less interesting than most people; he’s a human being whose behavior can fluctuate from hardened strength to deep vulnerability, he could risqué and performative, he loved attention from his fans. In the effort to paint Simmons’s different presentations as vastly different, Taberski achieves the opposite and makes him sound fairly normal for a person that has to maintain a public image at all.
As the podcast proceeds, Taberski manufactures intrigue by not taking “no” for an answer: He records his repeated cajoling calls with Simmons’s PR flack, and flies to New Orleans to talk to Simmons’s brother. Listening to all this, it becomes interesting to consider the way in which audiences treat celebrities that, regardless of their public admittance, read as queer. Simmons in particular occupies an interesting role here in the sense that much of his public persona relied on a kind of camp performance: the loudness, the zealousness, and certainly the femme mannerisms. But it has been, pretty clearly I think, a performance. Camp, the excess and artifice, is his brand.
Camp itself has a complicated relationship to women and femmes because while there’s reverence for the feminine, camp appeal often ends up boxing a person in, the nuance of their character drowned out by the more heightened emotions. And when someone like Simmons tries to have an active role in performing as camp, their autonomy in the process is sometimes contested by audience’s desire to control. There then becomes a kind of expectation that he must always assume this camp role, and fans not only become entitled to his presence, but to the performance itself.
The public figure’s struggle to craft and maintain a public image has been fodder for art, like Jackie and King Cobra, about celebrities uneasily coauthoring their legacies with the strangers who perceive them. There’s a curious lack of self-awareness on Missing Richard Simmons, in the sense that Taberski is essentially committing the same sins of the public that these films examine: trying to wrangle the narrative from the person it’s about. But, as they say on Twitter, Who among us has not?
Taberski has been open about how he hopes that the podcast will allow him to make contact with Simmons. But why do that so publicly—turn your private appeal to an acquaintance into an exhibition where a swath of people demand the same thing from him? Rather than allowing Simmons any autonomy or consent, Missing Richard Simmons invades its subject’s camp performance in the desire to be the ultimate director.