The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Richard Simmons

For decades, the one name most synonymous with exercise and fitness was Richard Simmons. From the late 1970s until well into the early 21st century, he was a reliable TV presence, appearing on talk shows, soap operas, his own series, and infomercials for his venerable "Sweatin' to the Oldies" workout videos and Deal-a-Meal program, always oozing empathy, encouragement, and excitement. To reach out honestly and emotionally to those who wanted to get in shape, Simmons made an example of himself, often recounting his own experiences with issues related to his health and fitness.

But those signature short-shorts, tank tops, and familiar tower of curly hair couldn't totally mask a sadness in Simmons. His life was a constant tug-of-war between happiness and tragedy, and he was always fighting for the goodness in himself and others to win out. Life took a lot out of Richard Simmons, to the point where he didn't even want anything to do with a biopic that his celebrity lookalike, comedian Pauly Shore, is making about his remarkable professional life. That's just one heartbreaking moment among many in the tragic life of fitness guru and health celebrity Richard Simmons.

He had a lot of childhood health problems

At the age of 3, Richard Simmons was diagnosed with asthma, a medical condition characterized by breathing difficulties and mucus accumulation in the lungs. Living with asthma, which Simmons treated by sleeping with a vaporizer, taking medication, and relying on a handheld inhaler, was made all the worse for Simmons because of resistance at home. "Back then, lots of people thought asthma was only an emotional thing," he wrote in his memoir, "Still Hungry — After All These Years." "My father subscribed to that school of thought. He was totally convinced that my asthma was all made up." 

Food sensitivities, which Simmons ignored, worsened the asthma, while he also dealt with a separate and highly visible medical issue. "The joint between my ankle and foot didn't work quite right; as a result, my left leg was doing up to about 70% of the work of the right leg," Simmons wrote. "So in addition to my wheezing and coughing, I had this very distinctive waddle walk."

Simmons began to compulsively and secretly overeat early in childhood, which led to bullying and, subsequently, depression, which stayed with him throughout his lifetime. "When you're an overweight kid and you're made fun of and you're put down, some of that stuff never leaves you," he told NBC's "Today." "It always sort of is like a shadow."

A mean anonymous note triggered his weight loss journey

In the late 1960s, Richard Simmons moved to Florence, Italy, and found acting work, starring in commercials and making in-store appearances at grocery stores. Right after one such performance, Simmons noticed a note tucked beneath the windshield wiper of his borrowed car. It read, as he recounted in his memoir: "Richard — you're very funny, but fat people die young. Please don't die." It was unsigned, but Simmons believed it was left by a friend who'd noticed that the actor had rapidly gained a moderate amount of weight over the previous few months.

The letter sent Simmons spiraling and reflecting on his weight management struggles. "He or she didn't really know me. They hadn't been with me through all the years of grapefruit and hard-boiled eggs, of pills and Weight Watchers meetings," he wrote. Right after he read the letter, Simmons spotted a fortune-telling scale, got on, and discovered that he weighed 268 pounds — too much for his liking. 

The note frightened Simmons and led to what seemed at the time like an epiphany. "So who or what was the enemy? I knew the answer: food," he wrote. "In a single day, food went from being my friend, my comforter, my pain reliever, to being the thing that could kill me." That note, as Simmons told The New York Times, would set him on the road to a 130-pound weight loss and a career in the fitness industry.

His first attempts at extreme weight loss almost killed him

After a note from a stranger scared Richard Simmons into lowering his weight, he set about losing as many pounds as possible as quickly as possible. Simmons had been heavyset most of his life to that point, and his weight-loss attempts had been unsuccessful. "I had tried all those diets and even diet pills when I was younger, but I was still eating," he wrote in "Still Hungry — After All These Years." This time, Simmons subsisted on a meager diet and exercised heavily. "I stayed very busy, I drank water, I walked everywhere, and the weight began to come off," Simmons wrote. "Every day, I found new ways to avoid eating." One of the tactics he employed was to drink a voluminous amount of water. If he had to dine with others, he'd sneak food into a napkin and throw it away.

In one week, Simmons lost 17 pounds. After 10 weeks, he'd dropped 112 pounds, while his skin took on a gray pallor and papery texture and his hair fell out in clumps. At the time, Simmons was living and working in Florence, Italy, and after passing out in the street, he regained consciousness in a hospital. A nurse explained that he'd been diagnosed with severe dehydration as well as partial kidney and lung failure. "The method I chose for losing weight almost killed me," Simmons wrote. He was hospitalized for days.

His namesake's death unnerved him

"Richard Simmons" is a household name — but it's not the world-famous fitness celebrity's real name. He was born Milton Simmons, named after his father's brother, who would become an important and influential figure in the younger Simmons' life. Milton was the sole relative outside of his immediate family with whom Richard was close, and the first Milton Simmons' assistance allowed the second Milton Simmons to pursue higher education. In 1969, when Richard was in his early 20s, Milton Simmons died. "I was crushed," Richard wrote in "Still Hungry — After All These Years." "I didn't even get to say goodbye to him. I'd never lost anyone whom I'd loved before." Richard, living in Italy at the time and far away from the rest of his family back home in New Orleans, attempted to quell his grief and sadness with an extended bout of binge eating.

That behavior continued for several weeks and ramped up after Richard got word that his brother, Leonard, had been deployed to fight in the Vietnam War.

His father died unexpectedly

In late 1982, Richard Simmons' father, Leonard Simmons, scheduled a kidney stone removal. The operation took place despite Richard's reservations. "I said, 'Daddy, you're 85 years old. Are you sure you want to have surgery?'" the younger Simmons wrote in "Still Hungry — After All These Years."

After the procedure, Richard's brother summoned him to return to the family's home in New Orleans, as their father had suffered surgical complications that left him hospitalized. "There were tubes running everywhere, and he had lost a great deal of weight," Richard recalled. "It was the hardest thing I'd ever faced." Leonard was eventually discharged from the hospital and went home to convalesce. Perhaps sensing his imminent death, the elder Simmons, a Roman Catholic, made one final request of his celebrity son: to travel to Rome and meet the pope. Leonard wanted Richard and the pope to pray for him.

With the help of his publicist, Richard Simmons arranged a meeting and prayed with Pope John Paul II. A few months later, in April 1983, Leonard Simmons died, the night before Richard was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans to lead a 10,000-person aerobics session. The fitness personality was too depressed and grief-stricken to attend his father's funeral. Meanwhile, the family faced another traumatic event that day — a New Orleans newspaper ran an article about the funeral, thereby announcing exactly when the Simmons' home would be unoccupied. "Burglars broke in and took everything," Richard explained.

He lived through an earthquake

According to the California Department of Conservation, a January 1994 earthquake in Southern California, pinpointed to the Northridge region, was an extremely destructive seismic event, responsible for the deaths of 72 people, thousands of injuries, and $20 billion in property damage.

Richard Simmons' Los Angeles-area home stood about 15 miles from the earthquake's epicenter. He was asleep when the quake began around 4:30 a.m., and his residence suffered extensive damage, particularly his art collection. "Every piece of glass that I had in the house turned into glitter!" he wrote in "Still Hungry — After All These Years." "I spent the rest of the day sweeping up glass and putting the shards in piles that resembled the sculptures and vases they once were." Simmons' vast (and valuable) collection of art glass, represented in several media, was completely destroyed in about 30 seconds of shaking from the Northridge earthquake.

The death of his mother devastated him

In late 1997, Richard Simmons' mother, Shirley Simmons, suffered a fall in her New Orleans home. She was discovered a couple of hours later and briefly hospitalized, but X-rays showed she'd avoided serious injury. Shirley returned home, but she had lost most of her energy and mobility. Several months later, she was hospitalized once more, this time for a serious case of pneumonia. A two-year health decline followed, and Shirley Satin Simmons died at her home in February 1999, hours after a visit from Richard. She was 87 years old. 

Shirley had performed as a fan dancer in burlesque shows in the 1930s, as well as in Richard's workout videos and product commercials. In 2013, in one of his final public appearances, Richard honored his mother with a special presentation at the Hollywood Burlesque Festival. He introduced and handed out the "The Shirley Simmons Most Classic Award" to a modern, traditional burlesque dancer.

One of his most notable clients tragically died

Throughout his career as a fitness coach, Richard Simmons personally interacted with his clients and fans, providing empathy, sensitivity, and support as others embarked on the journey he'd started himself years earlier. Simmons paid special attention to ensure that Michael Hebranko got healthier. After reaching a weight of about 1,100 pounds, Hebranko was so depressed that in 1988, he nearly took his own life. "I put the gun in my mouth; I went to pull the trigger," he told "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Unable to go through with his plan, Hebranko instead composed a long letter to Simmons, whom he'd seen on "Hollywood Squares." Within a week, Simmons wrote back and sent Hebranko his Deal-A-Meal dieting program and a "Sweatin' to the Oldies" exercise tape. Simmons coached and counseled Hebranko for a year, then suggested he check himself into a hospital so he could be under medical observation as he continued to lose such a significant amount of weight. 

After seven months of hospitalization, Hebranko had shed 500 pounds; within two years, he'd lost nearly 800 and entered "Guinness World Records" for the largest recorded weight loss, according to an interview with Staten Island Live. In the years after, Hebranko would gain back the weight, going from 198 to 800 pounds, and then down to 500 again, and enduring two strokes, heart issues, kidney failure, pneumonia, and hepatitis C. Despite Simmons' steadfast involvement, Hebranko died in 2013 at age 60.

He had a lot of health problems in the 2010s

For many, Richard Simmons was an exuberant picture of health, energetically bouncing through TV appearances with vigor and a youthful look that belied his ever-advancing age. In 2011, the 63-year-old Simmons turned in a cameo on "Dancing With the Stars," and he appeared so relatively gaunt and weathered that it spawned rumors he wasn't well. "I've never felt better," Simmons told "Entertainment Tonight" in an effort to dispel the chatter. He attributed the change in his appearance to having recently gained and then lost an unwanted 22 pounds, as well as some hair loss. "I've had hair transplants, but you can only do so much," he said.

Late one night in June 2016, the tabloid TMZ reported that Simmons was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital. His housekeeper had called authorities after she found Simmons confused and unintelligible. Amid speculation that the incident was tied to dementia or a stroke, Simmons told the New York Daily News that he'd been diagnosed with dehydration. 

About a year later, in April 2017, Simmons revealed on Facebook that he'd been briefly hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "They make you feel good even though you're in the hospital for feeling bad," he wrote. SImmons' spokesperson, Michael Catalano, later revealed the reason for his stay. "After a few days of battling severe indigestion and discomfort while eating, we agreed it was best for him to seek treatment," Catalano told ABC News.

Why did Richard Simmons suddenly withdraw from public life?

After Richard Simmons retired from public-facing work in 2014, there was widespread speculation regarding his disappearance. In March 2016, the New York Daily News published (and later deleted) an account from Simmons' friend and masseur Mauro Oliveira, who claimed to have visited the fitness celebrity at his home. According to him, Simmons appeared underweight and out of sorts. "I just want to be by myself, and I want to be in the house, and we're never going to see each other again," Oliveira claimed Simmons told him (via Fox5 New York). He offered to give Simmons a massage, but instead he was tossed off the property by Simmons' housekeeper, Teresa Reveles. Oliveira then accused Reveles of using dark forces to control Simmons. "I think it was black magic, witchcraft," Oliveira said (via The Daily Mail). "Teresa is putting black magic on him."

After the story ran, Simmons agreed to an interview with NBC's "Today." "No one is holding me in my house as a hostage," he said. "Teresa Reveles has been with me for 30 years. It's almost like we're a married couple." Simmons then explained the true reasons behind his move into private life. "I just sort of wanted to be a little bit of a loner for a while," he said. "I've taught, like, thousands and thousands of classes, and you know, right now I just want to sort of take care of me."

Richard Simmons' knee problems keep him home

The tabloid TMZ exclusively reported in November 2014 that Richard Simmons hadn't been spotted in 10 months, a rare and lengthy disappearance for a celebrity who regularly appeared on television and taught classes at his gym, Slimmons Studio. The reason, according to an insider: Simmons' knees. After delaying a necessary right knee replacement surgery for almost 10 years before submitting to the procedure in 2010, doctors told Simmons in early 2014 that he'd need to get a new left knee, too — or else he may be permanently unable to exercise again. The idea reportedly so traumatized Simmons that he descended into depression, exacerbated when alternative medical treatments to fix the knee proved unsuccessful.

The report from TMZ quickly spread, and concern for Simmons was so great that he released a statement and confirmed elements of the story. "I have had a tough time dealing with this injury, as it is keeping me from doing what I truly love to do, and that is to teach classes around the world," Simmons wrote on Facebook.

As of 2022, and according to the TMZ-produced television documentary "What Really Happened to Richard Simmons," Simmons still hadn't undergone the second knee replacement procedure. "He walks with a cane and that explains a lot," the film claimed (via Vanity Fair). "Richard wanted to retreat before his image was recast as an old man. And his knee problems were a huge factor in his decision."

If you or someone you know needs help with an eating disorder or is struggling or in crisis, contact the relevant resources below: