Simmons began his weight-loss career by opening a gym called Slimmons in Beverly Hills, California, catering to the overweight, and he became widely known through exposure on television and through the popularity of his consumer products. He is often parodied and was a frequent guest of late night television talk shows, such as the Late Show with David Letterman and The Howard Stern Show.
Simmons has continued to promote health and exercise through a career spanning several decades, and later broadened his activities to include political activism – notably in 2008 in support of a bill mandating non-competitive physical education in public schools as a part of the "No Child Left Behind Act". However, he has not appeared in public since February 2014, and his gym quietly closed in late 2016 without him making any public statement. His disappearance from the public eye has led to ongoing speculation and expressions of concern about his well-being. Simmons and those who have been in contact with him have said the concerns are unwarranted.
Simmons was born Milton Teagle Simmons in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 12, 1948, the son of Leonard Douglas Simmons, Sr. and Shirley May (née Satin). He was born to show business parents and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He has one older brother named Leonard, Jr. His father was raised Methodist and worked as a master of ceremonies and later in thrift stores. His mother was Russian Jewish and was a traveling fan dancer and later a store cosmetics saleswoman.
Simmons later converted to Catholicism and attended Cor Jesu High School, known today as Brother Martin High School.
He became obese during his early childhood and adolescence. He began overeating and becoming overweight as early as the age of 4 or earlier, and by the age of 5, he knew it was perceived negatively. At the age of 15, he weighed 182 pounds (83 kg). As a young man, he considered being a priest. As a young adult art student, he had appeared among the "freak show" characters in the Fellini films Satyricon (1968) and The Clowns (1970), and he eventually reached a peak of 268 pounds (122 kg).
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Simmons explained he adopted the name Richard after an uncle who paid for his college tuition. His first job in New Orleans was as a child, selling pralines at Leah's.
Upon moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he worked as the Maître d'hotel at Derek's, a restaurant in Beverly Hills. He developed an interest in fitness, but was dissatisfied with the unhealthy fad diets then prevalent, such as the Hollywood/Grapefruit diet, the Scarsdale diet, AYDS "appetite suppressing" candy, and the Atkins diet. Established gyms and exercise studios of the day favored the already fit customer, so there was little real help for those who needed to gain fitness from an otherwise unhealthy state. His interest in fitness helped him lose 123 lb (56 kg).
Simmons later opened his own exercise studio, originally called "The Anatomy Asylum", where emphasis was placed on healthy eating in proper portions and enjoyable exercise in a supportive atmosphere. The business originally included a salad bar restaurant called Ruffage, the name a pun on the word roughage (dietary fiber), though it was eventually removed as the focus of the Asylum shifted solely to exercise. Later renamed "Slimmons", the establishment continued operations in Beverly Hills, and Simmons taught motivational classes and aerobics throughout the week. Slimmons closed in November 2016.
In 2010, Simmons stated that he had kept off his own 100+ pound (45 kg) weight loss for 42 years, had been helping others lose weight for 35 years, and that in the course of his fitness career had helped humanity lose approximately 12,000,000 pounds (5,500,000 kg). Simmons used the web as a method of outreach by running his own membership-based website, and also indicates on his home page that he has established official pages on numerous social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube.
Simmons began to draw media attention due to the success of his health club that began with him on Real People, where he was shown at work. He introduced customers whom he had helped to lose weight. He later made guest roles on the celebrity game shows Battlestars; Body Language; Super Password; Win, Lose or Draw; the ABC version of Match Game; the syndicated version of Hollywood Squares; and Nickelodeon's Figure It Out.
Positive viewer reactions landed Simmons a recurring role as himself in General Hospital over a 4-year period. This in turn led to further media notoriety, as well as being in shopping malls, where he taught exercise classes. In the early 1980s, Simmons hosted two shows; Slim Cookin and an Emmy Award-winning talk show The Richard Simmons Show, in which he focused on personal health, fitness, exercise, and healthy cooking. The Richard Simmons Show drew thousands of exercise enthusiasts, including SAG/AFTRA actress Lucrecia Sarita Russo who reportedly transported an entire bus filled with ladies from Pam's Figure Tique, for a lively workout on the show.
In 1998, Simmons voiced Boone in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie.
Simmons has been featured as himself on numerous television series, including Whose Line Is It Anyway?, CHiPs, Saturday Night Live, The Larry Sanders Show, and on an episode of Arrested Development titled "Bringing Up Buster." In 1999, he hosted a short-lived television series titled DreamMaker. 8 years later, he filmed a pledge drive special for PBS titled Love Yourself and Win.
He has been featured in television advertisements for Sprint, Yoplait, Herbal Essence Shampoos, and toward the end of 2007, he was in a "This is SportsCenter" commercial on ESPN as the show's "conditioning coach." In Canada, Simmons was in an advertisement for Simmons mattresses. The mattress company hired the exercise celebrity because of the similarity in name, and for his appeal to the company's target audience of women over 35. Beyond this, there is no further business partnership between the two.
Rocko's Modern Life has one episode where Simmons lent his voice to an exercise trainer bearing his animated likeness. He leads a class filled with large anthropomorphic animals.
For 3 years, he hosted a radio show on Sirius Stars, Sirius Satellite Radio channel 102, titled Lighten Up with Richard Simmons. The show was cancelled in 2008.Simmons was a guest on The Rosie O'Donnell Show on November 18, 1997, together with Celine Dion.
Simmons portrayed himself in Steven Spielberg's 1986 Amazing Stories Season 1: Episode 10 ("Remote Control Man").
He was a frequent guest on The Howard Stern Show in the 1980s and 1990s. The two had a brief friendship off the air, which both Richard and Howard discussed several times on air. While he resolved at one point to refuse future involvement after Stern insulted him one too many times, he returned to the Stern show on November 16, 2006, then returned again January 24, 2012, and September 24, 2013.
Simmons was also a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman (NBC) and the Late Show with David Letterman (CBS). On November 22, 2000, they had a falling out after an incident that occurred on that night's show. Simmons (while dressed as a turkey) was sprayed in the face by Letterman with a fire extinguisher after Simmons grabbed Letterman as if to hug or kiss him, causing Simmons to have a severe asthma attack. Simmons did not attend the Letterman show for 6 years, finally returning on November 29, 2006. During that time, Letterman once again set Simmons up for a prank. While Richard Simmons was demonstrating a steamer branded with his name, Letterman insisted on placing a tray under the steamer which Simmons did not believe belonged there. When Simmons turned the steamer on, something in the tray exploded and caught fire, sending Simmons running for his life. Despite the scare, Simmons took the incident in fairly good nature, even joking that he "felt like Michael Jackson" (referring to a mishap where Jackson's hair was set on fire by a pyrotechnics accident).
He was a guest on the U.S. version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?.
Simmons is on tracks 1 and 10 of Bob Rivers' 1997 holiday album More Twisted Christmas.
Simmons has multiple times been on The Glenn Beck Program on HLN.
He is featured heavily in the film clip of "Hawker Boat" by Tobacco, taken from the album Fucked Up Friends.
He provides the voice for Coach Salmons, a reoccurring character modeled after his own likeness, for Fish Hooks, a Disney Channel Original Series that premiered on September 24, 2010. On December 8, 2010, it was announced that the series has been picked up for a second season. Fish Hooks ended after three seasons.
In 2011, Simmons starred in "Fit to Fly with Richard Simmons", an Air New Zealand inflight safety briefing video modeled after his aerobic workouts.
In 2012, he was in a Canadian commercial for Telus wireless phone.
In 2013, he appeared on Extreme Weight Loss as a surprise guest, leading a workout with the contestants.
Simmons is noted for his energetic and motivational demeanor, an attribute he uses to help encourage people to lose weight. His high energy level is always featured in his workout videos. His trademark attire is candy-striped Dolphin shorts and tank tops decorated with Swarovski crystals.
Simmons is known for interacting at a personal level with people using his products. This began by personally answering fan mail he received as a cast member of General Hospital. He still personally answers emails and letters and makes hundreds of phone calls each week to those who seek his help. He also talked to people on the air during his radio show and holds weekly live chats in the "clubhouse" area of his website. His appearances also include a "meet and greet" time so that people can speak to him one on one.
He claims to have few friends, saying, "I don't have a lot to offer to one person. I have a lot to offer to a lot of people." Aside from his three Dalmatians and two maids, Simmons lives alone in Beverly Hills, California. While his sexual orientation has been the subject of much speculation, he has never publicly discussed his sexuality.
In September 2005, Simmons was on Entertainment Tonight to discuss the effects of Hurricane Katrina on his family in his hometown of New Orleans, and his involvement in aiding those affected by the hurricane. On August 29, 2006, Simmons was on Your World with Neil Cavuto while making a return visit to New Orleans one year after the flooding, a visit he repeated on March 2, 2007, now talking about his recent trip to Washington, D.C. to promote and raise awareness about The Strengthening Physical Education Act of 2007 (H.R. 1224).
Simmons has not made any major public appearances since 2014, and stopped appearing in public at all in February of that year. In March 2016, speculation began that he was being held hostage by his housekeeper.
In response, on March 14, Simmons gave an audio interview on the Today Show, denying the rumors. In November, the Slimmons fitness gym closed, without any public announcement from Simmons. In February 2017, the podcast Missing Richard Simmons launched, investigating why Simmons left public life so suddenly.
In March 2017, LAPD detectives visited Simmons' home to conduct a welfare check, issuing a statement that Simmons is "perfectly fine" and that "right now he is doing what he wants to do and it is his business." On April 19, 2017, following a hospitalization for severe indigestion, Simmons made his first public comment in over a year, posting on Facebook a photo of himself and the message "I'm not 'missing', just a little under the weather". However, the picture that was included in the post was several years old – from 2013 or 2014 – and there was some speculation that the person using his account to post the message might not actually have been him.
In May 2017, Simmons sued the National Enquirer, Radar Online and American Media, Inc. for libel and false claims that he was undergoing gender reassignment. In September 2017, Simmons lost the lawsuit, and was ordered to pay the defendants' attorney's fees. The judge ruled that "because courts have long held that a misidentification of certain immutable characteristics do not naturally tend to injure one's reputation, even if there is sizeable portion of the population who hold prejudices against those characteristics, misidentification of a person as transgender is not actionable defamation absent special damages."