The six-episode podcast Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode on Monday, two days ahead of schedule. For a project nominally devoted to finding out more about what happened to onetime fitness guru Richard Simmons, it wasn't very satisfying by that standard. Host Dan Taberski concluded, in effect, that Richard Simmons was safe and physically healthy and had withdrawn voluntarily from public life without much fanfare, which is ... pretty much what we already knew. That's what Simmons had said in a call to Today that Taberski played again and again. That's what the police had said after they checked on him. Stripped to the frame, the beginning of the podcast gave the back story, the ending mused about the anticlimax of it all, and the middle largely traced a couple of more sensational theories for which Taberski ultimately didn't find any evidence.
But as unsatisfying as the show was as a mystery, it was fascinating as a study of what we ask of public figures — of what we feel entitled to ask of them.
If there's one thing that the podcast showed, and in fact if there's one thing on which Taberski rested his thesis that Simmons' withdrawal was worthy of further investigation, it's that Richard Simmons gave a preposterous amount of himself away to the people who bought his products, came to his classes, went on his cruises, and simply told him how much pain they were in because they thought he would understand. The thesis of the show is largely that a man who was so close to people and loved being close to people would never just stop doing it.
It's one of Taberski's apparent blind spots that Simmons didn't connect at this profound and personal level with all fat people — he connected with a certain kind of person who wanted and reached for something personal from him. After all, plenty of people just watched the videos. I should know; I can still do "It's My Party" from Sweatin' To The Oldies. But there was a kind of Richard Simmons person who wanted to touch him, stuff dollar bills in his shorts on the cruise ship, and talk to him on the phone. And the way Taberski tells the story, Simmons turned himself inside out trying to give every one of them whatever it was they wanted.
I interviewed Judy Blume a couple of years ago and asked her whether the intimate connection readers felt, particularly as young people, with her books like Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret made her their assumed confidante in a way that was overwhelming. "Yes," she told me without hesitation. "For a while there, I got too involved with some of the kids who wrote to me. I got very emotionally involved with them. I had to go to a counselor to help me, because I'm not trained in the helping professions." She said she needed to understand how to "be supportive, and yet step back. Because there were a couple of kids I wanted to save. You know, I wanted to bring them to live with me. ... This never would have worked out."