For more than three decades, it seemed you couldn’t go anywhere in America without seeing Richard Simmons.
The flamboyant fitness guru was a ubiquitous force, fronting informercials, publishing cookbooks and selling tens of millions of workout videos that revolutionized the exercise industry forever.
From 1980 onward, the frizzy-haired, gleefully eccentric entertainer was also a fixture on daytime and late-night TV talk shows, quipping with comedians and becoming one of the most beloved celebrities in the country.
But in 2014, Simmons — who had recently, tearfully referred to himself as a “court jester” — suddenly vanished from the spotlight — and he hasn’t made a public appearance since.
Despite wild rumors that Simmons was being held hostage by his housekeeper and that he was undergoing gender reassignment surgery to live as a woman named “Fiona,” the real reason behind Simmons disappearance has remained a mystery — until now.
The new documentary “TMZ Investigates: What Really Happened to Richard Simmons,” streaming now on FOX and Hulu, claims the entertainer has been holed up in his Hollywood Hills home due to a painful ailment that he has battled with since birth — and has kept secret from his adoring public.
“Something that happened to him at birth is directly connected to his disappearance — a birth defect that significantly affected one of his legs,” TMZ managing editor Fabian Garcia declared in the doc. “He was born without a full set of bones in his foot and it causes physical and emotional problems.”
“Richard found comfort in food and he gained a lot of weight,” doc producer Charles Latibeaudiere further revealed. “And that put a lot of stress on his knees.”
Now, some claim it was this early but enduring damage that spearheaded his eventual rise to pop culture legend — and his later downfall into a world of loneliness and despair.
A childhood of pain
Simmons — born on July 12, 1948 — was raised in New Orleans, a legendary culinary destination about which he claimed “lard was a food group and dessert was mandatory.”
The workout king claimed he “came out of his mother’s womb with a fork” in his 1999 memoir “Still Hungry After All These Years: My Story.“
“I could recognize a package of bacon at 20 feet,” he recalled. “The strips of bacon looked so weak, so flimsy, so sad, until they hit the frying pan. Then they began swimming and dancing, lacing up at the sides and turning golden brown.”
As a teenager, Simmons’ tastes matured, but he still opted for calorie-heavy options, writing: “Puberty was graduating from Thousand Island salad dressing to Caesar salads … from hot dogs and hamburgers to beef stroganoff … from ice cream in a cone to crème brulée.”
Simmons’ obesity had a hugely negative effect on his self-worth, as he emotionally recalled in a 1980s interview, which in the new TMZ doc is featured as flashback footage.
“I went through a lot of hurt as a child. I was the largest child in school. At the age of 15, I was 200 pounds. I went to my first Halloween party dressed as a couch. I was the one made fun of. I felt very bad about myself,” he said.
By the time he graduated from high school, Simmons tipped the scales at 238 pounds — and he was heavy on the self-loathing.
“He would try to hold back tears because boys would pick on him,” childhood friend Antoinette DiPi told People, saying Simmons suffered constant bullying because of his heavyset frame, which was already taking a toll on his damaged foot, leg and knee.
The star himself told Oprah Winfrey in a 1980s interview that he developed an eating disorder after high school, saying: “I stopped eating and I got to 119 pounds and I was in the hospital.”
“I started picturing food as the enemy. When I saw spaghetti, I saw worms. You get to believe in our society that only the thin people are successful,” he continued.
However, Simmons eventually used the birth defect in his foot as fuel to become fit and healthy. He adopted “a lifestyle of balance, moderate eating and exercise” that allowed him to maintain a healthy weight.
And although he managed to shed the pounds, he never managed to shed the insecurity that accompanied his obesity and the birth defect he kept concealed from everybody.
After relocating to Los Angeles in his early 20s, Simmons realized that fitness facilities only targeted those who were already in shape.
Understanding the adversity of obesity, he opened his own gym and began conducting classes that focused on a rarity in the era of increasingly popular “hookup” gym culture: He appealed to and supported attendees of all shapes and sizes.
Workout videos soon followed, with viewers falling for Simmons’ exuberant and eccentric personality.
Clad in hot pants and bedazzled tank tops, the superstar’s light-hearted approach helped make fitness feel fun and accessible to overweight Americans who had long been intimidated by sculpted and self-serious trainers.
His 1988 VHS “Sweatin’ To The Oldies” became the biggest selling fitness home video of all time, grossing north of $200 million.
But, while viewers loved the campy persona that Simmons presented to the public, he became a punchline for comedians across the country — and it took a private toll on him.
The new TV special — produced by TMZ, the staff at which have spent years chronicling the star’s disappearance — states that the sassy, self-assured version of himself that he presented to the public was merely a front, and that Simmons was a profoundly shy and sensitive soul who struggled with being made fun of.
The star was a frequent guest on “Late Show with David Letterman,” on which he often bantered with the show’s legendary host. But during a 2000 appearance, Letterman, 75, hosed Simmons down on-air with a fire extinguisher, leaving the fitness guru visibly upset. He refused to return to the show for 6 years.
Meanwhile, according to the new doc, “Three’s Company” star Suzanne Somers revealed a sad encounter with Simmons behind-the-scenes at a talk show.
“One night I was on the Larry King show and he was either going to be a guest or supposed to be a guest, and I heard through the Larry King people that he didn’t want to be on the show with me,” Somers, 75, recalled. “I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘She’ll make fun of me.’ And that’s not my style, I never make fun of anybody. But that’s when I realized a little insecurity has gotten in there.”
She continued: “I liked him. I was always so surprised when he thought I’d make fun of him. But doesn’t that show you he’s got a heartache? Something’s broken inside because he did it. He had it and then let it go.”
The insecure star also struggled with other aspects of his appearance, admitting that he had three “horribly painful” hair transplants after his anorexia battle resulted in hair loss.
“I’ve had hair transplants, but you can only do so much, so I have 12 hairs left and I just spray them, toss them and make it look like a salad. I’m glad I have hair on my head, you know?” he told Entertainment Tonight in 2011.
Meanwhile, the highly empathetic exercise entrepreneur allegedly struggled to separate himself from the struggles of his dieting devotees.
“There is a tremendous burden you take on when you connect with so many people that are sharing their challenges with you,” Dr. Phil McGraw, 71, says in the TMZ special. “It can really drag you down.”
Meanwhile, one former attendee at Simmons’ gym said the star would “would cry until snot came out of his nose” because he was so emotionally invested in the wellbeing of his fans.
A ‘loner’ for life
The superstar suddenly stopped performing in public in 2014, citing problems with his knee.
According to the documentary, Simmons underwent a right knee replacement that left him in a considerable amount of pain.
Doctors subsequently told him that he also needed a left knee replacement, but he refused have the surgery after being too traumatized by the first operation.
“We know still that to this day, Richard still hasn’t gotten corrective surgery on his left knee,” TMZ’s Harvey Levin reveals in the doc. “He walks with a cane and that explains a lot. He’s just not the same guy anymore.”
Levin, 71, adds that the decision for Simmons to retreat from public life has also been about preserving his brand: “He wanted to be remembered as vibrant and healthy — not an elderly man with medical problems.”
But the documentary also hinted that Simmons may be relishing his quiet life away from the camera, claiming he has always been “withdrawn and a loner.”
Even at the height of his fame, the publicly bold and brash Simmons preferred to spend nights at home alone, with a barren social calendar that made both Boo Radley and Howard Hughes look like socialites.
The LAPD performed a welfare check on Simmons at his plush Hollywood Hills home in 2016, amid concerns his longtime housekeeper Teresa Reveles was holding him against his will.
But cops found that the superstar was “articulate, relaxed and lucid” — appearing to be living happy at home with only his housekeeper as company.
The only impairment, police noticed at the time of their visit, was a “slight limp in his knee.”
“No one is holding me hostage,” Simmons subsequently declared in a phone interview with Today. “I do what I want to do, as I’ve always done. People should always believe what I have to say, because I’m Richard Simmons.”
Reps for Simmons politely declined the The Post’s request for comment on renewed interest in his retreat from public life.