Some people might call it remarkable that Richard Simmons, the outrageous, animated, flamboyant clown prince of American fitness, hasn't reshaped his irrepressibly elfin appeal for decades.
"People treat me like family, 'cause I've always treated them like family," Simmons said. "My father said something years ago: 'Know no strangers.' Everyone in this world is somehow connected. So why not just be nice to everybody."
Clad in his uniform -- Dolfin shorts and tank top encrusted with Swarovski crystals -- the reliably overwrought Simmons is one face Americans recognize.
Even those who haven't seen his infomercials or his more than 50 workout tapes and DVDs -- his latest called "Party Off the Pounds" -- figure they already know Simmons, thanks to his many television appearances.
But there's a side of Simmons that far fewer people are familiar with. Every morning he heads down to the office in his West Hollywood home, picks up the telephone and calls the morbidly obese.
"Hey, it's Richard Simmons calling, how are you," he said, talking to a woman who, at 5 feet 8 inches, weighs 265 pounds. "She's been up and down so many times I can't even tell you. Up and down so many times."
These people, or their loved ones, have reached out to Simmons, via e-mail or in person. To them, he seeks to bring hope and self-esteem. And he doesn't try to sell them anything, except the value of diet and exercise.
"I call them to check up on them," he said. "I call them to tell them how beautiful they are. I tell them they are successful and they're worth it. I tell them about having more self-respect. I sing to them."
Outsiders may question Simmons' sincerity, wondering whether he really feels that way about these people or whether he's just saying it to make them feel better.
"I don't have to work anymore," he said. "I don't have to make a phone call anymore, I don't have to do one more leg lift. This is my passion and this is my mission. And I've never deterred from it. And people have watched me over the years do what I do and you can't fake this. Either you really care about what you do or you don't. ... I eat, breath, sleep, do everything for this, and it makes me happy."
Today, Simmons is a self-described "court jester" on the national scene. But before the age of personal trainers and gastric-bypass surgery; before the heyday of yoga, Pilates and spinning classes; before Jane Fonda's workout tapes, Simmons was 1-2-3-4-ing his way to fitness fame.
"Look at Dick Simmons," he said. "60 [and] still doin' it, buddy."
"Dickie" Simmons (born Milton Teagle Simmons) grew up large but not in charge in New Orleans, surrounded by the caloricly colossal Creole restaurants of the French Quarter. Before a nurse's intervention got him healthy and looking trim, he'd put away enough to become a 250-pound teen.
"I did many things," he said of his dieting struggles. "Diet pills in elementary school, throwing up four, five times a day, taking 30 laxatives a day to go to the bathroom. Starving and not eating for weeks. Trying to be accepted. Trying to change what you look like.
"I just, you know, was so different it seemed than anyone else. I always thought I was from a different planet. ... I just stayed by myself as a kid and played 45 [rpm] records in my bedroom and lip-synced to all the people that had famous songs."