— -- Richard Simmons has been a hero to thousands of weight watchers throughout the world, dedicating his life to helping people maintain a healthy diet and workout plan. His devoted fans would love to thank him personally, but they can’t.
That’s because the fitness celebrity, who is known for his larger-than-life personality -- hugging, taking photos and dishing out weight-loss advice to every person he met -- reportedly hasn’t been seen by many of his closest friends for years.
In early 2014, Simmons seemed to suddenly vanish, retreating behind the walls of his West Hollywood home. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories began to swirl.
Now, three years later, Simmons is still out of the spotlight and his disappearance from public life is the subject of the No. 1 iTunes podcast, “Missing Richard Simmons.”
Host Dan Taberski said he met Simmons in 2012. He said he wanted to tell Simmons' story before the fitness icon left the public eye, but after “he disappeared like he did, it just kind of made it more urgent,” Taberski told “Nightline.”
Taberski, a former producer on “The Daily Show,” is one of the many who got hooked on the free-wheeling Simmons-branded “Slimmons” workout, which Simmons had been teaching for decades out of his Beverly Hills studio. Taberski soon became friends with him.
He is “super foul-mouthed and hilarious, and rude in a really funny way,” Taberski said. “He tells amazing stories, he cries in every class.”
Taberski said about a year and a half after Simmons disappeared, he started talking to people about what might have happened.
“Nobody was thinking, ‘Oh, he’s fine, he’s just taking some time off,’” Taberski said. “Nobody thought that.”
On Feb. 15, 2014, Simmons didn’t show up to teach his regular “Slimmons” class, and his students were bewildered. In November 2016, his studio closed. Simmons had opened it in 1974 and had been teaching there regularly ever since.
Taberski said, “One day he stopped returning my emails and my phone calls. And I thought, ‘Well that stinks, that’s a drag.’ Then I realized he wasn’t calling anybody, or emailing anybody.”
“It snowballed and sort of started speculating all over the place,” he added.
David Garcia, who lost 160 pounds with Simmons, said the last time he saw the fitness icon was at his Slimmons studio in February 2014. When “Nightline” profiled Simmons in 2009 inside his home, he showed how he makes a point to call dozens of fans every day to check in on their weight loss progress. But despite his extroverted public persona, his personal life has always been a little solitary.
“Do I get lonely sometimes, sure, you’re on the road and you’re on the road for x-amount of days, and you’re not home, my dogs, and my housekeeper who I live with, I’m very attached to them, they’re my sturdiness in my life,” Simmons said at the time. “No one should feel sorry for Richard Simmons because I think I’m one of the most loved people in the whole world.”
In a phone call to NBC last March, Simmons insisted that he was fine, saying, “You haven’t seen the last of me, I’ll come back and I’ll come back strong.” But Taberski said even that was unusual.
“It was unusual that it was only a phone call, and not in person,” he noted.
Tom Estey, Simmons’ publicist of 27 years told ABC News in a statement Monday: “We didn’t cooperate nor collaborate with this podcast. The truth is that Richard is fine and willingly enjoying his life outside the spotlight while still working behind the scenes to help those millions who desperately need his love and assistance... unfounded attempts to diminish the legacy of this true American treasure are simply shameful.”
Since his absence, there is a renewed fascination with Simmons but also a general concern among his followers. For Taberski, he said he is just looking for answers.
“He’s an interesting, gentle guy,” he said. “I think that’s part of why people like him and I think that’s part of why people are worried about him now because you sort of feel that sensitivity, and you sort of feel that he’s got a vulnerability.”
So far the podcast has explored the questions and conspiracies surrounding Simmons, but hasn’t found any evidence that something is wrong.
“This isn’t a witch hunt, I just want to wish him well,” Taberski said. “I haven’t talked to anybody who thinks Richard Simmons is fine.”