The day before I interviewed Dan Taberski, the creator of the massively popular Missing Richard Simmons podcast, last week, Richard Simmons stopped being missing. Sort of. According to a report from the Los Angeles Police Department, which visited his L.A. mansion recently, Simmons is totally fine — a revelation that seemed like a real jolt to a podcast whose sole mission is to figure out what happened to the ’80s fitness guru and personality.
For those who haven’t started listening to the podcast that all your friends keep calling “this year’s Serial,” a brief initiation: Three years ago, after decades of building a cult following through his workout videos, infomercials, and diet plans, Simmons abruptly disappeared from the public eye. Save for calls to Today and ET in March 2016, nobody has heard from Richard Simmons, but there is no shortage of theories about the reason(s) for his disappearance: He’s ill, he’s overweight, he’s being held hostage by his housekeeper — and an enduring fascination with what might have happened to him.
Enter Missing Richard Simmons, which follows Taberski as he tries to track down his friend and former instructor, or at least parse together enough fascinating interviews with people in Simmons’s orbit to figure out what might have happened. Thanks to a compelling narrative and an in-depth character study of someone whom everybody knows, but nobody actually knows, the podcast has become highly addictive in just four weeks. Listeners are no closer to knowing what happened, but all the new questions raised while Taberski tries to answer the central ones keep us hooked. So hooked it’s the most downloaded podcast on iTunes.
The Ringer caught up with Taberski while he was in L.A. furiously reporting for next week’s finale episode. Here’s what he has to say about his friendship and fascination with Simmons, his theories about why Simmons has gone away, and why people can’t let him go.
Did you have any idea that a podcast about Richard Simmons, who’s been out of the public eye for three years, was going to explode the way it did?
No. No. Absolutely, no. But I will say this: I met Richard Simmons in 2012. It’s what, 2017 now? I can still talk about Richard Simmons until I’m blue. I’m still learning things about him, and he still interests me and fascinates me in a super-healthy way. I’m not like a crazy person, but he is a really interesting person, and his life intersects in all these different worlds of the obesity epidemic and fitness and fame and gender and sexuality. I knew there was something there; I’m just excited that other people see what I see in Richard. I think that says more about Richard Simmons than it does about the podcast.
How did Richard Simmons become one of your — I don’t want to say “obsessions” — but such an intense fascination? A lot of people have public figures that make them say, “Oh, that person’s interesting to me.” But you’re really interested in Richard.
[Laughs.] Super interested. You know, I’m not interested in fame particularly. I don’t want to hang out with celebrities. I think it’s because I got to know Richard, and so it wasn’t just like this person I was reading about and looking at pictures and stuff like that. I wasn’t even geeking on him in like a fan sort of way. It’s because I got to know him. And it’s very rare to have somebody out there who I think is important and interesting and colorful and fascinating and then to actually be lucky enough to get to know them and become their friend. It was an unusual situation.
Was it just after you started working out at his studio, Slimmons, or did your interest predate that?
I thought Richard Simmons was cool before that, but I didn’t think about Richard — like, I didn’t have pictures of Richard Simmons on my locker. It was, you know, I just heard that you could take a class in Los Angeles with Richard Simmons for $12. I was a television producer and I was a filmmaker and I thought, “This is amazing. I want to see what this is about.” And the minute I did, it was incredible. Anybody who’s taken that class knows what I’m talking about. It’s incredible. It was upon meeting him and getting to know him that I really became interested in telling his story.
There has been a lot of speculation and theorizing about what happened to Richard. An episode from early March, “The Maid and the Masseuse,” made some pretty strong claims about his welfare. You spoke with subjects who made the case that there could be some foul play—and then yesterday, I read a statement from the LAPD that was on TMZ. They reported that the LAPD said he is fine and just wants to be left alone. So first off, do you believe this statement?
So what you’re saying is, you’re asking me to respond to TMZ? I’m just kidding around. [Laughs.] Yeah, I believe it. … And to be clear, I don’t make any claims about his welfare — we’re exploring Richard Simmons and we’re exploring the reasons why he would stop being that person. That was a theory that’s out there. And it absolutely needed to be explored. I think anybody listening to that episode can hear the skepticism that I have for the more outrageous parts of that story. I let that episode speak for itself for sure, but I also think that part of the reason why that theory was interesting was because a lot of the things that the guy who brought it up … [was] saying aren’t outrageous, and people don’t deny it and a lot of people agree with the things, so you know it’s not for me to say “yes” or “no, I believe him.” It was for me to put it out there because it was something that people were talking about. And the fact that the police think that he’s fine, you know, they did a welfare check and it looks like he’s fine. Fantastic.
How does this change the final two episodes?
We are still actively reporting. I’m here in L.A. right now as I talk to you doing reporting for the last episode. This is happening now. From the very beginning this is a podcast without an ending, which is great, which is scary as fuck, and which is really hard to get off the ground. We’re in the scary part now because we are figuring out the ending as we go along, so everything that happens every day — and things are happening every day, they’re happening in the press and they’re happening with tips and calls we’re getting — this is gonna be changing right up until the end.
As someone who knows Richard, do you have any insight or thoughts about why he decided he didn’t want to be Richard Simmons anymore, if that is what’s happening here?
Well, I don’t want to give away too much. I’ve been thinking about Richard Simmons for a long time, and from all the reporting we’ve done, I do have a theory about what’s going on for him. I think people should listen to the podcast to hear that, but I will say that Richard Simmons is — I’ve talked to hundreds of people about him — Richard Simmons … I don’t think people understand the depth of the kindness and the intensity and the sheer man hours that Richard Simmons was putting in every day being kind to people for free. He would wake up in the morning and call 20, 30, 40 people … They were isolated and they were alone and they were having trouble with their weight and all the sort of issues that come with that, and he would reach out to them and show them kindness — and it wasn’t just a onetime thing. It wasn’t that at all. He would start relationships with these people that would last for years, sometimes decades. And sometimes those stories didn’t end well, and he was doing that with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. And I think there’s a cost to that sort of superhuman kindness. I think he should be remembered forever for it, but I think … I wonder what the costs are to living a life of empathy like that.
This podcast made me think so much about my own relationship to celebrity culture. If he just wants to go away, why can’t we just let him? He doesn’t owe us an explanation. But at the same time, do celebrities really just get to disappear?
I don’t think Richard is just a celebrity, and the interesting thing — let me preface that by saying that if I had a big stamp that said, “Richard owes nobody anything,” I would stamp it on every article or every thing that anybody ever sees — but Richard Simmons was in our lives and in the lives of thousands of people not as a celebrity, because he blurred those lines. He worked with those people informally as a therapist. He was giving to those people, and so he blurred the lines of celebrity. And he built really intense relationships with those people. Regardless of what Richard Simmons wants to do with his life — and he should do whatever he wants with his life — that being said, this happened to those people, too, and they had an experience where this guy was in their life for decades, and in a lot of cases saved their life. A lot of them are trying to figure out what to do now that that person is basically saying he wants people to pretend like he never existed.
I mean, I get mad when someone doesn’t text me back for a few hours …
The only thing I can liken it to is getting dumped in the most surprising way. The whole “I did not see that coming.” Just feeling like a sucker a little bit when you get dumped like that. And that’s really hard to get over.
But does that give us the right to try to find him? When you went to his house, in Episode 2, you discussed whether or not it was invasive to do so. Have you ever been concerned that this podcast is a bit exploitative when he just wants to be left alone? Did you ever feel a moment of “Should I be doing this at all?”
I talk about that in the podcast. Yeah. It is a question that I have asked. Not because I’m wrestling with it constantly, but because it’s important to keep coming back to that place. Am I doing something that is invasive? Am I doing something that I shouldn’t be doing? And by asking that question, I think we make sure that we don’t cross lines. And we have … we’ve built a lot of lines. We haven’t hired a private detective, we’re not staking out his house 24 hours a day, all these things that we could be doing if we actually wanted, if I wanted to know what was going on with Richard Simmons. If I were a tabloid reporter or if I were a private detective, I could find out what’s going on with Richard Simmons. There are tools to do this; there are ways to do this. But we’re not doing that. We are making sure that we’re not crossing those lines.
What keeps you from crossing the line, or even edging into gray areas?
What would you do to your friends, if you had a friend, who all of a sudden disappeared and said, “Leave me alone,” but you kind of thought, “I don’t know, something’s not right about this”? It’s the same sort of feeling. You want to find out, you want to understand, but you want to give them their privacy too.
The fact that I had built a friendship with him … we weren’t best friends, but we became friends. That made it a little easier. I don’t have to think about this from a journalist or documentarian point of view, like “What is ethical here?” Most of the time, we just kind of say to ourselves, “Look, Richard Simmons is my friend; I wouldn’t do this to my friend.”
How do you want this story to end?
I’ve always hoped that Richard Simmons would feel the love from this podcast. My hope is that he would hear that and that that would maybe spark him to talk to me and help me understand a little bit of what’s going on, and he would move on and live the life that he wants to live however he wants to live it. That’s it. Just a conversation.