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Missing Richard Simmons: how a podcast became an experiment in privacy invasion

A fan’s investigation into the private life of the reclusive fitness guru has sparked controversy.

'Swim for Relief' Benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery - Day 2
Richard Simmons attends 'Swim for Relief' Benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery in New York on October 9, 2013.
Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Almost exactly a year ago, a widely shared article in the New York Daily News alerted the world that Richard Simmons — the beloved ‘80s fitness guru whose peppy enthusiasm and flamboyance became forever associated with the decade — had not been seen in public since February 2014. The article, citing a close friend of Simmons, raised the disconcerting possibility that Simmons was somehow being held captive against his will or was being coerced to remain in his own house by a manipulative housekeeper.

Then, last month, a new podcast called Missing Richard Simmons began digging into the “mystery” of Simmons’s sudden reclusion. The podcast’s host, Dan Taberski, is a former Daily Show producer who took group fitness classes with Simmons at the exercise guru’s Los Angeles fitness studio Slimmons in 2012. (The studio closed last fall.) Citing their personal connection and public interest, Taberski has used the podcast to try to figure out what happened to Simmons, mainly by interviewing people once close to him.

“Richard Simmons completely and inexplicably stopped being Richard Simmons, and I want to find out why,” Taberski states in the first of what will be six episodes. The final episode was released Monday, and the answer to Taberski’s quest proved to be as open-ended as everything else about the “mystery.”

Missing Richard Simmons quickly generated buzz and media attention, with its first four episodes ranking No. 1 in their release weeks on the iTunes podcast chart as Serial fans and lovers of true crime and other mystery podcasts flocked to the project.

But as Taberski’s attempts to get close to Simmons ramped up, so did serious discussions about what right the public has to intrude on Simmons’s life. During its six-week run, the podcast generated increasing controversy as listeners and the media questioned whether Taberski’s brand of investigative journalism consisted of anything more than badgering people and stalking a man who clearly wanted to be left alone. By the end, everyone from the Los Angeles police to Simmons’s manager to many members of the media had challenged Taberski’s mission.

Although Taberski stated amid the backlash that he planned to finish his reporting for Missing Richard Simmons’s final episode, he confessed in said episode that much of what he wanted to include, in particular a confrontation with Simmons’s housekeeper, “got the boot.” (He doesn’t explain why.) The podcast ultimately concluded with Taberski interviewing Simmons’s manager, Michael Catalano.

Catalano, who had criticized the podcast to Entertainment Tonight, told Taberski in the episode that he believed the project has generated “more worry and speculation” than answers. And ultimately, Missing Richard Simmons came to say more about public interaction with celebrity culture — and the question of whether Taberski, or any of us, has a right to know why a public figure seeks privacy and solitude — than about Simmons himself.

The “mystery” of Simmons’s welfare was solved before the podcast debuted

Just a few weeks ago, on March 9, the LAPD notified People magazine that police had conducted welfare checks on Simmons at his home at least twice since January 2015. The police reported that Simmons is “perfectly fine” and “very happy” and that any rumors about staff holding him hostage were “garbage.”

In fact, Simmons himself had confirmed his welfare a year ago. In March of 2016, the day after the New York Daily News’s story ran, Simmons told Entertainment Tonight that "No one should be worried about me. The people that surround me are wonderful people who take great care of me."

And the day after that, he called into the Today show to dispel the rumors, stating, “I just sort of wanted to be a little bit of a loner for a while.”

This information didn’t seem to make a difference to Taberski.

In response to the LAPD’s March 9 statement, Taberski told the Ringer in an interview that he thought the police report was “fantastic” but that he was still “actively reporting” his podcast’s then-remaining episodes.

“[If Simmons] asked me to stop the podcast, would I? No,” he told the Guardian.

But if Simmons is fine, what was there to report?

Plenty, fans of the podcast might argue.

Serial taught us to love an introspective podcast journey exploring multiple points of view — but are all journeys worth taking?

In addition to pushing podcasts into the mainstream as a storytelling medium, 2014’s Serial, which took the public by storm and won a Peabody Award for its enigmatic first season, made a certain kind of podcast very trendy. Host Sarah Koenig’s introspection and first-person participation in the stories she tells on the series have since become a standard feature of many documentary and journalistic podcasts.

But since Taberski couldn’t get beyond the fence separating Simmons’s faux antebellum Los Angeles home from the rest of the world — he tried and failed several times to reach Simmons physically, by visiting his house, as well as through less intrusive means — his narrative journey mainly consisted of interviewing a mix of people who’ve interacted with Simmons at some point in the past. The closeness that Taberski’s sources have shared with Simmons varies greatly, from close friends to people who worked out with him at Slimmons, to acquaintances who spoke to Simmons shortly before his withdrawal from public life.

Throughout Missing Richard Simmons’s six episodes, the host considers quite a range of reasons for why Simmons might have isolated himself. This journey takes Taberski from wondering if Simmons is depressed, to spreading and then dismissing a rumor that he’s undergoing a gender transition, to speculating that he’s been ensorcelled by a witchcraft-practicing housemaid. This approach — identify all possible options, then investigate each one each one in hopes of reaching a definitive end — falls squarely within the emphasis on multiplicity that podcasts like Serial and This American Life have laid the groundwork for; the idea is that getting to an ultimate right answer isn’t the goal so much as exploring different points of view around a theme.

But Taberski, as many curious mystery fans have done before him, finds cause to reject what appears to be the right answer: the one provided a year ago by Simmons himself. Taberski continually returns to the idea that no possible reason can explain Simmons’s seclusion or extended silence. For instance, when speculating in episode two that Simmons is recuperating from a knee injury, Taberski asks, “Why not just say that?”

Taberski does confront the idea that Simmons doesn’t owe anyone, least of all Taberski, an explanation for his behavior — but he does it primarily through his interview subjects.

“He’s allowed to go away,” former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Willam Belli tells Taberski in episode two. “He wants to go away, he wants to live his Marlene Dietrich fantasy, ‘I want to be alone’? — goodbye, girl.”

What Taberski calls a “loving” search for the “truth” can also be read as an aggressive inability to respect Simmons’s privacy

In response to those who’ve called for Taberski to simply leave Simmons alone, Taberski has argued that Simmons has meant too much to too many people to be allowed remove himself from the public eye. Speaking, in episode two, about the aggressively upbeat public persona that Simmons maintained for years, he states, “I think when someone like that stops being that person, it’s worth asking why.”

But Missing Richard Simmons doesn’t just ask why. “There are drag queens and stakeouts,” Taberski states in episode one as he teasers listeners with hints of what’s to come. “Restraining orders are filed.” In episode two, titled “Stakeout,” Taberski really does essentially take the listener on a stakeout of Simmons’s house, scoping out the place with a friend and then walking up to the gates only to realize there’s no buzzer or doorbell to contact whoever’s inside. He confesses to “badgering” one source into talking to him over a period of more than a year. (Taberski had been planning to make a documentary on Simmons before Simmons’s reclusion, and eventually changed his plans accordingly.)

Taberski has drawn sharp criticism for his handling of sensitive issues regarding Simmons’s privacy, particularly his speculation regarding Simmons’s gender, sexuality, and mental health. In episode three, he says he’s not going to publicly speculate on Simmons’s sexuality; then he immediately seems to out Simmons by claiming that he once went on a double date with Simmons, who was out with a man. As the New York Times noted when calling Missing Richard Simmons a “morally suspect” podcast, this is also how Taberski approaches Simmons’s gender identity:

Mr. Taberski digs into a tabloid report that Mr. Simmons is transitioning to female. He takes a moment to note that Mr. Simmons’s gender identity is nobody’s business but his own, then forges right ahead … A serious journalistic transgression — outing a person — is played here as just another sensational twist to be picked apart for podcast fodder.

Taberski consistently frames these intrusions as compassionate concern — “a grand gesture” he hopes will be “too big to ignore.” In episode five, he addresses Simmons directly, asking him to talk to the podcast so that Simmons’s fans, Taberski included, can support and comfort him. “Let us be the empathetic ones for a change,” he says. Taberski then goes on to promise that in the podcast’s final episode he will be “loving but persistent” — before spending the final episode backtracking, corroborating the LAPD’s report that Simmons is fine, and turning his inquiry on himself:

“If [Simmons] is fine, what does that make me?”

Yet, even with his mission statement finally undermined, Taberski doesn’t attempt to seriously answer this question in the podcast’s final moments. Even when Catalano tells him that Missing Richard Simmons may have made life worse, not better, for Richard Simmons himself, Taberski dodges and changes subjects. Instead, he muses on what it means that Simmons might truly be just fine, inserting himself into Simmons’s headspace and point of view as though he’s suddenly satisfied with his (lack of) findings.

All told, rather than plumb an actual mystery, Missing Richard Simmons has served to illustrate the often aggressive entitlement that people can feel over the private lives of celebrities. Taberski seems far less interested in what Simmons actually wants for himself and more interested in undermining Simmons’s agency over his own life, both by invading his privacy on a number of fronts and by rejecting his own stated explanation for his withdrawal from public.

And while Taberski appeared to genuinely want his podcast to be an expression of love and empathy, it’s evident that his investigative experiment had a dark side.

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