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'Missing Richard Simmons' Follows Fitness Guru's Supposed Disappearance

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Earlier this week, fitness guru Richard Simmons went into the hospital. His manager said he had stomach problems. And then on Wednesday, the 68-year-old thanked his fans for their good wishes in a Facebook post that included this, quote, "aren't you sick of hearing and reading about me? LOL (ph) well, by now you know that I'm not missing. I'm just a little under the weather," end quote. And there are two reasons why this is a big deal. One, Richard Simmons withdrew from the public abruptly in 2014 and, two, that disappearance was the subject of a very popular podcast that ended last month. The podcast is called Missing Richard Simmons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISSING RICHARD SIMMONS")

DAN TABERSKI: I'm creepy. I'm a creepy friend. I have lots of creepy friends. They're not that bad (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But where are we sitting right now and why?

TABERSKI: We're sitting in front of Richard's house like two creepy friends.

MCEVERS: Over six episodes, former "Daily Show" producer, Dan Taberski, with help from his producer Henry Molofsky, talks about Simmons' life, career and, to much criticism, his many theories about why Richard Simmons suddenly decided to withdraw - to basically stop being Richard Simmons.

We've been wanting to talk to Dan Taberski for a while, and now he is here with me in the studio, so welcome. Welcome to NPR West.

TABERSKI: Hi, thank you for having me. Good to be here.

MCEVERS: You spent a long time waiting for a response from Richard Simmons, and now there is one. What do you think?

TABERSKI: I guess that's a response. I mean, it's certainly not a response to me. He certainly had Facebook posts and other moments where he made comments if he was in the hospital or if - you know, when the Pulse shootings happened, he made a comment. So there have been places where he's said something.

MCEVERS: Right.

TABERSKI: I'm just glad he's feeling better.

MCEVERS: Well, do you think there would be a post like this had it not been for the podcast?

TABERSKI: I think that he and his team listened, and I think they have mixed feelings about it. But I think they - that had a really big outpouring. And I think that seems to have spurred something in him that maybe he is inching towards, if that's what he wants, to come back to public life in some way.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about the podcast. One of the many things about it that's so great is that it is this really nice long look at the life and work of Richard Simmons. It takes this person who I think to some people had become a cartoon character and really helps us understand who he was. What made you want to look into the life of Richard Simmons?

TABERSKI: I heard he was teaching a class in Beverly Hills for 12 bucks at the same studio that he'd been teaching at since the Ford administration. It was incredible. It was like a 90-minute one-person show. And it just made me want to ask more.

MCEVERS: And you guys became friends?

TABERSKI: Yeah. I mean, my - the first day I took the class, I asked him if he would ever want to be the subject of a documentary.

MCEVERS: Wow.

TABERSKI: So our relationship was based on that from the beginning. And he immediately said no, but he kind of winked when he said it. And I was like, all right, I'll just keep taking the class. And I kept going to the class for like a year. As time went on, like, he would ask me to lunch. And then he had dinner with me and my husband, and so it sort of evolved like that. It was basically me trying to figure out if I could tell his story and him trying to figure out, you know, if I was the person he wanted to do it.

MCEVERS: OK. So that was part of the relationship from the beginning?

TABERSKI: Yeah, for sure, for sure.

MCEVERS: So, as we said, the format of this podcast - right? - is you looking for him, right? You're doing this deep dive on his life. But the question that hangs over the whole thing is, like, are you going to find him? But the deep dive is really pretty interesting. And part of that deep dive is, like, getting to know his people was - like, asking them, like, what they think happened and why they think he disappeared. But what are some of the most interesting things you found out, like, the ones that you still think about now?

TABERSKI: Joanie from Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOANIE: And I just lost my husband at Christmas time. And I've been so sad, and all I do is eat. And I - this is my last chance. I really wanted you to try to help me. And I know I can do it now.

RICHARD SIMMONS: We're all here to help you. We're all here to help her, are we?

(APPLAUSE)

SIMMONS: Are we?

TABERSKI: She had a weight problem, and she met Richard at a mall tour in the '90s. She wasn't going to go and then decided to go. And then she's like, oh, I'll never me Richard. And all of a sudden, she's there on stage and talking to Richard.

And then a couple of weeks later, she finds out that there's a front page ad in the newspaper from Richard Simmons saying, where's Joanie, because Richard had never gotten her information to follow up with her - ended up contacting her. They stayed friends for a very long time. She lost over 100 pounds, and he changed her life.

MCEVERS: Right. I mean, just this sense that, like, he changed people's lives - like, a lot of people's lives. I mean...

TABERSKI: Saved people's lives, saved people's lives. And so much of that was behind the scenes - you know, him waking up at 4 in the morning calling 20, 30, 40 people. Forget the business for a second. Forget all that stuff. But just from a sheer empathy that he showed people on a consistent basis, how much he gave was staggering.

MCEVERS: And then, you know, there's the time spent talking about the different theories about why Richard Simmons retreated from public life. And you were criticized for some of these theories. There was the witchcraft theory that, you know, his housekeeper was using witchcraft to keep him under control.

And then there was the one - the theory about him possibly transitioning from a man to a woman. Both of these things, Simmons and his people denied. But the bigger question is, like, what if he had had or does have serious mental health problems or physical health problems. And that's when you start to, as a listener, feel like ew (ph) isn't that yucky?

TABERSKI: At the very beginning of this process, I talked to his management. And I said flat out, you guys need to tell me if this is something bad - if he's sick or if he is in a way that he can't recoup from or if this is just something really grim, and I just need to drop it. You need to tell me. And they said, no, he's fine.

MCEVERS: Because he had called into the "Today Show," too, saying he was fine sort of after the, quote, unquote, "disappearance."

TABERSKI: Yes.

MCEVERS: And you reported on that. You talked about that in the podcast. I guess - I think once that happened, there were a lot of people who were listening who were like, oh, man, why don't you just leave him alone?

TABERSKI: I think that's legit. I also think it's legit that, yes, Richard Simmons should do whatever he wants. Richard Simmons doesn't owe anybody anything. But that doesn't mean there aren't repercussions to what Richard Simmons does. And if Richard Simmons, as a self-help person who people reach out to constantly - yes, he can say, look, I can't do this anymore.

But the reality is there were hundreds of people that were left behind thinking to themselves, like, I've been Richard's friend. And he's been my mentor for years, sometimes decades. And he just disappeared like that. And so, yes, he doesn't owe them anything, but there are consequences.

MCEVERS: Because it kind of sounds like you're saying that he does owe people something. Like, on the one hand, you're saying he doesn't owe anybody anything, but he kind of does because he's Richard Simmons.

TABERSKI: I don't think it's that binary. I don't...

MCEVERS: OK, not just because he's a celebrity, but because he's a guy who helped a lot of people.

TABERSKI: It's - and that's absolutely true. And I think those people - their stories are real and important, and they were ghosted. And I think there's something intangible about that that makes it seem soft. I think people are really into investigating a murder because it's clear. Somebody is dead. There are clues. But when a huge part of your life just vanishes without an explanation, I think that's a different kind of mystery. And I think it's harder to get at, but I think it's worth trying.

MCEVERS: How did you come to understand why he ghosted?

TABERSKI: My best explanation is that something happened to him in 2014 - something that upset him very much. And I think because of that he retreated. My guess - I think it's a pretty good one - is that he got over it and that when he got over it, he realized that maybe he was free from all those responsibilities of what he had been doing for the past 40 years. I think you can't overestimate the burden he took on.

MCEVERS: Dan Taberski, thank you so much.

TABERSKI: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Producer Dan Taberski. His podcast is called Missing Richard Simmons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY HULL AND ROBERT MCDOWELL'S "MONTAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.