No one has a problem with the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, and that's a problem
In the second episode of the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, host Dan Taberski loiters outside the house of the famous fitness guru with a microphone. "I feel like somebody's house is his private place," Taberski says. "I don't want him to feel like I'm invading his privacy." Of course, if this was a genuine concern of Taberski's, he probably wouldn't have just made a six-episode podcast delving into Simmons' life and disappearance.
The first episode of Missing Richard Simmons aired in February, exactly three years after Simmons failed to show up to the exercise class he'd been teaching for four decades and subsequently withdrew from public life. He left no explanation for his departure. No clues. No notes. Nothing. So, what happened to him? This is the question Taberski sets out to answer in the podcast. Through interviews with Simmons' closest friends, Taberski allows the listener to revel in juicy speculation as to the mysterious vanishing of this flamboyant fitness figure. The podcast has been a hit, sitting at the number one spot in the U.S. for several weeks.
The problem starts with the podcast's title: Missing Richard Simmons. Perhaps unintentionally, this choice of wording — specifically the word "missing," tries to capitalize on our growing obsession with true crime. At the same time, it's not an entirely misleading title. The podcast has many of the genre's ingredients: titillating episode titles, suspense-stirring plotlines, and fruitless endeavors to get to the bottom of groundless theories.
And, just like the subject of a true crime podcast, Simmons is gossiped about, ruminated over by Taberksi and some of his interviewees. Simmons is talked about in the same speculative, sensationalist way we talk about infamous criminals, their lives merely fodder for our entertainment.
But Simmons didn't commit a crime. He didn't hurt anyone. He just went away. Does that justify this intense and very public scrutinizing of his life and his departure from the public eye?
The argument Taberksi seems to put forth is that anyone who performs a civic duty to the degree Simmons did — he allegedly coached many people, free of charge, to help them lose weight and turn their lives around — has a responsibility to explain themselves if they decide to stop providing that service. One disappointed interviewee says they expected Simmons to "have the graciousness" to tell people he was "stepping back." But gossiping soon turns to something much less benign when Taberski shows up at Simmons' house, goes to the front door, and interrogates his assistant.
This, I think, crosses a line.
Taberski claims to be a friend of Simmons' and says he's worried about him. But it's hard to believe this is sincere when he invades Simmons' privacy in this way, publicly speculates on his well-being, and pesters his agent and family for information to use as teasers to lure people into downloading his upcoming episode.
And this becomes even more disturbing when we learn that Simmons is prone to depression. Simmons' former private massage therapist and close friend, Mauro Oliveira, tells Taberski in episode three that the last time he saw Simmons, a few months after he vanished, Simmons was physically and mentally weak, and appeared depressed. He said, "I thought he was suicidal." In episode four, Taberski asks Simmons' agent if "health issues" prompted Simmons' disappearance. The agent says this isn't the case, but it seems unlikely to me that Taberski has considered the implications of delving so deep, and so publicly, into the inner workings of a man who could be in the midst of a mental breakdown.
Simmons showed some signs of being reclusive before his disappearance. Taberski talks to twin brothers Jason and Randy Sklar, who interviewed Simmons on their own podcast not too long before he was last seen in public. They asked Simmons on their show who he last hung out with, and he said, "I don't hang out with anybody. I live a very reclusive life ... I socialize with no one. I haven't been to anybody's house in seven years."
Taberski asked the Sklar twins if Simmons seemed like a happy person. "He did not seem happy at all. As soon as the microphones were off, you were like, 'this is a sad person.'" One of Simmons' former class-goers tells Taberski that Simmons cried in every exercise class, that he'd "just lose it," and that his crying would be "out of control." Another class-goer described it as Simmons "crumbling right in front of you."
Simmons' inner turmoil and disappearance is a lot of things: sad, confusing, frustrating. But it is not some mystery to be discussed like gossip at the school gates.
It makes sense that we will have questions about Simmons. We humans love to gossip. But this isn't the time or the place for gossip. Simmons' publicist Tom Estey wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Simmons is "simply willingly living his life outside the public eye." Simmons himself explained the situation in a radio interview last year: "I just sort of wanted to be a little bit of a loner for a little while… right now I just want to sort of take care of me."
Taberski makes it clear he doesn't accept this explanation as the whole truth. But his subjective, personal grievances should not be broadcast in a public place, wrapped up as entertainment. They shouldn't come before the well-being and privacy of a man who, for whatever reason and for however long, has decided to leave his public life behind. We should let him do that, and in peace. He doesn't owe us an explanation, and we shouldn't demand one.