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The Sultan of Sweat
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Okay, I’ll confess. I’m a Richard Simmons fan.

You know, the guy in the striped short-shorts and sequined tank tops who teaches people how to exercise and lose weight. The one with a crown of curls and muscles that belie his 56 years of age.

I’ve got most of his exercise tapes, and believe it or not, I actually use them. I once drove to Alpharetta to see him at a mall appearance.

Sadly, the line was already so long, there was no chance for my daughter and me to meet Richard or get an autograph. Then I read that he was coming to Savannah to speak at the invitation of the Memorial Health Institute for Women’s Health. Gasp!

“Oh, my God!” I yelped.

“What’s wrong?” my co-worker, Jim Reed, asked.

“My hero is coming to town!,” I said. “Richard Simmons is coming here!”

“Richard Simmons???” Jim replied in disbelief -- which is the usual response I get when I mention I’m a fan of Richard Simmons.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve got to see him! I’ve got to interview him for a story.”

On the morning of Sept. 18, I arrived at the Savannah DeSoto Hilton an hour earlier than I needed to. While wandering around the hotel, I ran into Judi Burton and her daughter, Jamelle.

Judi explained that her daughter not only is a fan, she knows every routine from Richard’s exercise tapes.

We finally ran into someone who knew where we were supposed to go -- the hotel’s atrium. We were allowed to walk on in and meet Richard.

He was dressed in his trademark shorts and a tank top covered in sequined hearts. He moved with the grace of a much younger person.

Right away, I got a full blast of Richard’s effervescent personality. He grabbed Jamelle and hugged her as if she were a long-lost friend.

Judi introduced Jamelle and herself and then Richard looked at me and asked, “And who is this?” My jaw dropped as I tried to remember who the hell I was.

“I’m Linda,” I finally squeaked. “I’m here to interview you.”

Suddenly, I was wrapped in a big bear hug and got a kiss on each cheek. When I asked Richard to pose for a couple of pictures with me, he readily agreed.

There were other surprises throughout the morning. One was the fact that so many men attended. Some were husbands who came with their wives, others came because they had lost weight and wanted to share their success stories.

Another surprise -- Richard is very religious and refers to his work as a mission. A devout Catholic, he opened the session with a prayer and closed it with another.

I asked Richard what his current projects are and he told me he has developed Mission to Move, a fitness program for hospital patients. “I’ve been to 16 hospitals now,” he said.

He’s also creating exercise videos for children in an effort to address the problem of childhood obesity. But Richard’s pet project is called Hoot Camp.

“People come in and we teach them now to be aerobics teachers,” he says. “They teach at churches, recreational centers, high schools, grade schools.”

People who come to exercise are charged just $1, Richard said. “The average person who is overweight and out of shape cannot afford to spend $600 to join a gym,” he said. “So far, we have trained 85 teachers who have gone back to their communities.”

Richard continues to do public appearances to connect with as many people as possible. He never sees a stranger.

A delivery man walked into the atrium pushing a cart. “HELLO THERE!” Richard boomed. (He seldom speaks in a normal tone.)

The man started grinning from ear to ear and kept looking over his shoulder to make sure that really was Richard Simmons who had just spoken to him. Richard walked over to shake his hand.

He was just as personable with everyone else. Richard attracts a following of happy, excited people wherever he goes.

One woman I spoke with has lost 116 pounds and kept it off, which is the hard part. Kathie Buckner lives in Forest City, N.C. and made the trip to Savannah just to see Richard Simmons.

Kathie’s obesity got so bad that she ended up confined to a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk. She also had to use oxygen because she was short of breath.

“I used to weigh 351 pounds,” Kathie said. “One day when I was watching TV, I saw Richard Simmons. He promised that if you do his Food Mover program every day and exercise, you will lose weight.”

Kathie ordered the Food Mover program. Simmons emphasizes that even people in wheelchairs can stay fit and recommends that they do all the arm movements on his tapes, which is how Kathie began working out.

“I was still in a wheelchair,” she says. “It took me six months to lose enough weight to walk good.”

Kathie’s life changed in small ways that seem large. “I got a driver’s license for the first time,” she said. “Before that, I was too big to fit behind the wheel.”

Today, Kathie is a certified aerobics instructor. She weighs 235 pounds, al.l of it muscle. “I’m right where I want to be,” she said. “It has just turned my life around. My life is so different now.”

To others who want to lose weight, Kathie advises taking things one step at a time. “Don’t think of it as losing 200 pounds, think of it as losing 5 pounds at a time. Live life as if you were already at your goal weight. Live your life now.”

Louise Cook of Winder in northern Georgia comes from a very obese family. “My dad died when I was 10 years old,” she says. “His brother weighed 800 pounds.”

Because members of her family died from complications of obesity, Louise decided to get her weight under control and lost 50 pounds. “I’ve been on Richard’s program for 23 years and I’m 49 years old,” she said. “I’ve kept the weight off.”

Louise’s husband, Wayne, came with her to Savannah. Together, they exercise and walk to stay fit.

“I look at myself every day,” Louise says. “I look back and remember my father and his brother. I want to live to be 100. I want to be able to stand up straight and run and bicycle.”

Louise attributes her dedication to Richard Simmons. “Richard always kept me motivated because he is a happy person,” she says. “He is such an inspiration to me. I do wish he could have been around when my father was alive.”

When Richard made an appearance in Charlotte, N.C., Louise went to meet him and took her sister with her. “He looked at her and said, ‘You are too beautiful to be fat,’” Louise said. “She took off 75 pounds.”

To demonstrate that exercise can be fun, Richard led the crowd through a romping 40-minute routine. I was very, very thankful that I had been exercising regularly. (I can’t help but wonder what the hotel’s guests thought about all those sweaty, happy people.)

Richard’s antics kept everyone in stitches. When a television camera crew began taping, he pinched his cheeks and lips for some color.

Whenever someone lagged or stopped moving, he gave them a mock glare that made him look like a demented bullfrog.

“Look at all the pretty Southern belles!” Richard exclaimed at one point. “Am I the luckiest man in the world or not? I think I want children with all of you.”

But with the fun came some serious thoughts. Richard knows the pain of being overweight.

“When I was an eighth grader, I weighed 200 pounds,” he said. “I was a compulsive eater.

“I love food,” Richard said. “I love it hot, I love it cold. I hope when I go, I’m just drowning in red-eye gravy.”

Yet a love of food carries a hefty price tag. “Obesity causes nine different kinds of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks,” Richard said.

“At 268 pounds, I was desperate,” he said. “I was taking 30 laxatives a day, 10 after each meal. Then I began throwing up. At 14 years old, when the weight wasn’t coming off fast enough, I began to starve.”

Richard’s weight dropped to 119 pounds. “I thought I was hot,” he said. “Here I was, an anorexic bulimic human being. It’s not about being fat or being thin, it’s about being healthy.”

People who make fun of others who are overweight should be ashamed, Richard said. “Of everyone in here, no one is better than you,” he said. “We’re all the Lord’s children, no matter what we weigh.”

It is important to see food as fuel, not as love, Richard said. “In the 33 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never met a human being who couldn’t lose weight,” he said.

The audience hung on Richard’s every word, and when the lecture ended, everyone lined up to get his autograph. When my turn came, I got another bear hug, kisses on the cheeks again and even managed to kiss his cheek in return.

But it was Richard’s sense of humor that I remember most. “I’m the Lord’s court jester, I’m a clown,” he said.

My favorite moment of the whole thing came early in the day when Richard spotted someone with a small package of cookies. “NO, NO, NO, NO!” he boomed, making the sign of the cross over the cookies.

Then he ate one.