1. Through the Doors of Slimmons

1. Through the Doors of Slimmons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Through the Doors of
Slimmons

My mother sold Coty cosmetics at Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans. Shirley was a delicious woman from head to toe. All four feet and six inches of her! Every day she would put on her four-inch high heels, fix her Grace Kelly hair and put on an adorable outfit. She knew how to do her make-up beautifully because she had been in show business. Sometimes I would watch her in the morning putting on her make-up before she went to work. In 10 minutes she could look absolutely gorgeous.

Well, in 1958 my mother won Salesperson of the Year, and the prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Disneyland. I have to tell you, I was a Disney boy. My parents took my brother and me to every Disney movie that came out. And after the show was over I had memorized all the tunes from the movie. So when my mother came home with tickets in hand, I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world to be able to travel and meet Mickey in person.

I remember when we first landed at the Los Angeles airport. When I walked outside I immediately fell in love with the City of Angels. I looked up in the sky and I saw palm trees swaying in the breeze and the weather was unlike any place I had ever been. I grabbed Shirley’s hand and said, “I am going to move out here someday, Mom. I am going to be famous and I am going to buy you and Dad anything that you want.” And my mother looked at me and said, “I know you will, sweetie.”

What can I say about Disneyland? It was an amazing experience. I rode every ride five times, except for the teacup ride, which I only rode once. All that spinning in the teacups made me turn a little green. We were there that day from 10:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night and I had to be dragged out of the park. I didn’t want to leave the Magic Kingdom. I wanted to move into Cinderella’s Castle. I got on both knees and I begged my parents to leave me there. I told them I would write often and let them know how I was doing. Days later I was back in New Orleans, feeling the heat of the city, but dreaming of California. I can’t tell you how many years I wore my Mickey Mouse ears to bed. And in my bedroom hung posters that I got at Disneyland. Tinkerbelle take me away from all of this.

In 1973, I moved to Los Angeles. I did not know why at the time. I had no idea on earth what I wanted to do with my life. I had tried many careers, and I was good at my work, but there was something missing. I just knew that my career had to involve two things. One, it would have to be fun. I always had a quirky sense of humor and I spent my childhood laughing. Both of my parents were pretty hysterical. Two, it had to be a career where I could help people. My parents did a lot of charity work in New Orleans and they would take Lenny and me along with them to help out. And when we got home we would all talk about how good we felt inside for having helped those in need.

I remember the day I arrived in Los Angeles. I rented a car and checked into the Holiday Inn on Sunset Boulevard. The first couple of days I just drove around looking at the city. It scared me a bit. L.A. was so big. I drove through Beverly Hills and looked at all the mansions. I even thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could live here some day?” But then I just laughed it off.

Daydreaming is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I found a newsstand near the hotel and I bought a copy of Variety. I quickly found the want ads and went through them all. One ad really caught my eye. “Looking for a fun waiter and maitre d’ to work in new chic Italian restaurant opening soon.” I copied down the address, got in my car and drove right over to the restaurant. I sat there with the owners and gave them ten reasons why they should hire me. I did throw in a few Broadway tunes to make my presentation livelier. I got the job and I started work that evening.

Within weeks I learned how to mix a Caesar salad live and in person at the tables. And you know me, I went from table to table and made everyone feel welcome.

One day this lady came in to the restaurant and at the end of the meal she told me how much fun I was and how she enjoyed the food. She came back several times and brought friends with her. When I walked her to the door after she finished eating, she turned and said, “Pick up the Sunday Los Angeles Times and look under restaurant reviews, because I am writing about you and this dining experience.” I stayed up all night.

At 5:15 a.m. I got the L.A. Times and with trembling hands I found the review. The headline read “Go See Richard.” She praised the food, she talked about the baskets of French-fried zucchini and the veal topped with prosciutto, spinach and Fontina cheese. But most of the article was about moi. I read it with tears in my eyes. I could not believe she wrote all of those nice things about me.

From that day on, this little tiny restaurant with 12 tables became the hottest place in town. The phone did not stop ringing and some nights we served over 200 dinners. I would wear roller skates and roll around the restaurant. It was like one big party. I was having a ball meeting such fascinating people. The big difference about Los Angeles was that everyone looked healthy. They sort of had that “glow” to them.

While serving dinner I would always overhear them chatting about where they were taking exercise classes. I would write down the names of these places, because to tell you the truth, I had never, ever taken an exercise class. I was sort of a sickly kid. I had bad asthma and the flattest feet you have ever seen. And to top it all off, I was overweight. I never had to take a PE class because I always brought a doctor’s excuse to school. I would watch the other kids exercise and think to myself, “Why on earth would they run around and get sweaty? I don’t get it.”

Both of my parents walked every day but I never followed in their footsteps. When my mother would turn on the TV and watch Jack LaLanne’s program I got very upset. You see, I could not stand him. There he was, all tucked in to that baby blue jumpsuit. And he was always so perky. He would exercise to this organ music in the background. Who would ever think years later I would be a friend of Jack and Elaine LaLanne? I told him this story, and he gave me a big hug and almost cracked two of my ribs. He is still a very strong man and I love him so.

So with my list in hand, I took exercise classes all over the city. I took different kinds of dance classes like jazz and modern dance. I also tried Pilates and gymnastics. I went to several gyms in the city. And to tell you the truth, they just were not for me. All the classes I took were really serious. And what shocked me was I did not see one overweight person and everyone looked so perfect. I felt like the ugly duckling.

All the years before I came to Los Angeles I was a professional dieter and had never used exercise as a means to lose weight. Do you remember your first diet? I remember mine! It was the tuna, tomato, hard-boiled egg diet. Then there was the soup diet, the all protein diet. My mother would cut diets out of some of her women’s magazines and slip them under my pillow. I must have tried fifteen diets by the age of nine. On these diets I lost only a few pounds. That is why I began taking diet pills that a girl gave me in school that belonged to her mother. I would take Ex-Lax. And when the weight loss numbers were still not big enough for me, I found myself falling into several eating disorders. I began throwing up and starving, which was so hard on my mind and body.

I knew I needed to start exercising. But there was really no place for me to go. The light bulb went off in my head. “I will open an exercise studio. I will open a place where people can come and sweat and have some fun.” That was the day that I began saving all of my tip money. I put it all in a jar and would count it every week. When I was at work at the restaurant I began telling everyone about my plan to open up a studio. And they all said the same thing: “Let us know when it opens and we will come.” I made real good tip money every night. But I had not saved enough to open up my own place.

One evening, one of my favorite customers came in. His name was David, and he was in the women’s apparel business. I told him about my studio idea and he asked me how much money I had saved. He then asked me to come see him the next day at his office. He told me he believed in me and thought my idea was a good one. Then he took out his checkbook. I could not believe it. I did not know this gentleman all that well. But he wanted to help me open my place. “Go get them Richard, you are a nice guy. I will be there at the opening.”

Well, I drove around and found this little warehouse that was located on a two-block street in Beverly Hills. I knew the first time I saw it that this was going to be my studio. My home away from home. It took several months for me to open and during that time I began to practice my moves. I would get all my records out and start choreographing to the music. I think I was a jukebox in my last life. I never missed American Bandstand. I memorized all the dances like the Jerk, the Twist, the Cha Cha, and the Monkey. I would play all of my records over and over again until I knew every beat of the music.

In the summer of 1974, I opened my exercise and motivational studio. I had a big opening. I invited everyone that I met at the restaurant. And who was the first person to walk into that studio? It was David, who made my dream come true. He proclaimed, “I knew you could do it, Richard, and I know you are going to be very successful.”

From the day Slimmons opened it was a success. All the people who promised me that they would come showed up to sweat with me. And they told their friends and soon the studio was packed with people laughing and singing and sweatin’.

On Saturdays I began a class called “Project Me.” It was a motivational and weight loss class. We would sit in a circle on the floor and talk about what we ate and how we felt about ourselves. I felt so good about that class. It gave people hope. Just like the hope my parents used to give others when they volunteered for their charity work. These people touched my soul. Many of them tried to lose weight the way I once tried to lose weight, but ended up feeling down and depressed.

I would sit there and teach them about food groups and about portions. I was teaching them my philosophy, which is “love yourself, move your buns and eat smaller portions of everything.” Between the motivational classes and the exercise classes these people lost real pounds in a healthy way. They would run into the class and tell everyone how much weight they lost. And we would all applaud for their success. Their success motivated others to become successful too.

Slimmons has been open for 35 years. I am still there teaching exercise and self-esteem classes. Over these last 35 years, so many people have walked through the doors of Slimmons. Some of them had never taken an exercise class before, or it had been decades since they moved around. Hundreds of thousands of men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes have sweated with me. Many of these people were overweight and obese and had given up on themselves. But I could see a glimmer of hope in everyone’s eyes. I did not just teach a class, I entertained them. Slimmons was my theater and they were the audience.

Once I put on the music everyone started dancing and forgot their troubles. While sweating, I would sing to them, laugh with them and sometimes cry with them. I saw their whole face change in a matter of minutes. I turned a lot of frowns upside down. They would all say the same thing to me. “I love coming here. I feel so alive, and when I leave I am always happier than when I came in.” Their words just melted my heart. How honored I am to be America’s clown and court jester.

What have I seen during all these years of leg lifts and jumping jacks? I have seen miracles. I have seen people turn their lives around. I gave people the tools to have better self-esteem and self-respect. I have seen individuals lose hundreds of pounds. Joyfully. And how does that make me feel? Like I am on top of the world! Over the years I have been a good example to people. I have really sweated the sweat with them. I have always practiced what I preached.

Through the doors of Slimmons came so many people who believed in my crusade. Someone came in and asked me to be on a few local television programs. From there, I appeared on Real People. And then my big break came when I got to play myself on General Hospital. That led me to The Richard Simmons Show, Here’s Richard and Slim Cooking. Through the doors of Slimmons came a gentleman who asked me to do exercise videos. And of course I said yes. That was 59 videos and DVDs ago.

I began writing cookbooks and motivational books to keep people going. And I began traveling all around the United States teaching classes like I taught at Slimmons. I became the Johnny Appleseed of health. I tell everyone in my audiences that they can lose weight and feel great and have a zip a dee doo dah attitude. I am still traveling today with my same message and the perkiness of Jack LaLanne. God bless him.

I hope one day you can come through the doors of Slimmons and let me motivate you. Or maybe I will meet you in an airport or you will come visit me when I teach a class in your city. I would be honored to meet you.

Thank you, Shirley and Leonard, for taking me to Disneyland and allowing me to dream.

Love,

Richard

 

More stories from our partners