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Slimmin' with Simmons maintains its appeal


It's not hard to find Richard Simmons in a crowd.

He bounded into the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, screaming, "I'm over heeeere!" as a crowd of devotees shrieked and surrounded the fitness/weight-loss guru, hoping for a kiss or a few cherished words of approval.

Simmons, looking bronzed and remarkably fit at 54, worked his way up to the stage, lavishing praise on his fans and shimmying in an outfit nearly as loud as his greeting, with tiny striped shorts and a sea-blue, sequin-covered tank top.

Disco music blasted as he began a low-impact aerobics class that was the featured event of the Healthy Living Choices Expo held there during the weekend. The free event, sponsored by the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation, featured booths promoting healthful habits, as well as the latest in diabetes care and equipment.

Simmons travels about 300 days a year, visiting conventions, senior centers and hospitals to spread his message of fitness and encouragement.

His free afternoon fitness class attracted more than 100 participants, and he instructed them to say hello to the people next to them and exchange hugs.

Many in the class were elderly, seriously overweight or disabled, which is Simmons' targeted audience. He tries to reach these people, he said, because they often are ignored by society and harm their bodies with poor dietary habits and sedentary lives.

"I was a 200-pound child and a 268-pound adolescent growing up in New Orleans," Simmons told the crowd after his 50-minute class was over. "I was called lazy, stupid, dumb and a freak."

He called to the stage a blind woman who had completed the full workout, and the rest of the class clapped for her. Two women in wheelchairs also completed it.

"I hope today I've inspired some of you to somehow take better care of yourselves," Simmons said. "There are two kinds of laziness -- mental and physical -- and they both kill."

Simmons was a pioneer of the fitness craze of the 1970s, opening a gym where overweight people would feel comfortable exercising.

He quickly landed a part in the soap opera General Hospital and later starred in an exercise program, The Richard Simmons Show, which ran for four years. How Simmons rode that fitness wave of the 1970s into the new millennium seems a matter of sheer willpower.

He teaches weekly classes at his Los Angeles-based gym, called Slimmons, and tirelessly tours the country selling his image and his products.

He pokes fun of himself to make others laugh, willing to make himself seem so ridiculous at times that nobody could possibly feel self-conscious exercising with him -- either in person or on one of his many home workout videos.

In his last appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Simmons dressed as a turkey, and Letterman chased him, spraying a fire extinguisher.

"I'm America's court jester," Simmons said. "If I act childish and silly, other people will do it, too."

Several people at the expo yesterday came to tell Simmons that his shtick is working.

"I've lost 100 pounds," said Bobbie James, 54, clutching "before" photos that showed her when she weighed 255 pounds. "I do Richard's walking tapes. He convinced me I wasn't a bad person because I liked to eat."

James, who lives in Linthicum, said she used to eat a pound of chocolate candy every day. Now, she said, she eats healthfully and exercises to Simmons' tapes. Yesterday, she completed his class.

"He doesn't even know about me," James said. "It was a real honor to be in his presence and look at his sparkling little beads."

Simmons, who autographed hundreds of books, videos and T-shirts after the workout, said he has no plans to hang up his shorts and sneakers.

"I'll do this until God takes me to the aerobics studio in the sky," he said.

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