In honor of LGBTQ History Month, I thought it would be nice to shine a little light on a bright personality who has brought wellness to millions of people. In my experience as a trainer, being personable and funny makes the sessions much more enjoyable to clients. It is important to recognize that many people hire trainers not only because they need help with programming and technique, but also for accountability. Why would that be an issue? Because, frankly, most people don’t love working out, and they need someone to make sure they actually do the session.

Given that many people already have an unenthusiastic relationship with working out, it becomes important to find and reinforce the reasons clients keep showing up. A good trainer isn’t only someone who understands the mechanics and science of movement, metabolism and nutrition; a successful coach also keeps clients engaged and successful. And, dare I say, happy? Regardless of age, many people are children at heart, and we love to play and laugh. It feels good to feel good.

Decades ago, when I was young — I almost cringe at writing that — any hint of gayness was electrifying. That anyone, let alone a celebrity, might also be LGBTQ was a point of constant fascination. There just weren’t all that many people in my world who were out to any degree whatsoever. And, although I am not aware of Richard Simmons ever stating definitively what his gender identity or sexual orientation are, his blissfully outrageous personality was always very charming and engaging for me personally. I would stop what I was doing to watch his commercials. I remember feeling very strongly that I wanted to inspire and motivate people the way he did. It’s pretty rare to actually enjoy a commercial, but his were totally awesome.

I was a gymnast and dancer in a family of mixed messages. My people were a random assortment of obese bingers, recreational drug users, health food nuts, scientists, born again Christians and artsy hippie types. There was rarely any consensus on much of anything at our Thanksgiving dinners. On the plus side: None of the conflicts in my family had anything to do with me being gay. We were always pretty much live-and-let-live on a wide variety of personal preferences, especially with body autonomy, religion and sex. On the minus side: All these stubborn personalities with strong opinions were constantly vying to make themselves heard, and you had to work pretty hard to make sure you were being yourself in the face of everyone else trying to do the same.

In retrospect, my interest in combining wellness, education and performance had to have been strongly influenced by Richard Simmons. I would imagine replacing him with me and the people dancing to the hits with my overweight family members. But, his clients wanted to lose weight, and my family members didn’t. Still, I did enjoy imagining my dad and grandparents bopping around; however, I always stopped short of picturing them in leotards with sweatbands on their heads. Perhaps my heart just wasn’t in it after all?

With my clients I am constantly cutting up, making fun of fitness itself and doing whatever I can to make them feel like they are playing, as opposed to working. I have found over the years that whether it be the gym, dance studio or classroom that people of all ages love to learn when they experience my content within the context of playfulness. Richard Simmons served that in huge portions.

Some people have criticized him for playing into homophobic tropes about “sissies,” and given that Richard Simmons has never “come out,” as it were, perhaps I should resist calling him a gay exercise icon? But I think it would be a mistake to expect famous people to out themselves for our own gratification. He rose to prominence at a time when nearly an entire generation of gay men were lost to the AIDS plague. The world was excruciatingly homophobic, and I feel his very presence was in and of itself a declaration. His smiling little face, buoyant energy, chipper voice, tumultuous hair and outrageous fashions (festooning Swarovski crystals on flimsy gym shorts that probably cost $5???) screamed queerness into the faces of the moral majority. I always got very smug satisfaction watching the bigots around me squirm whenever he was on television. Admit it: His legs and booty were flawless!

Whether Richard Simmons ever “makes it official,” I regard him as an important figure in the LGBTQ pantheon of fabulous personalities. He bucked heteronormative expectations and used his gay magic to help millions of people get healthier and enjoy doing it. His tenacious vivacity and humor helped to chip away at the dour, puritanical zeitgeist of the 80s and 90s, and he was a very visible person who contributed to the broadening representation that was a fundamental part of LGBTQ people becoming accepted more broadly into society.

Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.

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