I dressed Richard Simmons in marabou trimmed, bridal lingerie three months before he disappeared. It was something of a Halloween miracle.
I went to Catholic school my entire life — kindergarten through senior year — and for the good majority of that time my school lacked the funding needed for a proper physical education teacher. Hell, for the first few years our classrooms were metal trailers out back in the empty lot behind St. Michael’s church in Euless, Texas. So, it made sense that our P.E. would usually subsist off of “free play” (more commonly known as setting the second graders loose in the fields behind the trailers, and praying they didn’t come back with ticks) or whatever exercise video happened to be currently on rotation in our teacher’s VHS deck. Sometimes that meant Jane Fonda, sometimes it meant watching a video of our teacher skydiving out of an airplane as half the class fell asleep on the grey, scratchy carpet littered with used staples and crumbs of Ritz crackers leftover from snack time. And on some days, when 105 degrees was simply too hot to take kids outside or when we had watched Jane walk out her last high step, it meant Sweatin’ to the Oldies.
It wasn’t that I particularly loved aerobicise videos, although if we’re being completely honest everyone and their sweat-band-clad mother knows that the Sweatin’ to the Oldies soundtrack is infinitely superior to any of its other VHS exercise tape counterparts. It wasn’t that I was nine, ten, or even eleven years old and sufficiently chubby enough that it warranted a casual mention from my pediatrician to my mother that perhaps we should consider putting me on a diet. It wasn’t that I couldn’t run a mile for the presidential fitness test without barfing up my breakfast of two strawberry Toaster Strudels on the side of the parking lot while my classmates watched. No, it was because the world that existed within the Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos was one I could get behind.
North Texas is rife with white people. I mean, all of Texas is rife with white people, but the amount of white, Christian, heteronormativity within the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is absolutely fucking suffocating, particularly so if you fall under the category of half-Mexican, unknowingly gay, pre-teen with a proclivity for Lord of the Rings and interpretive dance. I didn’t know any black people. I didn’t know any Indian people. I knew one Vietnamese kid whose father owned a nail salon. I didn’t even meet an openly gay person until I moved to Boston for college, and I certainly didn’t know any other mixed kids. But, within the 45 minutes it took to watch just one of the Sweatin’ to the Oldies workouts, I got to exist in a world where there was every different type of person one could possibly imagine. There were fat people, brown people, black people, seemingly queer people, and in the center of it all was Richard, an impossibly kind, offbeat man who punctuated each downbeat in a song with, “You’re beautiful, you know that? Doesn’t she look beautiful?” Regardless of who it was or what they looked like, he was there to let those people dancing with him know that he was there for them, and in some sort of weird, pre-Internet way, it kind of rocked my world.
In 2013, after graduating college, I moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t a particularly easy transition for a multitude of reasons, namely the fact that it took me nearly six months to find a paying job. Although, when I finally did manage to get myself hired at the Melrose location of Agent Provocateur, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to worry about living off of savings or wondering if I would have enough to keep both a roof over my head and the lights turned on. I had a ten percent pooled commission coming my way on top of hourly, but more than that, I actually really loved working at AP. Sure the $600 bras and $300 bottoms were handheld works of art, but there was something intrinsically beautiful about helping someone feel good about their body and what they chose to decorate it with; in an anthropological sense lingerie is fascinating.
The Melrose store was no different than working at the Boston store, at which I had been employed the previous year prior to my move to California. Of course, there were quite a few more celebrity clients on Melrose, most of which I’m not entirely sure I’m allowed to name due to non-disclosure agreements, but suffice it to say that becoming so well acquainted with the sex lives of the famous is arguably more fascinating than meeting those of horny Harvard and MIT professors and doctors. Of course, the Harvard and MIT customers were infinitely more repressed, and had a tendency to add on a gold-plated handcuff, whip, or patent leather paddle to each purchase in a somewhat shameful manner as their dominatrix looked on approvingly, but that’s a story for another time.
The point being, you would think that someone who didn’t even have their first kiss until they were 19 years old wouldn’t wind up selling and modeling stockings whose back seams read, “Whip Me, Bite Me, Eat Me, Fuck Me,” a mere two years later, but c’est la vie. My days and weeks were now strung together by French leavers lace and $600 Swarovski-encrusted playsuits. But, as introverted and repressed as I was in regards to all things sex (thank you Catholic school guilt), the most eye-opening aspect of my time at AP was learning how uncomfortable everyone else felt in their skin, too. As it turns out, we all have that one boob that’s bigger than the other, that secret we keep pushing down further and further until it festers and slowly eats away at us. As it turns out — none of it fucking matters.
On one of my first days as an Agent, my manager made me try on a Bullet playsuit, one of the pieces in their core collection at the time. For those who don’t know, a playsuit is essentially an amalgamation of spandex straps sewn into a shape that vaguely resembles what one might suppose a body looks like. They are nearly impossible to put on by yourself, and nine times out of ten are squeezing and cutting your soft tissue into eight individual portions of Christmas ham. And yet oddly enough, they are incredibly fucking hot.
As I stood there in front of the mirror, my stomach poking through the spandex that nipped in at the waist and my hips somehow eating one of the straps, I felt oddly disappointed in myself. I had finally secured a job that didn’t totally suck, one that made me feel confident, cool even, and yet here I was stuffed into a glorified yarn ball poking at the soft part of my stomach, wishing my absurdly dark, overgrown body hair would magically stop growing in. Praying every single second of every single day that my co-workers wouldn’t put two and two together and surmise that the girl that visited me on my lunch breaks wasn’t actually my “roommate,” for fear of potentially losing my very new, very cool job. Who would want a dyke helping them pick out lingerie?
But as time went on, and the more people I saw without the filter of high-waisted jeans and sheaths of strategically placed fabric, the more I realized just how ridiculous it all was, how much time and energy we all collectively waste on picking ourselves apart bit by bit. Like the reserved MIT professor who wandered into the store one cold winter evening, inquiring about if it might be possible for him to try on a few underpinnings after hours, so as not to make the other patrons uncomfortable. Or the fresh-cheeked and chubby 18-year-old girl who just wanted so badly to be laced into a corset, in an effort to turn her curves into something a passerby might refer to as “svelte” instead. Or the shop girl who watched Youtube video after Youtube video that winter to glean bits of information on how to apply makeup like a normal girl, and not the awkward, tomboyish lesbian she knew she was.
The first time Richard Simmons made an appearance at the Melrose store, it was on one of my days off in August. I hadn’t left my phone for more than 20 minutes to take a shower, when I came back to a slew of text messages.
Ashley: “I can’t believe you missed it. He was here! It was so magical. He told us we were all beautiful.”
Jess: “He was so fucking funny, dude. He bought a Lacey robe and the matching babydoll. I’m so bummed you missed it. I bet he comes back though.”
I was absolutely heartbroken. Never mind that the week before I had helped dress a certain pop star whose fan base is particularly buzz-worthy, if you know what I mean. Never mind that the week before that I had watched feminist adult film star and New York Times columnist (not to mention one of the smartest people I’ve ever met) Stoya model various bras before finally coming to a mutual decision that the black lace, high neck halter bra really was the way to go. None of it mattered. I had missed him — my Halley’s comet.
It was a relatively quiet Halloween afternoon. The majority of the Playmates, models, and L.A. socialites had already come and gone with their respective Halloween costumes. Some were corseted pirates, others were black-silk-robed Elviras, but most were clad in whatever set of lingerie had particularly called to them that day accompanied by some type of animal ear, tiara, or halo. The front door opened, as the swinging bell that was attached chimed in unison. My vision is particularly terrible, but in that moment all I could make out was the silhouette of a shorter person, backlit from the unrelenting L.A. sunshine.
“Hello!” the figure sang in perfect key with a slight pop of the hip.
“Hello!” I replied, although still unsure of who exactly it was coming through the door, the sun practically blinding me.
As the figure stepped into the shop, he began to come into focus until he finally stood not two feet in front of me, arm outstretched, grasping for my hand.
“Hello! My name’s Richard Simmons. What’s your name, beautiful?!”
It took everything in me not to start crying right then and there, completely overwhelmed from the situation befalling me that very moment.
“I’m Alex,” I managed to stammer.
“Well, Alex, I need help finding something to wear underneath my Halloween costume for the WeHo parade. I’m wearing this stunning floor length bridal gown, but I don’t wanna wear it the entire time. I have to be able to dance!” he explained. So, for thirty minutes, I walked him around the store, showing him various bridal negligee, occasionally pausing so that he could assure the other shoppers that they were, “UGH! STUNNING!”
To be completely honest, I don’t remember the majority of what we talked about. I remember my co-workers rushing out from the back when his high-pitched wave of compliments gave away just exactly who was in the store. I remember that he left with one item, the same Lacey robe he had purchased a few months before, explaining that he had given the original to his friend who was going through chemo in an effort to help her feel beautiful. I remember that he blushed when I tied the silk ribbons on his bare shoulders, while his arm hair brushed against the perfectly placed bows. I remember that before he left, he imparted some of his dating wisdom upon us: to look for partners at charity events, because that’s where you know you’ll find a good person. To always know that you are enough, and remember that “looks fade…and so does the size of a dick.” And then he left, departing the same way he came, backlit from the blinding Los Angeles sun like some sort of queer messiah. “Goodbye, angels! Happy Halloween!” It is the closest thing I have ever had to a religious experience.
There were so many things I wanted to tell him, so many things I wanted to thank him for, and if I had known that in just three short months, he would retreat from the public eye for good, maybe I would have. I would have told him that he made even the hardest days growing up in the suburbs of Dallas a bit more tolerable. I would have told him that when we were growing up, my best friends and I jokingly referred to ourselves as the Richard Simmons Fan Club, that he made us — this group of social pariahs, the ones who were pushed into lockers by people we didn’t know on our way to math class, while a sixteen year old boy told us we were the ugliest girls he had ever seen — feel like we weren’t alone in the world. That maybe when we grew up and left Texas, we too would find a group of people like those who danced in the Sweatin’ to the Oldies videos that loved and accepted us for exactly who were were. That maybe at the center of it all would be a ringleader in striped shorts, dancing their heart out, not caring who saw them or what anyone else thought, and that maybe that ringleader, the one who reminded everyone around them to be as weird and wonderful as they damn well pleased, could be us.
That winter I came out to my co-workers. I told them who my “roommate” really was. I finally unlaced the corset I had been wearing for years.
A few weeks later, my boss decided that a group meeting was as good a time as any to inform me that my lack of grooming skills were “an embarrassment to the store.”
“Your hair is so unkempt and curly, and you barely wear any makeup. Can you brush it more or make it straighter or something?” Before I could get more than an, “Excuse me,” out, my co-workers Ashley and Jess chimed in. “Are you fucking joking? Her hair is beautiful. She can’t change the way it grows out of her goddamn head. What’s wrong with you?” I quit that Christmas.
When I was little, sitting on that grey, scratchy carpet littered with crumbs of Ritz crackers and staples, daydreaming that one day I would find a group of people who loved and accepted me for who I was, both inside and out, that group of people who would dance with me like in the videos, while we cheered each other on — “Isn’t she stunning?!” — I never expected it would be set against the oddly appropriate backdrop of thongs, quarter-cup bras, and cat o’ nine tail whips. But, then I guess it’s like Richard always said in the 1996 classic Dance Your Pants Off, “Lunge, watch your posture, just do the best you can.”
I love you, Richard Simmons.