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  • Outrageous Dieting: The Camp Performance of Richard Simmons
  • Rhonda Garelick

The scene opens with diet guru Richard Simmons wearing old-fashioned driving goggles and an aviator scarf. He is driving a 1930’s style convertible roadster. Winking at the camera and his audience he tells us that he is on his way to pay a surprise visit to one of his clients or customers, a woman who has overcome serious obesity through his diet program. The roadster, after driving by some pasteboard scenery, arrives at a suburban middle-class home in what appears to be a midwestern state. We witness the woman’s shock and joy as she discovers Simmons at her door. Inside, they sit together in her living room holding hands. Together they weep over an old photograph of the woman, taken when she weighed over 250 pounds. They weep over the pain and humiliation she once felt, lacking the confidence to date, unable to buy clothes. Simmons empathizes with the woman; he too was once obese, he says. Sometimes the woman’s family is included in the scene, but they do not cry. This is a synopsis of a scene routinely played out in television “infomercials” for Richard Simmons’ “Deal-a-Meal” fitness program.

I would like to examine Richard Simmons’ camp performance, its relationship to the women he works with, and how this curious blend of queer sensibility and shopping mall culture functions. One obvious and important departure point for my argument will be the marginalized space shared by obese woman and gay men — the space Eve Sedgwick has aptly called the “glass closet,” a prison with transparent walls. Specifically, I’m interested in the relationship between Simmons’ performance and the commercial and sexual economies into which, I will argue, this performance reintegrates the obese woman. (I should add here that while it’s true that Richard Simmons does use some men in his exercise videos and television programs, his main “clientele” is female and his reliance on a mise-en-scène of domesticity and the kitchen codes his realm as female.)

As a rule, camp connotes a certain radicalism, an attempt to expose — through parodic theatricality — society’s highly constructed fictions of identity. Camp always “exists in tension with popular culture, commercial culture and consumerist culture,” writes David Bergman, “the person who can camp and can see things as campy is outside the cultural mainstream” (Bergman, 5). And despite its frequent loudness, furthermore, camp in mass culture cannot be discussed; it remains a private, oppositional irony. If we accept this definition of camp, Richard Simmons’ performance and his tremendous success become problematic. How can Simmons be camp when he is plugged directly into middle-American consumerism? What do we do with someone whose camp performance works to reintegrate people into the mainstream? First, we will need to look at how this reintegration takes place. As we will see, Simmons has invented a clever combination of dietary economics and theme park capitalism.

Simmons’ elaborately constructed persona is part cheerleader, part father confessor, and part Broadway chorus boy. His two uniforms are striped gym shorts and tank top and the Red Baron-style ensemble of goggles and scarf I just mentioned. With his androgynous look, his bitchy humor, and his exaggerated physical affection toward men and women, Simmons cultivates a very recognizable theatrical style. He is unmistakably camp. We can’t miss his campiness when he sings love songs to Barbra Streisand with “Linda Richman” (a drag character, played by Mike Myer) on Saturday Night Live, or when he announces — as he did recently — that he has commissioned a doll in Streisand’s likeness, which he plans to revere since the real Barbra refuses to meet with him (Letter, 24). We see Simmons camping it up in his newest exercise video, entitled “Disco Sweat,” which is performed entirely to 1970s disco music.1 During the video’s first several minutes, Simmons struts along the same Bensonhurst street down which John Travolta paraded at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. This delectation of Travolta’s leather-clad machismo (“I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk,” go the background lyrics), coupled with the uncharacteristic reference...

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