Text and photos by Tara Bradbury
He entertained, he motivated, he shed a few tears and he gave a hell of a workout — and Bust a Move participants in St. John’s were with him the whole way.
Longtime Hollywood fitness instructor Richard Simmons, wearing his infamous short-shorts and a Swarovski crystal-studded tank top, headlined the Bust a Move event for breast health, organized by the Health Care Foundation and the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Care Foundation at the Newfoundland Sports Centre Saturday.
The day-long event saw about 200 participants take part in a fitness fundraising extravaganza, raising a total of $351,625.69 for breast cancer initiatives in this province.
Local instructors led the group in classes in aerobics, zumba, yoga and dance, designed for all fitness levels, with short breaks in between for healthy snacks or to refill water bottles.
Simmons capped off the day with a 45-minute aerobics class in classic Simmons style: low-impact cardio moves to 80s’ music, peppered with comedy and flamboyance.
Participants never took their eyes off him, singing along with him to Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria” and cheering whenever he stepped off the stage and into the audience to pull people up with him.
It was Simmons’ first trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, and he arrived in the middle of Friday night’s snowstorm.
“I was on a flight last night from Newark, New Jersey, and for three hours it snowed coming here, and when I touched the ground I said 50 Hail Marys and 40 Our Fathers,” Simmons, who lives in Los Angeles, told the crowd, laughing.
Simmons, 63, has been a fitness personality for about 40 years, with a successful exercise studio in L.A. called “Slimmons,” a four-year run playing himself on “General Hospital,” and his own television shows, including “Slim Cookin’” and “The Richard Simmons Show.”
He has dozens of fitness DVDs and videos, including the popular “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” series, as well as CDs and a dozen books.
He’s a frequent guest on talk shows with hosts like David Letterman, Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres.
After the workout, Simmons sat the participants down for a chat, telling them about his life and his personal struggles with food and eating disorders as a teenager, leading him through periods where he ate only lettuce; others where he took more than 30 laxatives a day to try and shed pounds.
“I was 200 pounds in the eighth grade and 268 pounds when I graduated high school,” Simmons told members of the media before the event, choking up. “I had a really rough time with it and I didn’t like me, and I did some terrible things to try and lose weight until I could really focus in on what was really important, and I had to do it the right way. I starved once and I went from 268 pounds to 119, and in the hospital. I don’t want that to happen to anybody, so for the last 40 years I’ve dedicated my life to being a clown and a court jester and making people realize how special they are, that they’re one of a kind.”
Health problems arising from obesity are many, Simmons said, the worst of them affecting the mind.
“When you get overweight, there are so many diseases that can come into your body, including diabetes and high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and most of all, depression. When you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you get depressed, and that’s not a good thing. Depression leads to nowhere,” he said.
“I want people to be jubilant, to be joyous, to be happy that God gave them this one-of-a-kind body and they should take care of it every day. We’re special human beings and we should all want to live to be 100 and live to be happy and healthy and help and aid our community.”
The five ladies of the Zumba Ladies Bust a Move team — Carol Hedd, Janice Henstridge, Cathy Ivany, Tonda Philpott and fitness instructor Sandra Estevez, went all out for the event, dressing in costumes that included pink light-up wigs. Their participation in the event was personal on a number of levels, they said.
“We’ve all been touched with family members who’ve had cancer, Ivany explained. “We’ve been doing zumba together twice a week for a couple of years, and we love it. I’ve lost 40 pounds. For us, it’s about a big lifestyle change, eating healthy and exercising. When Sandra asked us if we wanted to get a team together, we thought it was a great idea for a great cause.”
The ladies were excited to work out with Simmons.
“He’s been a fitness icon for years and years and years,” Ivany said. “He’s very motivational and very inspirational,” added Philpott.
Yvonne Breeze, a nurse from Old Perlican, was a volunteer at the event who had been waiting for years to exercise with Simmons. She owns all his CDs, she said, which she listens to in the car, and brought her “Deal a Meal” folder — a weight loss program Simmons produced in the 1990s — with her, for him to autograph, which he did, hugging her afterwards.
“I was going to go on a Richard Simmons cruise one time, but my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and I wasn’t able to go,” Breeze explained. “Some people would like to meet Russell Crowe — well, for me, it’s Richard Simmons.”
At the end of his speech, Simmons gave participants a list of healthy living guidelines:
Don’t skip breakfast. Eat fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and watch portion sizes. Allow two-and-a-half hours between your last meal and bedtime. Exercise, even when you don’t feel like it. Count your blessings. Pray. Don’t be too hard on yourself or others.
“Be kind to everyone, even people you don’t know,” he told them. “Love yourself no matter what, and never put yourself down in front of others.”
Simmons has been to Edmonton, Halifax and Toronto for Bust a Move events, and will do another one soon in Ottawa. He plans to come back to St. John’s next year for Bust a Move.
“I’ve had my exercise studio 39 years and … I’ve lost some ladies to breast cancer, but I’ve also seen some triumph and get through it and rebuild their lives and have a positive attitude,” he told members of the media of his personal connection to the cause.
“I’ve met some people here today who’ve had breast cancer and survived. It’s just a celebration of saying, look, we made it, let’s raise some money to help other people and maybe one day in our lifetime we could stop this breast cancer.”