A few days ago, Renaissance Man received a call from someone at the New York Daily News asking him to confirm that Richard Simmons (yes, THAT Richard Simmons) had indeed purchased a well for our Hope Unlimited for Children campus in Campinas, Brazil.
Obviously they were working on a piece, and so we started watching for it to come out. Over the weekend, it did.
The story raises so many unanswered questions—and brings back some really intense memories for me. I really don’t know how to respond other than to sit here and write, putting those memories on virtual paper. Be forewarned: There are a lot of memories…
I met Richard Simmons in August 2013—and shared the amazing circumstances of that experience with you HERE. But I didn’t tell you everything.
The evening was fun and entertaining, as you can imagine. After all, we were in the same room as larger-than-life Richard Simmons! Renaissance Man and I were part of Richard’s dinner party group, but the dinner was held in a small restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, so everyone in the place knew he was there. And, to his credit, I watched as he graciously made his way from table to table—conversing, signing autographs, having his picture taken.
Finally it was time for our own dinner, and Richard sat three places down on my left: Richard, his manager Michael Catalano, Renaissance Man, and me. Left to dine mostly uninterrupted by other patrons, we enjoyed a relatively reserved and “normal” dinner. No small feat considering the flamboyant personality in our midst! At one point late in the meal, Richard made his way to the nearby kitchen and spoke with the kitchen staff. Visible through a large window, I saw a few moments of apparent compliments and gratitude mixed with the man’s ne’er far away whimsy and grit. And on the faces of the kitchen staff were emotions running the gamut from excited joy to “Are you for real?” disbelief.
And then it was time for a few congratulatory words celebrating SPARKLE!—the line of Richard Simmons jewelry launching the following day on Jewelry TV…
And time to cut the cake!
And I dare say I was not alone in wondering: Will Richard eat any cake?
Yes, in fact, he did. And as I watched him take several slow, deliberate bites of confectionary bliss, I overheard the woman across from him comment on how he probably never eats sweets… to which he replied,
Once a week—on Saturday night. Sometimes it’s a small piece; other times only a bite or two.
And right then and there, I learned an important lesson from Richard Simmons, fitness guru extraordinaire.
Healthy eating is not about depriving oneself but rather choosing restraint.
I wish I could tell you that since that evening 2+ years ago I haven’t had any sweets except a few bites on Saturday nights, but I really value honesty here and… Well, I think that’s all I need to say. But as I continue working to get my own sweet tooth under control, I have little doubt I was meant to hear Richard’s words that night.
Finally, it was time for the part of the evening that required Renaissance Man’s and my presence: the presentation of a gift to Hope Unlimited for Children. (If you didn’t take the time to read the link above, I hope you’ll do that sometime. What a generous man!)
Soon dinner guests began to thin out. Young jewelry models—who only a short time before had likely never even heard of the “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” phenom—were gone. A few Jewelry TV execs and staff remained around the long table visiting, basking in the afterglow of their successful pre-launch dinner and (I suspect) enjoying the calm before the storm that would surely come with the on-air Richard Simmons gushing about his jewelry designs.
As I was in the act of asking Renaissance Man how long we should stay, Richard pulled a chair up at the end of the table where I sat. Obviously I had my answer: As long as he wants to visit!
And then things got weird. Richard Simmons said he was going to read my aura.
- the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.
- a supposed emanation surrounding the body of a living creature, viewed by mystics, spiritualists, and some practitioners of complementary medicine as the essence of the individual, and allegedly discernible by people with special sensibilities.
I understood the word, but could he just DO that? Right here in public? And without my permission?
I was thankful for the slightly dim lighting because I’m sure I had a deer-in-the-headlights look. But I realized—as he took my hand and looked with intense seriousness at my face—that he wasn’t asking. He was going to read my aura… And what, pray tell, was THAT going to be like?
In spite of all the many times I have to wear a public face, I am basically a very private person.
I’m very willing to “put myself out there” and be vulnerable with people if it’s my choice to do so—if perhaps my life experiences will encourage them—but I do. not. like to feel totally out of control. Yet there I sat… about to have a total stranger—who’s outward personality is about as night-and-day different from mine as it comes!—not only invade my outward personal space, but my inner space as well …or is that even possible?
It was obvious there was no getting out of it, and so with Richard before me and Renaissance Man beside me—thankfully always beside me!—I tried to calm my wildly-beating heart and “go with the flow”.
According to the notes I recorded on the way home from dinner, this is what he said…
You like to surround yourself with beauty.
That’s true. But if he’d said anything about my tablescapes or vintage linens, I’d have freaked out!
You like a few nice things, but you would rather give to others than hold for yourself.
That’s true—and becomes more so all the time. I’m always on the lookout for someone who’d enjoy my heirlooms in hiding.
You have many acquaintances, but very few that you let into your heart.
That’s very true.
You’re both religious and spiritual.
I think that’s true. I hope that’s true.
Somehow… in the space of only a few minutes—with a backdrop of dinnertime frivolity and a sound track of tinkling silverware and crystal—two very different people connected.
We spent awhile longer talking about Hope’s kids then said our thank yous and goodbyes with promises to reconnect soon on a trip to California. On the way home, I told my Renaissance Man,
For all of the eccentric craziness that is Richard Simmons, he’s really very normal. He’s a 65-year-old man looking at the Winter of his life and wanting to know he matters to someone. I think he’s in a very lonely place. It’s going to be good for him to experience our kids!
And so days later, Richard, Michael, and Mauro Oliveira made the trip to the City of Youth in Campinas, Brazil and dedicated the new water well that Richard had purchased as a gift in honor of his friend Mauro, former Brazilian orphan who had grown up at the City of Youth (before the days of Hope when it was no more than a warehouse for children).
While on that trip, Richard received a call inviting him to fly straight to New York to attend the MTV Video Music Awards and promote his new video. It was his first—and, to date, only— trip to the VMAs, but it was a memorable one.
Now I am not an MTV fan and have never before or since had anything to do with the VMAs, but that year is burned into my memory—because when the interviewed Richard Simmons was asked by Entertainment Tonight about coming to New York straight from Brazil, he told how he’d provided a new well, clean drinking water, to an orphanage in Campinas… and a picture of him and Mauro with some of our kids and their “thank you” banner was splashed across live television.
Renaissance Man and I didn’t see it, but we started getting phone calls—from a Board member flipping channels in a hotel room and a friend of Hope turning on his television preparing to watch the evening news. FaceBook messages on Hope’s page, and hits on the website.
And for the next several days, Hope Unlimited for Children’s relationship with Richard Simmons was a story, even on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where Kimmel’s inaccurate, offhand, on-air insult about the orphanage that didn’t even have water actually worked in our favor.
But while all of that was exciting, my memories of Richard Simmons and the 2013 VMAs go deeper.
Some will remember 2013 as the year of the infamous Miley Cyrus “twerking” incident. While some shouted, “Freedom of expression!” others used words like “vulgar” and “inappropriate”… often along with intense judgment of her upbringing.
Richard Simmons, although obviously uncomfortable with the Miley Cyrus he saw on stage, had a different response for Entertainment Tonight.
Was it over the top? Yes. And why did she do that? To entertain the young people and to cry out, “Won’t you love me?” . . . Miley Cyrus, like all of us, needs to be loved. We all come from complicated parents… I understand her, and I love her, and I think things will be different with her. But you know, in the music business, sometimes you have to shock a little.
I can’t find the interview now, but at the time I remember one where he said he’d like to invite Miley to his home for a private conversation. When asked what he’d tell her, he said (in a deeply saddened voice) that it would be something she needed to hear; something for her ears only. Obviously he believed he understood why some of her inner pain was outwardly manifesting itself so inappropriately—and he wanted to help.
Renaissance Man and I both commented at the time:
Of all the responses to Miley Cyrus, only one sounded like Jesus… and it was spoken by Richard Simmons.
Not long after his trip to Brazil, we discussed the possibility of Richard hosting an event to introduce Hope to potential new donors who could join him in helping transform lives of children once abused, abandoned, trafficked by the very ones who should have cared for them: their families. He was very agreeable, but we quickly learned that (I guess much like me) there are really only a few people he lets into his heart… and so it would be a small dinner party—in his home—during the Christmas holidays. Could I have been more excited by the prospect—or disappointed when a workable date for everyone couldn’t be found?
In March 2014 Renaissance Man and I were back in Brazil when word was received from Richard’s friend Mauro: Richard is really struggling. He’s becoming reclusive. Please pray for him—and please hold this information in confidence.
And so we did.
Not long after returning home, a dear friend of mine asked if we’d heard anything from Richard Simmons. Obviously I was holding a confidence, but I asked her, “Where’d that come from?” She said she’d just been thinking about him a lot lately and wondered. I told her,
You know, sometimes when I can’t get someone off of my mind and wonder what’s going on, I just assume God’s calling on me to pray for them. Through the years, there have been times I’ve eventually learned exactly why that was; other times I have no idea. Either way, I never think it’s a bad idea.
She agreed saying that’s exactly what she’d been doing.
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. (James 5:16b RSV)
A few months later I saw the first public story about Richard and his apparent pulling away from close friends. I mentioned it to my friend and then felt at liberty to tell her what we’d already known—and why she’d been impressed to pray. She said she still was.
Many times over the past two years, Renaissance Man and I have spoken of Richard, prayed for him, and wondered aloud (and privately) what is happening in his life—and in his mind. We continue to be very concerned about him, not necessarily because we think there’s anything untoward happening. We can’t possibly know that. But because the man who showed such kindness and generosity to the kids of Hope—our family—has seemed to disappear from our lives almost as quickly as he entered… with some of his dreams left unrealized.
It’s totally conjecture on my part, but I admit that I wonder about the timing.
When we met Richard, he wanted to know all about the kids in Brazil. Of course he’d be meeting them in person a week later, but he wanted to hear stories—and so we told them. I remember specifically telling him that most of the children had lived horrific pasts, but their futures were becoming brighter every day—and his gift of the well (and the promise of future campus improvements he’d surprised us with that evening!) would be so exciting for the children.
He said—more than once that evening—words that communicated his intent to, for the rest of his days, make a difference in the lives of orphaned and vulnerable children around the world.
But Brazil is not an easy trip to make for someone with a tender heart.
I have to intentionally pray for God to steel my heart before I go so that I can just love the children—not be overcome by their stories. I have often wondered how the over-the-top poverty of the favelas affected Richard—and how he responded in his spirit to the night-and-day difference he would have experienced when he stepped on our campus and met those kids who’d once slept on dirty cardboard “mattresses” on the streets of the city. They didn’t even have a falling-down plywood shack to call home.
More even than that,
I wonder what happened when he felt the evil.
The man who told me he’s sometimes overcome with tears just walking through an airport or other public space as he senses the depth of pain in people around him.
I’ll never forget a phone call I had with Renaissance Man not long after he became President of Hope. He was working in Brazil, and telling about his day. I was taken aback when I heard him say,
Every time I walk around a corner, I expect to meet the devil himself.
Now that I’ve made more trips myself over the past eight years, I get it. I sometimes feel the evil, too.
But our kids have lived it.
They’ve been bled for voodoo sacrifices. Locked in closets. Prostituted by parents. You really don’t want me to go on.
And Richard met them. Did he sense the pain behind their smiles?
I don’t know about this aura-reading business, but I’ll admit it was pretty eerie how right Richard was about me. If it hadn’t been an experience so obviously serious to him, I’d have been tempted to push Renaissance Man forward and say, “Do his! Do his!” just to break the spell of my own discomfort. And yes… to see if he could get so close to the truth with him, too!
I can easily imagine how quickly a fragile, tender spirit like that of Richard Simmons could become overwhelmed by his trip to Brazil, especially so quickly followed by the hurt he obviously felt for Miley Cyrus. I can understand how he might need some “hermit time” as I call it when referring to my own occasional need to decompress after a trip south. I can understand how the experience might have broken him.
But if he’s broken, why say he’s okay?
And if he’s okay, why haven’t his closest friends seen him for the past two years?
I came away from the New York Daily News story with one thought:
This is so bizarre.
And to think that there was a time when, on his next trip to Knoxville with Jewelry TV, he wanted to come here to Jefferson City and see the Hope Unlimited office. We warned him it’s very small—not much to see—but it’s a welcoming place… and he’s always welcome.
And I was “on standby” to host a dinner party in our home—for Richard, and Mauro, and Michael… and a tiny handful of our closest, confidence-keeping friends. And I was designing in my mind the perfect tablescape that featured a wishing well—because the wishing well was to be the next line of jewelry Richard designed, and profits were going to benefit Hope’s kids and other children in need around our world.
For now, at least, it seems none of that will ever happen. I find that very sad. It’s as if the man spent so much of his life fighting his own inner demons while helping other people fight theirs and find their “can do” spirit… and here in his last decades—when he’s decided to focus on making a difference in the lives of vulnerable children, children who very much need us to advocate for them—his own demons have overtaken him.
Apparently there’s a million dollar question:
Are the demons within—or without?
I hope you are well. You come to mind often, and so I pray for you often, but I am not alone in my prayers. People you have never met are being called on to be prayer warriors for you. I hope that gives you comfort.
If all you truly want is to spend time alone, then I wish you God’s peace in your spirit—and peace in the spirits of your friends who are very concerned about you. If, on the other hand, they should be concerned, then I pray they will be relentless in advocating for your wellbeing. And I pray for your protection, both physically and spiritually. I know firsthand that evil isn’t confined to Brazil but is often the unwelcome guest in many a home in the most unlikely of neighborhoods.
And selfishly… I’d really love to see you again. I’d like to know for myself that you’re okay. I’d like to do that tablescape for you—with a wishing well and a calm but quirky vibe. Somehow I sense the *bling* is mostly part of the act. Am I right?
Mostly, I’d like to tell you a story about a little girl I saw on my last trip to Brazil. We were eating lunch in the cafeteria at the City of Youth, and I glanced up just in time to see her lean over the water fountain to take a drink. I immediately thought of “Richard’s well” and reached for my camera hoping to capture a picture to send to you. I wasn’t fast enough, but let me tell you what I saw—and heard.
That precious little girl was obviously thirsty, and she immersed her entire face in that beautiful stream of clean water, and drank with gusto. And then, all the way across the room, I heard the happiest smack of the lips and the loudest sigh of contentment. It was truly a cherished moment in the middle of my day—watching a little girl do what thirsty little girls do—knowing that water tasted extra good because of your gift.
On behalf of that precious little one and the rest of the children we serve, thank you! You touch their lives every day—and I, for one, will never take that for granted.
Do me a favor? Perhaps all Richard needs right now is some heart-felt encouragement so, let’s give it to him! Share this on your social media with some kind words of your own. Let’s be sure he gets the message!