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Rose Minutaglio
March 24, 2017 04:30 PM

After embracing fame for 40 years, fitness star Richard Simmons has withdrawn from public life. Now friends and family address the mystery surrounding his disappearance from the spotlight. Subscribe now for the exclusive details – only in PEOPLE!

Before Richard Simmons became a household name, he was known in his New Orleans neighborhood as “Dickie” Simmons, a praline seller.

Simmons grew up in the French Quarter helping his parents out with money by taking tourists through St. Louis Cathedral and working as a guide at the famed, haunted Musee Conti wax museum. Probably his first and favorite gig was when he was 8 and hitting French Quarter street corners to sell confections from Leah’s Pralines, just four blocks away from his house.

He was “hilarious” according to childhood friends — always teasing, joking and running around. But Simmons, overweight as a child, who was teased mercilessly by his classmates starting in elementary school.

“You could always tell sometimes at school when he was younger he would try to hold back tears. I felt for him, the boys would just pick up on him because of his weight and during gym class and stuff,” Antoinette DiPiazza, one of Simmons’ closest childhood friends tells PEOPLE.

The food in New Orleans — pots of rich gumbo, towering muffaletta sandwiches, king cake, bananas foster, banana bread pudding — was right at hand, on every corner, and Simmons ate to dull the pain.

As he grew larger, he became an even bigger target of derision at Cor Jesu High, a Catholic school he attended in the city.

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Simmons weighed nearly 270 lbs. when he graduated from Cor Jesu in the 1960s.

“I mean I was mucho big. You know how they teach you early on that ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you?’ Well that’s a lie,” Simmons told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1983. “But who has the last laugh now?”

The last laugh, indeed. His days as “Dickie” behind him, Simmons started his massive multimillion dollar fitness empire, gaining thousands of devoted followers.

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Simmons, who hasn’t been seen publicly in three years, is the focus of a recent podcast called “Where Is Richard Simmons?” that has sparked speculation about the reason behind his decision to step away from the spotlight.

DiPiazza hopes the best for her childhood friend.

“He was one of the nicest sweetest most humane people I know,” she says. “I just I can’t begin to tell you how big his heart was.”

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