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Milton Teagle — a.k.a. Richard — Simmons pictured at 2 years old at his family home in New Orleans in 1950. In the April 3 issue of PEOPLE, friends and family weigh in on the fitness guru's retreat from the spotlight. While his brother Lenny tells PEOPLE they speak weekly and he "seems okay to me,” his assistant Elijah Jones says, “I want my friend back in my life the way he used to be." Here, a look back at his private life and public persona.
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Simmons (at age 20 in his 1968 University of Louisiana portrait) “would try to hold back tears because boys would pick on him,” says childhood friend Antoinette DiPiazza. Bullied for his weight, he hit 270 lbs. by the end of high school, then later lost 112 lbs. in just more than two months — a diet binge that nearly killed him. By 1970 he was in L.A. studying nutrition, and in 1975, he opened his eatery and exercise studio, Ruffage and the Anatomy Asylum.
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WORKING IT OUT
By 1979, he was receiving 25,000 fan letters a day, which led to his now-iconic videos and other marketing opportunities around the world. Here, Simmons on a January 1996 Cruise to Lose trip. "I’ve been on numerous cruise trips with him, and they were exhausting to me. I can’t imagine what it was like for him," Lenny tells PEOPLE of his brother's endless stamina.
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With live-in housekeeper Teresa Reveles, his caretaker and confidant, and former assistant Elijah Jones ca. 2000.
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On Late Night with David Letterman, where he was a favorite guest, in 2006. "He’s always been the way he is now," Lenny says. "He’s always had his quiet time. It’s just that people only saw one aspect of him, and now that they aren’t seeing that, they think that something has happened, that something is wrong."
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MISSING RICHARD SIMMONS
Podcaster and former Daily Show producer Dan Taberski (with Simmons in 2012) says, “I want to find the man behind the persona.” So he tried, launching the Missing Richard Simmons podcast in 2017. It recently wrapped, and in the process, drew millions of listeners and sparked frenzied speculation about the reason for Simmons' exile from the spotlight.
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At a Hurricane Sandy October 2013 benefit with famed swimmer Diana Nyad. “He took the shame out of being overweight, a profound service to America,” says Nyad.
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BEHIND THE LAUGHTER
“I’m not a phony playing a character,” Simmons (in the 2013 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) told PEOPLE in a 1981 cover story. “I’m a person with faults and insecurities.”
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“He needed a break from being in the public eye,” says Lenny (with his wife Cathy and Richard in December 2013). "After 40-odd years he just decided that he wants to rest, and I certainly can’t blame him. If I have any message at all for his fans, it’s this: It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love and think about his fans, he just decided that it’s time for him to be quiet and enjoy his life."
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WITHDRAWING FROM VIEW
Simmons on Dec. 13, 2013, two months before he stopped teaching at his studio. These days he spends his time watching the news (60 Minutes is a favorite) and game shows (Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune) and relaxing in his garden among the many visiting hummingbirds. “When I look at him, he still looks like my brother—he has the beard, and his hair is a little grayer, but you expect that at 68,” says Lenny. Does he have any regrets? “He doesn’t seem to. He never says,‘I wish I was doing this, or I’m upset about that.’ It’s more, ‘I enjoyed doing what I did, I hope I made a contribution, but I don’t miss it.’ ”