Everyone's familiar with LA's reputation as a superficial, traffic-clogged city of nightmares and frozen yogurt, but during the few years I lived there, I was lucky enough to find places and events filled with people who were anything but superficial. In fact, no matter where I am, I always look for ways to be around people who are being their most genuine, confident selves -- be it on the beach in Coney Island in the summer, where all kinds of people in all manner of swimming costume representing all sizes lay out with absolutely no shame, or at a dinner at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, the private magician's club where there's a haunted piano that takes requests, dudes at the bar who look like Merlin, and there's no irony to speak of.
It was only during a recent visit to LA, however, that I got to experience a class at Slimmons, Richard Simmons' aerobic studio in Beverly Hills. Like most children of the '80s, I grew up watching Richard Simmons on everything from Hollywood Squares to Late Night With David Letterman, never mind his infamous ads for his at-home VHS workouts, Sweatin' to the Oldies. When my friends and I arrived at Slimmons an hour early (as recommended by another friend who's a regular) for his usual Saturday morning class, we immediately noticed that, among the many T-shirts and tanks for sale (alas, none bedazzled), VHS copies of Sweatin' to the Oldies are also available. If there was a clearer sign of an irony-free zone, I don't know what it is.
Given the nature of the business that calls Hollywood its home, fitness in LA is often especially tense. Gyms can be too fraught with passive-aggressive competition as skeletal actresses raise each other to the death in spin classes. Running outside can be equally stressful if some actor trying to make pilot season decides that you're no longer a stranger on a leisurely jog but the target they must pass by any means necessary (including running you off the trail, down the side of Fryman Canyon). In a city known for superficiality, working on your appearance is no easy task.
That's part of what makes Slimmons even more special. It's not just a place where people are being happily, flagrantly unselfconscious, but doing so while making a big, sweaty effort and being lead by one of our nation's premiere elder statesqueens, who's wearing Hooters-style nude hose. The class itself had its share of beautiful people, but also older people, nerdy people, even a few people in wheelchairs who did the workout their own way. Everyone's happy to be there, and nobody's judging anyone. Nobody, except Richard Simmons.
Obviously, Simmons is nutty, but nothing can prepare you for both how crazybrains and sweet he is. One second he's screaming at you to do high kicks and sing along to "Downtown," the next he's doing a dirty dance with a shirtless guy. And at the end of the class, after over an hour of aerobics, weights, and stretches, he gave a tearful motivational speech. He urged us to "forget our regrets," and we were all touched. He then promoted his new single on iTunes that he wrote and performed, which is a fundraiser for veterans. At the time, in the perfect, bizarre little universe of his studio, a Richard Simmons song for the military made sweet, perfect sense.
Assuming Richard is in town (and not on The Late Show or Jupiter), he teaches three classes a week and holds discussion/motivational sessions as well, with classes costing only $12. They have a fairly strict "no pictures" policy, but, per Richard's instructions, I do not regret my lack of photos, or most anything else. I only regret not knowing about Slimmons when I actually lived in LA, since it's more open than The Magic Castle, and even more magic.