The many secrets of Richard Simmons

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You know what he looks like. The sparkling tank top and barely there short-shorts. That hair.

Perhaps you know he wasn't always in the greatest shape. A New Orleans boy in love with his hometown food (and it showed), he turned himself into America's loudest, dancingest, sweatiest, most-recognizable fitness icon.

But did you know Richard Simmons turns 60 this year? Speaks Italian? Read the pope's color aura (gold, yellow, orange, green)? Did you know that pseudo-Afro on his head is the result of three "horribly painful" hair transplants, 4,000 follicles each time, necessitated after a crash diet at age 19 turned him bald? You may not know that he describes himself as an "extreme Catholic," who will, in a quieter moment, pray with you. He'll embrace you, close his eyes and tears will form. He'll whisper in your ear that God is looking out for you from above, and that He created only one of you, so take care of yourself.

And then, he will burst into a chorus of Captain & Tennille in that inimitable tenorDo that to me one more time. Once is never enough!just to remind us that, after all, he is Richard Simmons.

But the biggest thing you don't know about the man born Milton Teagle Simmons is that he's in on the joke. You may see him as an exercise icon or the butt of the jokehe doesn't care either way. You can laugh with him or laugh at him, as long as you're just laughing. This he wants you to know.

And so we find Simmons at WGN studios, having just led the "Morning News" crew in a group cardio-dance. In the hallways, Simmons runs into meteorologist Tom Skilling. Naturally, Simmons accosts him.

Simmons (singing): Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, do you love me?

Skilling: We all love you. How are you?!

Simmons: Tommy, am I a shower, or am I a storm?

Skilling: You are a storm

(Simmons grabs Skilling by the noggin and kisses his head four times.)

Skilling: Oh, are you something else!

Today is one of the 200 days each year Richard Simmons is on the road, giving motivational speeches, posing for fan pictures or promoting whatever new product he has out. This time, he's in Chicago because his "Sweatin' to the Oldies"the "Citizen Kane" of workout videosturns 20 this year. (But wait, there's more! It's out now in a five-disc DVD boxed set!)

Richard Simmons travels everywhere dressed like Richard Simmons. On this trip, Simmons has five pairs of tank tops and shorts with him, including a crystal-encrusted black top with the word "SWEAT" in ruby red (he has hundreds of different ones back home in Los Angeles). In his carry-on bag are underwear, socks, pajamas and bedroom slippers.

"I've never seen him in jeans," said his longtime manager Michael Catalano. "It's not his style."When not at his personal appearances, Simmons does not leave his hotel room. Rarely does he do restaurants because people are always curious about what's on Simmons' plate. Also, he thinks those in the same dining room as Simmons get self-conscious about eating in the company of a fitness guruwouldn't you feel weird asking for extra barnaise sauce with Richard Simmons at the next table? So he prefers room service.

For breakfast this morning (he's in bed by 9 p.m., awake around 4:30 a.m.), the Peninsula hotel staff brought Simmons cereal and fruitalways fruit.

The first word (or so he claims) that came out of baby Simmons' mouth was a portentous one: "kitchen." Growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s, Simmons would head to the French Quarter every day after school and sell pralines on the street corner.

By 8th grade, Simmons weighed more than 200 pounds. In his autobiography, "Still HungryAfter All These Years," he wrote: "While other kids my age began exploring their sexuality, I spent time exploring food. Food became sex for meit became my pleasure."

Simmons' weight made him the target of bullies. The only way to fend them off, he found out, was through laughter.

"In high school, I could get beaten up all the time, or I could be something better. I became the court jester."

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