Richard Simmons opened his front door, frail and trembling. Mauro Oliveira, a visual artist who was also Simmons’ masseuse and former assistant, greeted him on the front porch, concerned about his friend. After receiving an ominous phone call from Simmons, Oliveira had driven his truck to the Hollywood Hills, past the two metal gates that Simmons had left ajar for him, and into the driveway. He reached the porch through the white columns that recalled an antebellum Southern mansion, and past Simmons’ bronze statue of a regal Dalmatian.
Wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, a gaunt Simmons led Oliveira through the foyer, and into the living room. “Mauro, we can no longer see each other,” Simmons told him in a quiet, defeated voice.
It was April 2014. Oliveira, a 49-year-old from Brazil with the burly arms and trim physique of a gym rat and close-cropped black hair, had met Simmons 13 months earlier, and the two became fast friends. But he was catching a weird vibe lately, and hadn’t seen him in a while, before the then 65-year-old Simmons summoned him to the mansion, saying only that they needed to talk.
“What’s going on, Richard?” Oliveira asked. “Why are you saying that?”
“I don’t know,” Simmons replied. “I just want to be by myself, and I want to be in the house, and we’re never going to see each other again.”
Simmons’ home is a mixture of classical architecture and design that recalls his New Orleans youth. He collects offbeat pieces, including a menagerie of dolls highlighted by a rare Barbra Streisand model and the colorful work of Mexican painter and sculptor Sergio Bustamante. As they spoke, he and Oliveira stood near an ornate grand piano.
“Let’s talk it over,” Oliveira said. “I want to sit here, and make sure you’ll be OK. Let’s go upstairs, I’ll give you a massage and relax you.”
Simmons called up to Teresa Reveles, his live-in housekeeper of nearly three decades. “Mauro is going upstairs with me,” he said.
“No, no, no!” Reveles shouted from the second floor, according to Oliveira. “Get out! Get out!”
Oliveira looked at his friend, who told him in a soft voice, “You’ve gotta go.”
Oliveira leaned in toward Simmons. “Is she controlling your life now?”
As Oliveira tells it, Simmons looked down, and with one resigned word confirmed his worst suspicions: “Yes.” This was the last time he saw his friend.
With Reveles shrieking behind him, Oliveira hustled out to his truck, picked up his cell phone, and asked an intermediary to contact Simmons’ older brother, Lenny. He and Lenny did not have a close relationship, but Oliveira knew of nowhere else to turn.
Oliveira is calm as he recounts this story, but irritation enters his voice as he recalls a threat leveled that day, nearly two years ago. “Later that evening, Richard called me and said that his manager and Teresa wanted to put a restraining order against me — you can see how controlling they are — and I said, ‘What restraining order? You are the one who called me. I’m not invading your privacy, or your house.’ That was the end of that. No restraining order was put against me.”
Oliveira has spoken briefly about his privileged access to Simmons during this dark period, but never in this much detail. He recently underwent a heart procedure, which he blames on Simmons-related stress, and is reluctant to invite further strain. But he agreed to elaborate on a Hollywood mystery that has previously been told only in a few cryptic tabloid items.
“We are very concerned. I believe that something else is happening. I don’t think Richard is in there of his own volition.”
Richard Simmons has vanished from public view, and many who know him best say they haven’t had any contact in more than two years. All repeat the same message, some anonymously and some on the record: Simmons stopped returning calls and emails more than two years ago, behavior that is highly out of character, and his housekeeper is blocking access to him at home. Indeed, for a generous and intensely social public figure, one who taught classes at his Beverly Hills gym until a few years ago; has sold more than 20 million exercise videos, including the mega-popular “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” series; appeared many times on David Letterman’s shows, “General Hospital,” his own talk show and infomercials; and was a seemingly ubiquitous presence for decades, the silence is striking.
“We were very close,” says a friend in Hollywood who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld, and who has not heard back from Simmons since 2013 — one of five people who described to me the same situation. “It’s not something that I want to seek publicity about, but we are very concerned. Teresa did turn me away several times. He has missed funerals of close friends. He was the most reliable and caring person on the planet, and then to suddenly vanish? I have come to believe that something else is happening. I don’t think Richard is in there of his own volition.”
It’s a sentiment that Oliveira takes even further. “I feel that Richard is now being controlled by the very people that he controlled his whole life,” he says. “Controlled in the sense that they are taking advantage of his weak mental state. Controlled in the sense that they are controlling his mail, controlling his everything. His brother, the manager and Teresa. Those three people.”
He also believes that Simmons is deeply depressed, because of a chronic knee injury that has kept him from teaching classes; the death of his beloved 17-year-old dalmatian, Hattie; and exhaustion from a lifetime as one of the highest-octane characters in American pop culture. How does he think Simmons has spent his days since cutting off contact with the world? “Medicated and in bed,” Oliveira says.
Michael Catalano, Simmons’ longtime manager, insists that all the worry is misplaced. “Richard is enjoying life at home after a 40-year career of traveling the world and inspiring people to take better care of themselves,” Catalano told me (he declined my request for an interview with Simmons). “He is working on several projects and continues to encourage those that need his help.”
“If Richard never comes out of the shadows and says he is OK, then no one will ever know the truth. His fans will just wake up one day and see the horrible story that he passed away.”
Teresa Reveles did not respond to phone and email messages, and the gates were locked during my several visits to Simmons’ home. But Catalano pushes back strongly against the idea that the housekeeper, or anyone else, is controlling the fitness guru. “I can tell you absolutely 100% that is not the case,” he told me. “If Richard wants to get in his car and drive to Starbucks, no one is telling him he can’t. In response to ‘the housekeeper is keeping him captive,’ I can tell you that it is 100% not true. It’s ridiculous. Richard has always been someone who makes up his own mind what he wants to do.”
Until they see him, however, many friends will remain highly skeptical. “If Richard never comes out of the shadows and says he is OK, then no one will ever know the truth,” says one. “His fans will just wake up one day and see the horrible story that he passed away.”
Oliveira presents the most solid evidence of Simmons’ mental and emotional state, because his access to the mansion was more recent than others’. But even he has been left with a dearth of concrete, up-to-date information, leaving friends to concoct theories, some more outlandish than others.
“I think tormented is the best word to describe his mental state,” Oliveira says. “I think it was (caused by) black magic, witchcraft. That’s not close to your culture, but to my culture in Brazil, and to Mexicans” — Teresa Reveles is from Mexico — “that is a real thing. They invoke the spirits. They light black candles, and red and blue candles. I’ve never participated. I only saw from a distance. But at services, they do special meals. They offer meals to the bad spirits, and light candles, invoking with words.”