By Brad Dawson
Milton Teagle was born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Milton was an overweight child. As a toddler, people stared just a little too long at Milton, but he paid them no attention. When he started school, he was subjected to cruel, merciless teasing by some of his classmates. Milton acted as if their teasing had no effect on him, but inside, Milton was crumbling. The only comfort he found was from eating the wonderful foods of his hometown. It was a vicious, seemingly unending cycle in which the teasing led to eating and the eating led to more teasing.
To help his struggling family— his father worked in a thrift store and his mother sold cosmetics— eight-year-old Milton began selling sweet treats at Leah’s Pralines, a candy shop located in the heart of the French Quarter and just four blocks from his home. Working in a candy shop did not help with his weight problem.
The relentless teasing continued throughout Milton’s high school years. By the time he graduated from high school, he stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed nearly 270 pounds.
Friends from his youth remembered him as being likable and hilarious. He was always teasing and joking around. Antoiniette Di Piazza, a childhood friend of Milton’s, said “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 on him because of his weight,” but he was “one of the nicest, sweetest, most humane people. I just can’t begin to tell you how big his heart was.” Milton once told a reporter, “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.”
After his high school graduation, Milton attended the Dominican Seminary in Iowa where he planned to become a priest. Two years into the program, Milton decided that he was not suited for the priesthood. Milton was searching for direction in his life, and that direction appeared in a simple handwritten note. One day, Milton was walking to his car when he noticed a handwritten note under the windshield wipers. Written on the note was, “Fat people die young. Please don’t die. Anonymous.” Milton tried to brush off the note, but the words kept replaying in his mind.
Milton did not want to die. He realized that being overweight was hazardous to his health and he wanted to do something about it. For over two months, Milton lived off a diet of just lettuce and water. His weight began to plummet from nearly 270 to about 110 pounds. Because of his crash diet, Milton suffered from bulimia and anorexia. He began to lose his hair and, by losing more than half of his body weight, his skin hung from his body. Milton realized he needed help and checked himself into a hospital.
During his recovery, Milton got a crash course in nutrition and health from his doctors and nurses. Milton wanted to know more. He began to read everything he could find on the subject. At first, he sought out the information for his own wellbeing. As his health improved, he decided to find a way to help others who were like him to find a healthier way to live. Milton considered a career in medicine so he could learn more about the human body, but he changed his mind because he hated the idea of “dead bodies and blood.”
Milton worked at a number of jobs and considered different career paths, but sharing his experience and knowledge of health and nutrition were always on his mind. He developed a philosophy of “love yourself, move your body, and watch your portions.” In the 1970s, Milton moved to Los Angles and began working as a maître d’hôtel for an upscale Beverly Hills restaurant called Derek’s. Milton wanted to join a fitness center to improve his health even more, but he felt uncomfortable because all of the fitness centers seemed to be geared towards customers who were already physically fit.
With minimal experience in the restaurant field and the knowledge he gained about health and nutrition, Milton opened a salad bar and adjoining fitness center called “Ruffage.” His clients included some Hollywood stars, but unlike the other fitness centers, Milton made an effort to make clients of all sizes feel welcome. He began a program called the “Anatomy Asylum” which provided training on healthy eating, portion control, and fun exercises in a supportive environment. Because of his supportive nature, his wonderful personality, and his fitness classes, Milton guest starred on the daytime soap opera General Hospital. From there, Milton was often a guest star on numerous talk shows hosted by Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, David Letterman, and Howard Stern. In 1980, Milton got his own television show which featured exercise routines, discussions about health topics, and comedy. At its peak, the show was broadcast in over 200 countries.
It all started with a handwritten note which said, “Fat people die. Please don’t die.” As a child, Milton went by the nickname Dickie. In his twenties, Milton adopted his uncle’s name, Richard. If you have never participated in one of his many programs, you certainly know the phrase “Sweating to the Oldies.” You also know Milton Teagle “Richard” Simmons.
- “How Richard Simmons’ Childhood Shaped Him.” People Magazine, 2017, people.com/health/richard-simmons-childhood-fitness-guru-new-orleans/.
- “Get Your Aerobic Outfit On and Enjoy the Life Story of Richard Simmons,” by Jack Lorre, Fansided, 2022.en.onechicagocenter.com/view/?id=richard-simmons-life-occ&src=.