The ‘National Inquirer’ Claims Richard Simmons Is Transitioning & It’s Dangerously Wrong
Richard Simmons can’t catch a break. The flamboyant fitness guru has retreated from the spotlight in recent years — and has barely been seen in public since 2013. His recent reclusiveness led to a false claim that circulated in March suggesting that 1980s icon Simmons had been taken hostage in his home by his housekeeper. Shortly after the report went viral, Simmons debunked the rumor, phoning into the Today show to report he’s just fine. “You haven’t seen the last of me,” he promised. “I’ll come back, and I’ll come back strong.”
The National Enquirer is claiming, however, that the real reason he has taken a break from celebrity isn’t due to a hostage crisis or hospitalization for exhaustion (as the star has stated) but that Simmons is transitioning to be a woman. The 67-year-old graced the cover of the tabloid this week in a feather coat and knee high boots. In the photo, Simmons is posed provocatively, with one leg high in the air, but the intention is clear: He’s meant to look ridiculous and clownish. He’s portrayed with white face makeup that makes Simmons (or likely, a photoshopped version of him) look like the “Man With No Eyebrows” from Lost Highway, rather than someone whose identity we’re intended to take seriously.
If the Enquirer hopes to present Simmons as a freak, their editorial mission is right on the label. The magazine promises a look “inside her bizarre new world,” with allegations that she’s had breast implants and bottom surgery (which the magazine calls “castration,” in order to elicit maximum shock value). The Enquirer states that Simmons is now “a softly spoken woman named Fiona.” The star’s representatives have responded by calling the report “absolute madness and not true.”
What’s troubling about the National Enquirer report isn’t that it’s likely not true. It’s that the magazine is using blatant transphobia — in which transgender people are packaged as “sideshow freaks” — in order to sell magazines. Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking coming out interview with Diane Sawyer last May led to an uptick in public interest and media coverage of the trans community, but journalism continues to fail trans people. Even as society progresses toward greater inclusion, the media continues to harass, mock, stigmatize, and even out transgender people — which can have extremely deadly effects on a community still emerging in the public eye. Our society needs greater sensitivity, not more shame.
If the Enquirer hopes to present Simmons as a freak, their editorial mission is right on the label.
The New York Daily News announced Christine Jorgensen’s 1951 transition with a now famous headline: “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty!” Jorgensen was drafted in 1945, and after being discharged, she would become the first person to openly transition in the public eye. Jorgensen was a media sensation. When she returned home from Copenhagen in 1952, following a series of operations, Jorgensen was swarmed by the press. Due to her massive celebrity, Jorgensen was offered movie contracts, but just 26, she’s clearly flabbergasted by the attention. “I’m very impressed by everyone coming,” she smirks, adding: “But I think it’s too much.”
The seeming public embrace of Jorgensen masks that she often became a punchline in the media. The Jack Benny Show took numerous potshots at her: In one skit from 1952, Benny walks up to comedian Frank Nelson, playing a floorwalker in a department store, and asks him for information. “Ask me anything,” Nelson responds. “I’m a talking horse.” Benny comments that he doesn’t look very much like a horse. “”Not now,” Nelson clarifies. “There’s a veterinarian in Denmark who does wonders!” Louis Farrakhan, who had a moderately successful career as a Calypso singer before joining the Nation of Islam, even performed a song about Jorgensen: “Is She Or Is She Ain’t?”
The limelight can be incredibly harsh and unforgiving toward transgender people. Jorgensen was frequently asked to perform in freak shows — or appear nude — which underlined her treatment as a sideshow attraction in 1950s America. Her later 1970 biopic (based off Jorgensen’s autobiography) was sold with the tagline: “Did the surgeon’s knife make me a woman or a freak?” To her credit, Jorgensen still managed to be a powerful voice for the trans community at a time of extreme marginalization; even while most people had no idea what a transgender person was in the ‘50s, she was speaking at colleges across the country.
Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out reinforced how pervasive media transphobia still is — six decades after Jorgensen first made headlines. One of the reasons Jenner opened up about her gender identity was because of relentless scrutiny about her transition. Prior to the Sawyer interview, TMZ published a story in late 2013 about Jenner having a tracheal shave, a procedure which effectively eliminated his adam’s apple. Just months after, U.K.’s Daily Mail noted that his fingernails were noticeably long (or “womanly,” as the publication suggested).
Like in the case of Jorgensen, Jenner’s body was treated as a site for public spectacle; something to be gawked at. As former Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted, that changed very little after she came out, even as the public appeared to embrace her. “It’s especially brave of Caitlyn Jenner to do this, because we all know the media,” Stewart said. “They’re awful.” The host cut to talking heads debating her “comparative fuckability,” remarking that Jenner is “so sexy it hurts.” One added, “I have to ask an important question: Does she have a better body than Kim Kardashian?”
Even as society progresses toward greater inclusion, the media continues to harass, mock, stigmatize, and even out transgender people — which can have extremely deadly effects.
Following the National Enquirer story, it seems we’ve learned very little from the past year — or even the last 60 years. The tabloid’s report was meant to mirror Jenner’s Vanity Fair spread from last July, in which the former Olympian asked to be referred to as Caitlyn. The Enquirer swapped that phrase for Richard Simmons’ own alleged plea: “Call Me Fiona.” More than anything, it’s designed to mock the entertainer, who is nothing if not an easy target. Reports about Simmons “exhibiting bizarre conduct” bank on the fact that he’s always had an oddball media presence, buoyed by speculation about his sexuality. Simmons has never commented on his personal life publicly, but it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t think he’s gay.
Even if the report were accurate, there’s a huge danger in removing Simmons’ own voice from the story, which is all reported through “friends” and “anonymous sources.” Jenner previously stated that she became depressed and even suicidal following media reports about her tracheal operation leaking onto the Internet. “That night I thought, ‘It’s over,’” he told Diane Sawyer. “I was walking up and down the hall all night, heart pounding. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t the easiest thing to do is go in the other room [and] get a gun? Pain is over. Done. Go to a better place.”
How the media covers transgender people matters — and not just to people like Christine Jorgensen, Caitlyn Jenner, and Richard Simmons (even though he isn’t trans). When accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at last year’s ESPYs, Jenner voiced an important reminder: 41 percent of trans folks will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. A 2015 study from Canada’s Western University found that there were several important factors that reduced that risk for self-harm — including having supportive parents at home, the ability to change legal documentation (including one’s birth certificate), and experiencing “low levels of trans-based hate.”
When it comes to reducing hate, the media plays an important role in setting the tone and can do so by presenting the stories of transgender people in a healthy, positive light. When journalists, news anchors, talking heads, and even tabloids refer to trans people — or anyone believed to be transgender — as bizarre spectacles, it gives people permission to treat them that way. After Christine Jorgensen became an international celebrity, her fianceé, who worked as a typist Massapequa, New York, was fired from his job. After all, who would want to employ someone who is engaged to a “freak?”
What made Jorgensen’s story powerful and groundbreaking, even despite the way she was treated by the public, is that it came from her perfectly rouged lips: She was warm, funny, and extremely witty. By allowing Americans to get to know her — on her own terms — Christine Jorgensen made it possible generations of transgender people to follow in her footsteps. Let’s say the Richard Simmons rumor were true and he were trans: What then has National Enquirer has done here? They have taken that story away from him. The outlet has turned what could have been an important moment of visibility into yet another affirmation of the ridicule that trans folks have faced for decades.