Richard Simmons' Fabulous Poker Face

Card stud, with L.J. Williamson, left, and Joanna Stein

A mirrored disco ball shimmers on the ceiling, and the room is loud, packed and sweaty.  Elbows and feet often make contact, but nobody is leaving, no way. Lady Gaga blasts out of the sound system, then Madonna, then Lady Gaga, and everyone kicks with the pulse and sings along, if they can manage it without panting. To keep the place from fogging up, the man in charge throws open the rear doors, letting Saturday morning sunlight pour in.

The room moves as one, under the spell of a singularly compelling leader: Richard Simmons. 

Yes, even at age 62, the resplendent fitness superstar still has it. His buoyant and boyish magnetism works even on those too young to have seen his eponymous television show, and there are plenty of them in this room. After all of his VHS tapes, DVDs, best-sellers and TV appearances, Simmons still holds a walk-in class for 12 bucks a pop at the Beverly Hills studio he's had for 37 years — since Civic Center Drive was a gravel road next to a railroad track. It's his idea of fun.

"What is this shit?" he shouts. "Quit faking it! You can go home and fake it tonight, but don't fake it here."

The room eats up the wet-noodle abuse.

"Everyone get in a big circle. Move your ass."

The crowd clears the dance floor as Simmons struts, bounces and sashays through the center of it all, the periphery imitating his movements, beaming pick me, pick me, pick me. Simmons points to two hunky, grinning men, seductively beckoning them to join him, and they do their best to keep up, but however well or poorly they manage, it doesn't really matter, because Simmons is the one who occupies the spotlight.  

No one can touch the queen.

If you haven't seen Simmons since the height of his television fame in the 1980s, the first thing to know is that he's the same, maybe better. Honoring Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," he's wearing a sleeveless tunic made entirely of playing cards, studded with sparkly poker chips and a matching poker-chip choker, a lipstick heart painted on his lips. Beneath his signature striped Dolfin shorts are Dalmatian-spotted tights and blindingly white sneakers.

To gaze from his bulging biceps to his golden-glitter eye shadow is to conclude that this must be the most fabulous man alive. 

In the decades since Simmons burst into the public eye, things have changed for gays. Coming out has become something of a moral duty, staying closeted a sign of cowardice. Simmons has never publicly declared that he is gay.

To his cause, Simmons gives plenty, from privately counseling a number of obese shut-ins and personally answering fan mail to posing for pictures with every last visitor to this weekly class. What more do you want from him?

To make a plainspoken proclamation would be to step on his own punch line, to kill his shtick, which consists mainly of dropping flamboyant hints huge enough to make television viewers feel oh-so-clever for having figured out his secret.

Simmons is always sharing that wink with us, and he makes everyone in his studio today feel cool enough to be let in on his private joke. 

When asked about his personal life by the Weekly, he says only, "I just want people to love me for the crazy person I am, and I really don't talk about too much." 

Simmons nicely shrugs away the handler who comes to remind him that there can't be any interviews without prior approval from his manager.

"My dream is to make everybody feel good and laugh — whether they're laughing with me or at me — and say, 'He's a nice guy. I like the work he does.' "

Back in dense lines, the class sing-screams to Lady Gaga's anthem "Born This Way," copying the court jester as he throws out jazz hands, claws the air like a tiger, shouts out wisecracks. Every line gets laughs.

One guy, whom Simmons nicknames "Guns," is singled out for the honor of a miniroast: "Is this your first aerobics class? Can I lick the sweat off your T-shirt?"

When a passerby strolls by the wide-open doors, he's roped in for our amusement and asked, "Do you have a date tonight?" 

"I do now," the guy smiles, looking Simmons up and down to hooting applause.  

This may be an aerobics class, but it's more frantically fun than most nightclubs, the enthusiasm and hilarity and music and fabulousness and cattiness all dwarfing the workout part of things to the level of an afterthought, and secretly, that's the whole point.