He never preaches about how the rest of us don’t live up to his high standards, yet through him, we are encouraged to be better humans inside and out.

While most Catholics I know are talking about the new Mother Cabrini movie—the tenacious saint with dark, soulful eyes and a long, black habit that she wears like armor—there’s another film about a self-described “extreme Catholic” whom I believe we are remiss if we don’t acknowledge. This American saint-in-the-making sports merry, coffee-brown eyes and fuzzy hair plugs. His religious armor consists of glittery, neon tank tops and vibrant, almost too short shorts. He laughs loudly, sings show tunes even louder, and dances like there’s no tomorrow. Like Cabrini, he’s also saved countless lives and isn’t afraid of reaching out to those quite different from and less well-off than himself.

“When I go to bed at night,” fitness guru Richard Simmons—whose X handle is @The WeightSaint—once said, “I ask God to give me another day. I ask him to keep me strong and make me a good teacher and to keep spreading his right word.” Richard’s Catholic ministry might be unsung in the Church, but it is a living ministry nonetheless, more so, I believe, because he doesn’t browbeat us with his beliefs or use the Church for either influential or material gain. Instead, he lives out his faith, showing it to us through his actions and exemplifying its ideals through his behavior. He never preaches about how the rest of us don’t live up to his high standards, yet through him, we are encouraged to be better humans inside and out. Because of his grace in speaking and living, we might miss the fact that he’s even preaching at all. This artfulness, I believe, is where Richard Simmons’ magic lies. He brings us closer to God before we even realize we were on a journey closer to him in the first place.

How many of us haven’t wondered if we, too, are unworthy of being noticed?

Pauly Shore’s controversial short biopic, The Court Jester, aims to show viewers some of the holy gifts Simmons brings to the world. Yet as a fan of Richard Simmons, I felt a little let down after watching it. Richard has famously not endorsed this movie. However, it isn’t this lack of support that swayed my opinion nor is it even the movie’s content. After all, the film gets the surface of Richard’s story almost exactly right.

The film begins by zoning in on David (played by Jesse Heiman), a young, overweight producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where Richard appears to promote Sweating to the Oldies, Vol. 5. While David repeats that he’s been working on the show for seven years to several other staffers, they all seem to think he’s new. His existence is not only overlooked but also belittled, as if his predilection for the donuts in the break area and his unassuming manner connote a meaningless existence. David can’t even get the one job we witness him being given accomplished correctly: He never provides Richard with the DVD the pop culture celebrity was supposed to promote during his appearance.

The allegorical overlay in the film is smart. We begin with David, a follower of Richard’s ministry, whom we perceive hasn’t made the leap to full believer. Like his namesake of David and Goliath fame, this David must overcome a giant bully. Rather than a physical giant, the bully this David must confront is the world’s judgment of his self-worth and his own gluttonous habit of assuaging this bully with the comforts of food. How many of us haven’t confronted that same, invisible giant in our own lives? How many of us haven’t wondered if we, too, are unworthy of being noticed? Or worse, wondered if we are already so unmemorable that we aren’t noticed right now?

A friend shared recently that she believes if someone were to take her place in her job, not only would no one at her work care, but others would also be quick to take on the few visible roles she had, believing they could clearly do them better. I, too, admit that I have wondered the same thing in my position. Indeed, I believe at various points we all have likely suffered with this same nagging self-doubt.

That David in the film is in a period of wondering about himself and his job after seven years is no coincidence. In the Bible, the number seven signifies both creation and restoration. On the seventh day in Genesis 2:1-3, God rested after creating the world. Likewise, in Leviticus 25:1-7, we find the concept of the Sabbatical year, where the Israelites were instructed to let the land rest after seven years of fertile use. David has worked and battled for seven years at his job: He now deserves a time of creation and rest. Here enters Richard Simmons (and his ministry). He invites the producer to a new way of perceiving himself and of being in the world, a new way of engaging not only with his job but also with his whole life. He invites creation and restoration.

The scene of the two men’s introduction cuts to a white, beaming light, as Richard presumably exits the talk show stage. He walks toward, notices, and acknowledges the staffer automatically, whereas no one else in that room had for those seven long years. Richard beelines toward the donuts the producer had been eyeing earlier, grabs one, and takes a bite. Pauly Shore told reporters that memorizing and reciting the monologue he next gives to his co-star was the hardest part of the film for him. In my opinion, it is the movie’s shining moment. The monologue is Richard Simmons’ homily, a condensed version of one the fitness icon has delivered to his followers for years. “I saw you working really hard not to be noticed, and I know what it’s like to want to disappear,” Richard tells David, plopping on the floor next to him after acknowledging the young man’s surprise that he’s eating a donut. He continues:

What’s my first rule? Like yourself. Ok? Like yourself. Your weight doesn’t matter. If you like yourself, you’re going to be fine. And I have a sense you haven’t been the kindest person to yourself lately, have you? But if I’m wrong just say, Richard, you’re nuttier than a squirrel turd! Don’t be shy, ok? You’re beautiful. You’re unique. I’ve been where you are right now, ok? And where I am right now is I just love myself, every part of myself, even the 300 lb me, which is why I let him out every once in a while to let him have a donut. And I think I can show you how to get there. Here, have the rest of my donut, or don’t!, but ask yourself David, Is this donut fit for a king? Because that’s what you are, David.

Richard sees David not as the mocked boy before he slays a giant, but as the powerful king after he has defeated him. In this segment, the producer’s face transitions from wrinkled with worry, to quiet with laughter, to smiling with peace. He listens intently, taking in Richard’s words, nodding as if a light switch turns on his head. We don’t know if David eats the donut, but we do know that millions of the real-life Richard’s followers began to treat themselves differently than before they had upon encountering him. 

No matter where he was or who he came in contact with during his fitness evangelization heyday, Richard treated others with dignity.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Richard Simmons comes from one of his famous mall tours of the 1980s and ‘90s. He relayed once that, “I do mostly shopping malls, because everyone will come to a shopping mall, no matter what they weigh, no matter their economic structure, no matter what they drive. The malls are the meeting places of America. And so that’s where I go.” You might think of a parallel here to the diverse crowds Jesus spoke to and who gathered near him, crowds including fisherman and tax collectors, rich and poor, women and men, all of whom sought his guidance and help. I am not comparing Richard Simmons to Jesus to say that Richard is a similar prophet in scope, but rather to accentuate Richard’s ministry and how he is living out a calling to help others as a follower of Christ himself. 

On one of his evangelizing mall tours Richard met a woman named Joanie who told him that she was always sad at Christmastime because her husband died during that season. She was eating to numb the pain. “This is my last chance,” she tells him, and “all I really wanted is you to try to help me.” While you might be tempted to scoff, watching the scene between Joanie and Richard that—yes—was later replayed in an infomercial (part of which is linked above) makes me emotional. Joanie’s pain is real. Her voice is breaking as she tells of it, and her sadness is mirrored by the character of David in Pauly Shore’s short movie.  

Joanie, as most of us would, assumed she had been a part of a celebrity one-off visit, that she’d met her hero and that was the story she’d get to tell others and hang on to as she continued her weight loss journey. For some of us who are perhaps more jaded, we might even wonder whether Richard was only using Joanie’s pain for profit. Richard, however, did not forget Joanie’s plea for his help during his mall visit. He contacted the local Massachusetts newspaper in the city where they had met, looking for her so he could check how she was faring after he left. Joanie revealed that the two shared many one-on-one conversations via phone, forging an unexpected, but lasting friendship.  

During this time period, Richard visited around 300 malls a year. With that said, Joanie’s story isn’t unique. Richard often connected personally with those he met while traveling or while at home working at his California-based fitness studio, Slimmons. Importantly, no matter where he was or who he came in contact with during his fitness evangelization heyday, Richard treated others with dignity. From a Catholic standpoint, we might say he approached each encounter as if the other person bore the Imago Dei, a Latin expression signifying the Image of God. In his eyes, every individual he met reflected the divine essence and likeness of God. A belief in the intrinsic beauty and uniqueness of each person reverberated throughout all his interactions then, a sentiment echoed in that emotional biopic monologue. “You’re beautiful. You’re unique,” Pauly Shore (as Richard) encourages the downtrodden David. 

The entire biopic felt as if it were an impersonation, a half-truth of the real, rather than an artistic rendering of a whole person and a whole life.

As much as I found to admire in The Court Jester’s storyline and plot, though, I physically and spiritually ached at what it lacked. To be clear, I’m unsure if any movie about Richard Simmons could achieve what it ought to in my estimation. How can a movie make one feel the presence of connection, of someone so authentic to their faith, selfhood, and ministry, that being around them is transformative? We all have met people who have that magic, who walk with Christ, who change us for the better while being in the room with them. We might try to convey the effect of their presence to others, but feeling it is ephemeral. That feeling, for me, was painfully absent in the biopic. 

In the movie, Ellen DeGeneres was played by Tamra Brown, a well-known Ellen impersonator. Pauly Shore’s characterization of Richard felt as if he were impersonating someone too, and, like Tamra Brown’s stilted version of Ellen, not rising to their essence. Here, it might be helpful to know that The Oxford English Dictionary defines “impersonate” to mean “to represent or imagine (an immaterial thing or abstract quality) as a person or being.”

What we miss in this biopic is the immaterial, that essence of Richard Simmons’ character as the movie’s main subject that makes him so distinctive as a human, that metaphysical quality makes him such an unforgettable image-bearer of God. His charisma and magnetism are spiritual gifts only he can give the world. Pauly Shore, with all his outward mimicry of Richard’s movements and mannerisms, never quite lives up to the “immaterial thing or abstract quality” that defined Richard’s personhood and drew millions to him. The movie feels almost as if one is watching a Saturday Night Live skit about Richard Simmons rather than a thoughtful movie seeking understanding about the person behind the skit. 

Some readers might remember that in 2017, a podcast titled Missing Richard Simmons was released, where a frequent attendee at Richard’s fitness studio, Slimmons, examined why, in 2014, the star decided to abandon his public platform. Why was Richard suddenly only posting pictures of the beach? Why had he abandoned a public who relied on him? The Court Jester attempts to bring Richard back to those of us who miss him, even when the man himself has asked for time alone. The movie doesn’t bring Richard back, unfortunately; it brings back an impersonation of someone whom we once loved. Watching The Court Jester feels like experiencing one of those AI-generated pictures or voices of a lost loved one. Humans know the difference between the real and the mimicked, the knowing, personal glance from the computer-generated imitation. We may not be able to put our finger on it, but we know what is real and what is impersonation. 

Here’s the thing: as a Catholic, I understand that Richard Simmons might be called to a massive public ministry, but he might also, like Jesus whom he follows, want some time to reflect on that ministry and on his own walk with God. After feeding the 5,000 with fish and loaves, we might recollect that Jesus retreated to the mountainside to pray (Matthew 14:23 and Mark 6:46). Luke 5:16 reminds us also that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” 

My friend and I might wonder sometimes if we were to go missing from our jobs if anyone would notice. Richard Simmons, with his saintly attributes, will never be left pondering this question. We who are his followers miss him. We have devoted podcasts, movies, and countless news stories to his felt absence in our lives. Perhaps we miss him even more when we see him being reflected but not reified by someone as comedically talented as Pauly Shore. In the end, what I am saying is that the entire biopic felt as if it were an impersonation, a half-truth of the real, rather than an artistic rendering of a whole person and a whole life. 

While this is a little embarrassing to admit publicly, you might have already ascertained that Richard Simmons inspires my faith-life more than the indomitable and admirable Mother Cabrini. The title of the short movie about him reflects his complex viewing of self and one that I see myself aspiring to as well. “I’m a real paradox,” Richard once said, “Because I’m a very serious person, and I take my work very seriously. But I wrap it up in a court jester and a clown and make people laugh and make them feel good about themselves.”

Richard is mirthful and serious, outgoing and contemplative. Like him, getting a good joke right at a work meeting—for the very reason that it makes others feel good about themselves—is often a highlight of my day. Likewise, as much as I love to be with others, I also often want nothing else but to go home and pray the rosary, not wanting to see people for days on end if I could, but instead to spend time alone with God. I, too, might go “missing” for long periods of time if I had the means.

On March 6 of this year, Richard took to X after his famously long absence: “I have a rosary in my kitchen. I think I will say it today,” he articulated after recounting different aspects of his life story, including his conversion to Catholicism. While golden rompers, energetic, high-pitched screaming, and years of silence might not be a part of every person’s path to heaven, they have been Richard’s. His ministry reminds us that in the sometimes embarrassingly and often jubilantly sweaty dance of life, a person’s steps to sanctification could very well be accompanied by prayer, action, and self-reflection; conversely, they could also very well be accompanied by a set of well-timed jazz hands.