Saturday, August 24, 2013

Scene Stealers: Richard Simmons, Internet Star?

Too forward of me? Maybe. I had only met Richard Simmons once before. Then again, he had inexplicably turned up at our initial interview wearing a bejeweled black leotard, negligee and curly maroon wig, which he twirled while sitting on my lap and demanding to read my aura.

This time, the 65-year-old star of “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” was dressed as Medusa, replete with shimmering green gown and rubber snake headpiece. Yes, he still wears those Dolfin short shorts. But here at Slimmons, his workout studio, he often arrives in drag. “I’d give you a hug,” he squealed, scampering inside, “but Medusa has to pee.”

Richard Simmons is many things: exercise king, author, pop culture war horse, late-night talk show piñata, dyed-in-the-wool eccentric, motivational speaker, survivor of nearly four decades in the spotlight. But if his new William Morris Endeavor agent and his new social media managers have their way, he will soon add another line to his voluminous résumé: Internet star.

Like a lot of older people in show business, Mr. Simmons has been slow to fully grasp social media. He got famous the old-fashioned way. He released VHS tapes and DVDs (65 in total), gave radio interviews and trotted the talk television circuit.

Hollywood does it differently now. The Web is increasingly where new stars are minted and aging ones are rejuvenated. Mr. Simmons and his shtick haven’t changed, but the way that fan bases are cultivated has.

Consider the Prancercise Lady. Joanna Rohrback, a Florida sexagenarian, shot to fame in May by prancing like a horse in a YouTube video. “Prancercise: A Fitness Workout” has now been viewed 7.9 million times — a viral smash. Team Simmons paid attention. “I don’t think Richard understood that these platforms have as much power as they do,” said Oliver Luckett, whose company, theAudience, builds and maintains social networks for celebrities.

He understands now. Mr. Simmons, the original Prancerciser if there ever was one, now has almost 60,000 Facebook fans and a Google Plus account with about the same number of supporters. About four months ago, when Mr. Simmons first started working with Mr. Luckett, his Facebook page had about 18,000 likes. He had no Google Plus profile.

Mr. Simmons saw an immediate impact at his workout studio, where he still teaches three times a week. “People in their 20s are flooding in here,” he said.

TheAudience’s general approach involves filling Mr. Simmons’s accounts with a steady stream of photos, videos and witty commentary. There are also all sorts of cross-promotions. For instance, on July 24 posted a video in which Mr. Simmons was challenged to stand completely still for 60 seconds while a man gyrated around him. Mr. Luckett’s team coordinated the stunt, which was wildly popular. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed unveiled “Hair Do,” a video in which Mr. Simmons raps about, well, hair. (“Spike, duck tail or a bubble/Choose a do that will get you in trouble.”) In late July, Mr. Simmons started a weekly YouTube series called “Workout Wednesdays,” with theAudience pairing him with young Web celebrities like Cassey Ho, whose YouTube fitness channel has more than 800,000 subscribers. Coming soon is a separate video series involving the D.J. Steve Aoki, who has 2.4 million Facebook fans. Mr. Aoki will go teach at Slimmons; Mr. Simmons plans to go crowd-surfing at a concert.

“There’s just something so cool about the way he does his thing, it’s punk rock,” Mr. Aoki said. “I’m definitely wearing a pair of those super-short shorts when I go. Those are dope, man!”

If the online fan base that theAudience has methodically and quietly started to cultivate begins to truly flourish, a cable reality show and more books may come next. “We’re kind of going whole hog with Richard,” Mr. Luckett said.

Bumble Bee Foods has agreed to sponsor Mr. Simmons’s Web videos as a way to pitch tuna to young adults. “Initially we were a little bit skeptical, but the online data was proof,” said Christopher Lischewski, Bumble Bee’s chief executive. “By coming back and reinventing himself like this, Richard is attracting millennials. They’re discovering him for the first time.”

What social media advice does an early adopter like Mr. Aoki have for Mr. Simmons? “You have to treat it like you are broadcasting your personality,” he said. “The more uncensored, the better.”

Turning up the volume on Mr. Simmons can be risky. Absurdity — walking a fine line between being a punch line and serving one up — has always been part of his style of performance art. But lately some of his behavior has veered toward flat-out bizarre. In February on “Access Hollywood Live,” he cracked jokes in a faux Indian accent, spit up on himself, spread his legs lewdly at another guest (Maks Chmerkovskiy from “Dancing With the Stars”) and broke into a version of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” before wandering around the set like a homeless person.

Even the host Billy Bush seemed annoyed.

While I waited at Slimmons for Medusa to arrive earlier this month, I asked the gym’s longtime manager, Sherry Kalish, how much of Mr. Simmons was an act and how much was a real person. I was thinking about something Mr. Luckett had said.

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