Sometimes I worry I only like things because the internet tells me to, but I'm even more worried it's the opposite. Too often, I only realise something I like is problematic after actively enjoying it and then logging onto Twitter (picture that GIF of Troy from Community walking in with pizza only to discover the room is on fire). This is a good thing! Because the internet is bringing attention to the privilege and bias that creates these blind spots so I can recognise them. However, after the umpteenth time this happened — debunking my obsessing with the podcast Missing Richard Simmons, which I had thus managed to consume in a vacuum — I couldn't help but wonder: am I just a bad person?
If you weren't on board for this particular wild ride, let me back you up to a few months ago. Actually, let's go back to this time last year, when the New York Daily News first published that something was going on with Richard Simmons. Theories flew — he was being held hostage, he was sick, he was transitioning. There was only one thing anyone knew for certain: Richard Simmons hadn't been seen in public since 2014.
Fast-forward to March 2017, and the police and other authorities have checked on the fitness guru, who rose to fame thanks to his flamboyant personality and exercise videos, multiple times. After each instance, they reported that he was fine. So, why the need for Missing Richard Simmons, the cult podcast whose final episode dropped on March 20? Apparently, for people like me.
Dan Taberski, an old friend of Richard's and creator of the podcast, was looking for answers. He couldn't believe that such a gregarious person who touched so many lives would just leave without notice. He was hurt — dumped, even. So he lashed out, doing the things normally used to characterise crazy exes. He staked out Richard's house, he contacted his friends, he left him notes. And I didn't just listen to it, I supported it. And so did everyone else. At least, at the beginning.
To me, Richard Simmons was not real. I knew who he was — I had seen him on an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyways — but he was so far removed from me as to seem like a fictional character. I so eagerly consumed the podcast because I hadn't yet realised this was actually someone's life. It was a story, and witchcraft and hostage situations make for much better listening material.
I don't think Taberski actually wished harm upon the 69-year-old recluse, but he did want the story to be be anything other than the truth, which was that Richard left, and did not want to say goodbye.
You can tell Taberski realised this just before the final episode. He had even teased an entirely different finale, one with gasps and secret messages that probably amounted to nothing. But then he spoke to Michael Catalano, Richard's manager. He told him that he felt better knowing that Richard is okay.
"I can't say that Richard feels better as a result of the podcast," Catalano said in the final episode. "Perhaps you do. I think you've really created more worry and speculation."
I felt the same guilty thump in my chest that I used to get in school when a teacher would call me out for talking, or when a friend would approach me with a problem. Catalano wasn't just speaking to Taberski, he was speaking to me, the listener. The person who was complicit in violating Richard's privacy, in trying to fabricate a scandal because it made my morning commute more entertaining.
So Taberski backed off. As the episode ended, I remember wistfully thinking that regardless of the outcome, it was a really good story. But I have the privilege of it being just that: a story. I can end the episode and close the book, while Richard has to keep living a life possibly made worse by my nosiness. If he ever does come back (and now, I don't blame him if he never does), I'll do what I should have done six episodes ago — I'll leave him the hell alone.