Richard Simmons, the popular fitness guru, has remained secluded away from public scrutiny since early 2014, and the details for his seclusion are coming to light.
In a stunning lawsuit filed on Monday, May 8, 2017, Richard Simmons brought forward accusations against a former associate, Mauro Oliveira. Although Oliveira was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the court action does contend that Oliveira knowingly and willfully sold false and potentially libelous information about Simmons.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the National Enquirer and Radar Online, as well as their publisher, American Media, Inc. (AMI). The lawsuit alleges that the two media properties purchased information provided by Oliveira and that they knew the information was false.
According to the court filing, the incidents involving Oliveira and the National Enquirer began around May of 2015. The brief reads in part on page 5, Item 14, the following.
“Starting from around May 2015, Mauro Oliveira, an individual who has blackmailed, extorted and stalked Mr. Simmons for several years with the intention of destroying the career and reputation of Mr. Simmons, contacted several press outlets, including the National Enquirer and Radar, and offered information on Mr. Simmons’s disappearance in exchange for a fee.”
The next section of the suit details how the information that Oliveira offered to the tabloids changed as time passed. First, on or around May of 2015, Oliveira alleged that Richard Simmons was frail, spiritually broken, and in desperate need of help. Another tale that Oliveira offered in February of 2016 was that the fitness star was being held hostage by his housekeeper who was engaging in witchcraft. Finally, on or around May 2016, Oliveira offered the tale that Simmons was undergoing a transition from male to female.
The suit addresses these specifically, saying, “All of these assertions were untrue, and were merely attempts by Mr. Oliveira to gain a profit in exchange for providing a false narrative about Mr. Simmons’ leave of absence. While pitching around these ideas, Mr. Oliveira was simultaneously blackmailing Mr. Simmons, sending him emails and threatening to destroy his reputation with damaging press coverage unless Mr. Simmons paid Mr. Oliveira to stop.”
Using Oliveira as their sole source, the National Enquirer published a cover story about Richard Simmons on June 8, 2016. A review was provided to Simmons’ publicist, Tom Estey, before the story went to print, to which Estey merely told them that they should be prepared for a lawsuit. Nonetheless, the Enquirer persisted and their sister publication, Radar, followed up with five similar articles, containing recycled information.
The complaint also alleges that on June 10, 2016, Oliveira emailed Simmons and his manager two days later to recant his story. The email read that Oliveira was “‘misrepresented and betrayed and that such allegations were pure fabrications by others not [himself]. [He] signed up with this agency, to publish pictures and videos of Richard Simmons, with the sole intent to show how fit and how beautiful he looks like dressed up as a female.'”
The email’s purpose was to demand money from Simmons, and stated that if Oliveira was paid, he would go on record to discredit the story and defend Simmons.
On June 21, 2016, the publisher was contacted by Richard Simmons’ legal counsel and informed that the story was patently false and that their source was unreliable. AMI was asked to provide a full retraction for the article and the follow-up statements but never did.
The lawsuit falls in curious territory, legally, because the suit is primarily for libel. Libel is defined by law as a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation. The statements, while false, must be proven to be damaging to Simmons’ reputation. In 2012, a New York appeals court ruled that defamation suits based on sexuality are based on the “flawed premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”
Thus, Simmons’ lawsuit instead takes the stance that the National Enquirer falsely and knowingly published that he had gender reassignment surgery. That in doing so, they violated Simmons’ right to determine his own gender identity. This direction for the lawsuit then forges new ground in LGBTQ+ legal protections, especially in the world of published media. The courts then must decide if knowingly and falsely reporting information such as this for profit is an affront to a person’s dignity and thus, their reputation.
For their part, the National Enquirer responded with their own statement that accuses Simmons of blatant hypocrisy.
“For decades, Richard Simmons has used his outrageous behavior to build his brand and his bank account. For Mr. Simmons to claim that his privacy has been invaded is hypocritical when his entire livelihood is based upon the public consumption of his image…Moreover, Mr. Simmons is raising a false equivalency in suggesting that The ENQUIRER’s coverage of gender identity somehow implies that the publication has a stance or position on this. We do not. Indeed, it is ironic that Mr. Simmons claims to be an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community while at the same time alleges that he was defamed by The ENQUIRER report that he had transitioned into a female.”
How the courts will rule when it comes to deciding on how statements on gender identity and gender reassignments fall on the scale of defamation and libel is unclear. Regardless, this case will be of concern to anyone concerned with LGBTQ+ legal rights.
[Featured Image by Tina Fineberg/AP Images File]