On Monday, reclusive fitness guru Richard Simmons sued the National Enquirer for publishing a story last year alleging that he “has undergone shocking sex swap surgery” and is now living as a woman named Fiona.
The tabloid fired back in a statement Monday afternoon, claiming that it is “ironic that Mr. Simmons claims to be an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community while at the same time [alleging] that he was defamed by the Enquirer report that he had transitioned into a female.”
There has never been an exchange of volleys in such a short time that more perfectly illustrates why the transgender rumor mill may never leave supermarket newsstands: Not only are defamation lawsuits difficult to win, tabloids can cleverly suggest that subjects shouldn’t take it as an insult if they are rumored to be transgender.
Simmons’ sudden retreat from the public eye in 2014 has generated intense speculation about his living situation—and even a short-lived podcast called Missing Richard Simmons—but the National Enquirer’s theory that he has transitioned from male to female drew renewed media attention to him last June.
Despite the fact that the Enquirer’s source was “a pal,” Fox News relayed with the rumor online, originally headlining their coverage “Richard Simmons transitioning into a woman, report says.”
The tabloid report—based on that “pal” and some photos of Simmons dressing in drag, which he has been known to do—spread like wildfire, in part because there was such curiosity about why the TV workout star was no longer making public appearances. But Simmons’ publicist vehemently denied the rumors, telling various outlets that the report was “crap,” “absolute madness,” and “a total fabrication.”
And in a Facebook post attributed to Simmons, he wrote, “Although I am not transitioning, I have and always will be supportive of those who are going through their journey,” concluding his statement with “healing thoughts” for Orlando in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Now, Simmons is trying to hold the Enquirer—and Radar Online, which also generated stories from the Enquirer report—accountable for starting the rumors in the first place.
In the complaint, filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Simmons’ attorneys write that the tabloids have “cheaply and crassly commercialized and sensationalized an issue that ought to be treated with respect and sensitivity.”
The complaint alleges that the transgender rumors began with a former associate named Mauro Oliveira who has “used threats of reputational harm” to blackmail Simmons—and that the tabloids were willing to run with Oliveira’s story because “they were looking for anything to gain a leg-up on the media frenzy surrounding [Simmons’] disappearance and media absence for the past few years.” Simmons is seeking damages for multiple counts of libel and for invasion of privacy.
It is, by the Hollywood Reporter’s account, the first defamation lawsuit of its kind. And to that end, one of the most noticeable features of the complaint is how often it highlights Simmons’ personal support for LGBT people—in accordance with the sentiment he expressed in his Facebook post last June.
“Mr. Simmons has been an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community for his entire life,” the complaint notes, while maintaining that “[e]ven the most ardent supporter of sexual autonomy and LGBTQ rights is entitled to be portrayed in a manner that is truthful.”
The complaint also claims that Simmons’ fond feelings for the LGBT community didn’t make him less bothered by the rumors that he is transgender but rather even more outraged by them on behalf of the community: “The cruel and malicious publication of these stories is particularly offensive because [he] fully supports individual autonomy and the essential human dignity of every person to make his or her own personal choices regarding sexual identity.”
In fact, with a flourish that would no doubt make Simmons himself proud, the complaint notes that the lawsuit was meant to “vindicate” the “rights of all persons to be portrayed with dignity and honesty with regard to their sexual identity.”
But those same impassioned words of support for the transgender community provide the National Enquirer with ammunition to use against the lawsuit.
Even though the June article itself was patently sensational in tone and presentation—with the cover blaring about Simmons’ “secret boob job” and his “castration surgery” and the article itself labeling him “bizarre”—the lawsuit is seeking to prove that it was published with “actual malice,” and that it will “cause irreparable harm to [Simmons] by damaging his reputation.” And if Simmons supports transgender people, the opposing argument goes, why would his reputation be harmed by a story about his rumored new life as a woman named Fiona?
The National Enquirer’s official statement in response to the lawsuit seizes precisely on this point, claiming that the lawsuit suggests that “the publication has a stance or position” when it comes to their “coverage of gender identity.” (“We do not,” the staff noted.) After that claim came the Enquirer’s suggestion that Simmons’ response to the whole affair was “ironic” given his “claims to be an avid supporter” of LGBT people.
The Daily Beast asked the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., for comment on this particular suggestion and AMI referred back to this statement.
“We stand by our reporting about Mr. Simmons, and intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit and win public vindication of our reports,” the statement concludes.
It is a statement that—with the single, carefully placed word “ironic”—appears to set up a false choice: Either Simmons supports LGBT people and shouldn’t file the lawsuit or he has a legitimate motivation to file the lawsuit but doesn’t support LGBT people. Simmons’ legal team even alleges that this Catch 22 was intentional.
“For Mr. Simmons to sue, the National Enquirer and Radar Online have cynically calculated, will make [him] appear to maintain that there is something wrong with one gender to another,” the complaint notes. “To remain passive and do nothing, the calculation continues, will be seen as tacitly conceding the truth of the stories, encouraging more of them.”
Neither Simmons’ publicist nor his attorney immediately responded to emailed requests for comment.
There is certainly no shortage of transgender gossip stories in the checkout aisle, be they unsubstantiated rumors that Caitlyn Jenner is going to “detransition” or speculation about the status of her genitals. Stopping the flood seems almost impossible.
Indeed, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, previous defamation cases around sexual orientation—rather than gender identity, like Simmons’ suit—have had “mixed” results. As law professor Anthony Michael Kreis noted in a post for the Yale Law Journal, there is “no consensus” on how to handle sexual-orientation defamation cases, with some courts allowing them to proceed and others arguing that they “stigmatize LGBT people” by implying that publicly being labeled as gay is a stain on someone’s reputation.
Simmons’ lawsuit will put a similar principle to the test around transgender identity, rather than homosexuality. Whatever its outcome, the case will doubtless be of interest to actual transgender people who have seen the rich fabric of their lives reduced to tabloid fodder for far too long.