Family Matters

Why Kevin Clash’s Personal Life Troubles Parents of Elmo Fans

Kevin Clash's accuser recants claim of underage sex, but not before parents struggle with their own expectations of their children's entertainers

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Frederick M. Brown/Stringer / Getty Images

Does it matter to Elmo’s most ardent fans that for a few hours, the world’s most well-known furry red monster and the guy who brings him to life were seemingly embroiled in an underage sex scandal?

On Monday, Kevin Clash, the Sesame Street puppeteer responsible for the voice of Elmo for more than 20 years, was accused of having a relationship with another man who said he was 16 when they began seeing each other. The claim forced Clash, 52, to acknowledge publicly for the first time that he is gay; while he admitted they were involved, he characterized the relationship as one between “two consenting adults.” Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street and conducted its own investigation, stood behind Clash. The company did reprimand him for inappropriate use of company email but granted him leave to prepare his defense.

On Tuesday, however, it appeared Clash’s efforts were no longer necessary. His unnamed accuser, now 23, recanted, leading the voice of Elmo to issue the following statement: “I am relieved that this painful allegation has been put to rest. I will not discuss it further.”

First things first: when will Clash return to voicing Elmo? Sesame Workshop couldn’t say, although they did note on Monday that Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world.” But executives did express their relief on Tuesday that the trying times for Clash and his furry alter-ego have “been brought to a close, and we are happy that Kevin can move on from this unfortunate episode.”

But can Sesame Street? What for years has been beloved television programming for the wee set has found it tricky to steer clear of controversy in recent years. In 2010, a video of pop star Katy Perry playing tag with none other than Elmo was yanked from Sesame Street because parents complained the singer was showing too much cleavage. Earlier this year, thousands of breast-feeding activists signed a petition urging Sesame Street to portray breast-feeding, which it claimed the program was giving short shrift, alongside bottle-feeding on the show. Last month, Mitt Romney famously took aim at Big Bird during a presidential debate during which he threatened to cut funding to public broadcasting programs that support shows like Sesame Street.

(MORE: Can Elmo Inspire Your Kid to Become a Scientist?)

But all of that pales in comparison to allegations that a Sesame Streeter was potentially breaking the law. The buzz surrounding the scandal almost certainly never reached the ears of the millions of kids who have catapulted Elmo, the embodiment of preschool wonder and curiosity, to the status of MVP (most valuable puppet). Elmo’s legion of diminutive fans are far too young to understand or care about underage sex or gay sex or sex at all.

But for the parents of those kids, the whole, brief brouhaha felt kind of creepy. Even if Clash’s accuser were of legal age to be in a relationship, the idea of Elmo’s animator involved in torrid affairs that escalated to the point of one lover accusing another of illicit behavior left many moms and dads conflicted. TMZ published an email apparently sent by Clash to his accuser when he would have been 21 that didn’t leave much to the imagination:

“I’m sorry that I keep talking about sex with you, it’s driving me insane. I want you to know that I love you and I will never hurt you. I’m here to protect you and make sure your dreams come true. … I’ll have my assistant book a ticket for you to come to NY and we can talk about this in person.”

As much as Clash’s life away from Sesame Street is certainly his own to live, it is hard not to hold him, as a children’s educator, to a higher standard. The truth is that children’s entertainers do have a higher moral obligation to their audience than, say, Mick Jagger does to his. Clash was also the focus of a 2011 documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” that lionized his personal journey from a wannabe Muppeteer, entertaining the tykes in his mother’s home daycare in Baltimore with puppets pieced together from coat linings, to a driving force behind Sesame Street’s enduring appeal to little kids. He’s won multiple Emmy Awards for serving as co-executive producer for Sesame Street, which has been named “Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Series” countless times. And he’s written an autobiography, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster, What Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud.”

(MOREElmo at the White House? Monster Plugs School Lunch Bill)

Young, impressionable kids are easily influenced by adults they admire, as evidenced by Preston, an 8-year-old from Idaho, who posted on Clash’s Facebook page last month:

I am such a big fan of Elmo and you. I have been wanting to meet you ever since I saw being Elmo. And I was wondering how old you [are]. And I probably will never get to meet you because I live in Sun Valley IDAHO. I really would appreciate if you would write back. Thank You.

P.S. Being Elmo is a great movie.

And Elmo is a great character, one that youngsters and adults alike can appreciate. In Clash’s own words:

“Though he represents youthful curiosity and innocence, behind his childlike simplicity you’ll find the wisdom of an old soul…You’ll also discover, as I have, that Elmo is a teacher whose lessons can have a lasting value for adults, not just for the countless children he reaches each day.”

Clash should find inspiration in his own words, and learn from this experience that as challenging, and even unfair as it may seem at times, “Being Elmo” means that drawing hard lines between the monster’s world and his own is nearly impossible to do.

(MOREGroup Petitions to Bring Breastfeeding Back to Sesame Street)

12 comments
TimeKeepsTicking
TimeKeepsTicking

I'll put it to you this way: business and personal issues/affairs should never mix. They should be seperate, and in this case, that didn't happen and now one of Sesame Street's most beloved characters is in danger of being shelved for good. It's a sad day indeed for Sesame Street and their fans whether their young or old alike...

ckpenguin
ckpenguin

This article disappoints me, to say the least.  Kevin Clash has been a teaching inspiration to my 3 year old daughter.  Her enthusiasm for learning jumps sky-high when Elmo appears on screen.  She laughs and counts with Elmo, dances with Mr. Noodle and has nothing but love for the character.

If he is reading any of this, I hope he realizes he has the support and encouragement of millions.  He surely has nothing but respect from me for the growth and laughs he has provided for my daughter.  Personal life is personal life.  I will never let his great accomplishments and talent be overshadowed by the current events.

@Kevin - love, thanks and support.  You will continue to remain an inspiration to my little girl.

valente347
valente347

When I was 21, I worked in a preschool. However, I didn't once feel the need to censor my personal communications with my boyfriend, even if they were "torrid." I doubt very much that it would have been any business of the parents whose children I watched. 

Also, what do you mean, "Even if Clash’s accuser were of legal age to be in a relationship...?" Unless you have a legitimate reason to believe Clash and everyone else is just hushing up something that is truly a scandel, the sentence should say, "Even THOUGH Clash's accuser WAS of legal age..."

historywatcher
historywatcher

For her audacity in speculating on the emotional stability, specifically in the ever-delicate aspect of sexuality, of a children’s entertainer, Ms. Rochman is being self-righteously crucified on the present forum. Wherein lies the gravity of her effrontery? It appears that any mention at present of anything akin to a “higher moral obligation”, even for those who move in the ambit of “youthful curiosity and innocence” (in Mr. Clash’s own words), is vilified in a reflexive manner, and intemperate at that. But, rather than bemoan any instance of impropriety involving minors, is it too much to ask of those who command the confidence and admiration of those impressionable innocents, to be above any suggestion of “sex-driven insanity”?

Mawmy
Mawmy like.author.displayName 1 Like

Excuse me, Ms. Rochman. I am the mother of an Elmo-loving Sesame Street fanatic, and you do NOT have the right to speak on my behalf, or that of anyone else. This piece is a classic example of pure shit journalism. Just because you have a proverbial pen in hand does not mean you have earned it. You clearly lack the ability to produce intelligent journalism, and for this, I feel embarassed for you.

DuhDude
DuhDude like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bonnie Rochman you disgust me. You wrote an entire article that contains one supporting fact - that you think parents will be "creeped out" by the fact that an adult might have consensual sex with another adult who might later falsely accuse him of doing something illicit (before admitting it was all a lie)? What has happened to the morals of this country? When we ought to be standing in support of someone who was falsely accused, instead we have people like Bonnie (and Time Magazine for its part) trying to exploit the moment and tear him down. Bonnie, you're no better than Kevin's accuser. You make me sick.

SamanthaMaryBeiko
SamanthaMaryBeiko

I honestly can't count how many times, after reading many of your blatantly homophobic and ridiculously repressed statements, that I actually said WOW out loud. I just. Seriously? This is what counts as 'SCANDALOUS NEWS' over at Time? Kevin Clash is a man, and has a personal life. I realize that this is just another one of those 'the media are bored' pieces, but give me a break. This man's life is completely separate from his stellar career as a child educator, and to be perfectly honest, none of what this guy had to recently deal with would ever deter a sane, reasonable parent from continuing to allow their children to enjoy and learn from Elmo. "Oh, it's soooo creepy to hear about what Kevin Clash is up to in his personal liiiiife!" Yeah, as a matter of fact, your weak grasp on reality is by far the creepiest thing here. God forbid anyone have sex, and GOD FORBID they be gay. Yes, let's strip Kevin of all his accolades and good works and every precious moment he has spent loving his audience because he's a human. Pip pip, carry on. Yeesh.

KarenBridson
KarenBridson like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is so incredibly homophobic that I am shaking with fury right now. Try holding a heterosexual person to this same standard and you would see how clearly you have a different standard for gay people. It's his being gay you are offended by, not what he wrote. Had he written this to a 21-year-old female this column wouldn't exist. Shame on you and shame on Time for publishing it. I would have thought hate had no place in such a reputable magazine.

RenaAshton
RenaAshton

Calm down. He didn't do anything wrong, other than making people deal with the fact that (*gasp*) people who work with children also have private lives and also have sex lives! What a shocker!Also, please do not refer to him as performing the voice of Elmo. Puppeteers PERFORM CHARACTERS, they don't just do their voices. Show some respect.

LynneHackett
LynneHackett

Seriously?  Kevin Clash is a man.  End of story.  Elmo is a puppet...well muppet.  Kevin Clash's personal life is just that.  Personal.  The man who tried to extort from Mr. Clash is the one who should be judged.

roolalenska
roolalenska

"Even if Clash’s accuser were of legal age to be in a relationship, the idea of Elmo involved in torrid affairs that escalated to the point of one lover accusing another of illicit behavior left many moms and dads conflicted."

This statement troubles me. Elmo was not involved in a "torrid" affair Kevin Clash was. Most young fans of Elmo do not see him as a puppet at all. They think he is alive. Young children don't "see" the puppeteer as Clash himself describes in "Being Elmo". Clash has developed Elmo and breathed life into Elmo and has made Elmo into the wonderful global personality over many years while apparently living his personal life gay or straight at the very same time. Now that we know some facts about his personal life I don't think it should change our attitude towards him or Elmo.