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.”

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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)