Kevin Clash: What You Need to Know About Elmo’s Embattled Puppeteer

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image: Kevin Clash sits with Elmo during a photo shoot with TIME in Oct. 2011.
Tanner Curtis for TIME

Kevin Clash sits with Elmo during a photo shoot with TIME in Oct. 2011.

The adorable, perpetually giggly red monster known as Elmo rose from obscurity to become one of the most beloved characters on Sesame Street thanks to Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who has been performing and voicing Elmo since 1984. The furry Muppet is the star of his own 15-min. show-within-a-show, Elmo’s World, and has launched two feature films, made dozens of media appearances and been the object of some of Sesame Workshop’s most successful merchandise, particularly the perennial favorite children’s toy Tickle Me Elmo.

But on Nov. 12, 2012, allegations emerged that Clash, now 52, had carried on a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy seven years ago. Clash refuted allegations of underage sex, saying the relationship had been “between two consenting adults”; his employer, Sesame Workshop, said in a statement that the issue was a “personal relationship unrelated to the workplace.” Despite noting that Clash “exercised poor judgment,” the workshop allowed him a leave of absence from the show in order to protect his reputation.

(MORE: Don’t Take It Out on Elmo)

But on Nov. 20, Clash announced his permanent departure from Sesame Street after his accuser, who had retracted his claims, retracted his retraction — claiming he was paid a $125,000 settlement to drop the accusations. A second accuser has also come forward: Cecil Singleton, a 24-year-old college student from New York, has filed a lawsuit against Clash in which he claims to have had a sexual encounter — although not actual sex — with the puppeteer. According to the five-page complaint, Singleton claims he first corresponded with Clash on a gay phone-sex line when he was 15. During a press conference, Singleton alleged that at the onset of their relationship, which began in 2003, neither of them knew the other’s age or occupation. He is seeking $5 million in damages.

Here’s what you need to know about Kevin Clash:

(Q&A: Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Elmo)

Fast facts about Kevin Clash:

  • Was born in 1960 and grew up in the Turners Station neighborhood of Dundalk, Md., on Chesapeake Bay, just east of Baltimore.
  • As a Sesame Street fan growing up, his favorite Muppet was Grover.
  • It was his dream since the “age of 9” to play Elmo, he said in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, a 2010 documentary about his career playing the furry monster.
  • At the age of 10, he made his first puppet, a monkey, which he assembled by using the lining from one of his father’s coats. Clash’s parents encouraged his creativity; by the time he was a teenager, he’d created more than 80 puppets.
  • In high school, Clash began making puppets for the children’s television program Romper Room.
  • In 1979 he started working for national TV shows, including The Great Space Coaster and Captain Kangaroo.
  • He started working full-time for Sesame Street in 1985 after performing on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float and catching the attention of Jim Henson.
  • Clash was married to a woman named Genia Loving, whom he had dated since the late 1970s. They divorced in 2003.
  • Together, they have a 20-year-old daughter, Shannon, currently a sophomore at the University of Maryland.
  • In early November, as the underage-sex scandal unfolded, Clash came out as a gay man, which he had never before discussed. “I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it but felt it was a personal and private matter,” he said in a statement.
  • His autobiography, My Life as a Furry Red Monster, was published in 2006.
  • Clash has won 23 Daytime Emmy awards for his work on Sesame Street, both as a performer and as the show’s co–executive producer.

(LIST: Top 10 Sesame Street Moments)

Fast facts about Elmo:

  • Elmo is perpetually 3 1/2 years old.
  • In the 1970s early days of Sesame Street, Elmo was an “extra” puppet — rarely used and without a distinctive personality.
  • The early Elmo character had a caveman-like manner of speaking, with a gruff, deep voice. Veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt didn’t like portraying the puppet and tossed it over to Clash after a show. Clash recalled, “He said, ‘Come up with a voice.’ And I said [in Elmo’s voice], ‘Hi everybody, it’s Elmo!’ and he said, ‘O.K., fine, give it a try.’ ”
  • Elmo is the only nonhuman to testify before Congress. In 2002 he was invited to appear before the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee to ask for more funding for music education and research in schools.
  • The character of Elmo appears around the world in at least 14 countries, including much of Western Europe and in India, South Africa and Mexico. In Japan, Elmo is voiced by Kenta Matsumoto, who was trained by Clash.
  • The 1996 blockbuster Tickle Me Elmo toy that inspired mad holiday-shopping rushes — and is still sold today — features Clash’s voice. Jim Henson was adamant that the actors’ voices be preserved in any talking dolls and other merchandise.
  • Elmo-related products account for 50% to 75% of annual sales of Sesame Street merchandise, an industry that pulls in $75 million annually, according to Jim Silver from Time to Play, a website that tracks the toy business.

(LIST: Top 10 Toy Crazes)

Quotes:

“I knew Elmo should represent love. Kissing and hugging.” —Kevin Clash, in Being Elmo.

“If you can get the crew to laugh on a show, you know that you’re doing something.” —Kevin Clash, in TIME.

“When a puppet is true and good and meaningful, it’s the soul of the puppeteer you’re seeing.” —Frank Oz, in Being Elmo.

“The thing that people love about Elmo is, he needs them. There’s a feeling that they can do anything as long as they have their Elmo with them. I attribute this to Kevin because of his embodiment of this character.” —Whoopi Goldberg, in Being Elmo.

— With additional reporting by Nick Carbone

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

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