Topping off a surreal month of news coverage for “Sesame Street,” the creator and voice actor for the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo, resigned Tuesday amid sex allegations. The statement from Sesame Workshop, the organization that produces the show:
Sesame Workshop’s mission is to harness the educational power of media to help all children the world over reach their highest potential. Kevin Clash has helped us achieve that mission for 28 years, and none of us, especially Kevin, want anything to divert our attention from our focus on serving as a leading educational organization. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Kevin’s personal life has become a distraction that none of us wants, and he has concluded that he can no longer be effective in his job and has resigned from Sesame Street. This is a sad day for Sesame Street.
In a statement of his own, Clash said “personal matters have diverted attention away from the important work Sesame Street is doing and I cannot allow it to go on any longer. I am deeply sorry to be leaving and am looking forward to resolving these personal matters privately.”
Clash announced a leave of absence from the show last week after a 23-year-old man claimed the puppeteer had had a sexual relationship with him when he was underage. Clash was allegedly 45 and the accuser, 16. The man recanted his accusation the next day. TMZ, who broke the story wondered if there was a settlement involved:
It’s unclear why the accuser suddenly changed his story … but sources close to the situation tell TMZ … the accuser’s attorney had been meeting with Clash’s attorney as recent as an hour ago, discussing a financial settlement and 6-figures were on the table.
We broke the story, the accuser claimed he had a sexual relationship with Kevin beginning when he was 16 and Kevin was 45.
Clash has also released a statement saying, “I am relieved that this painful allegation has been put to rest. I will not discuss it further.”
The first accuser is officially remaining anonymous, but gossip sites have revealed he’s an aspiring actor and model with a criminal record.
But a second accuser, Cecil Singleton, filed a lawsuit Tuesday, claiming he had some kind of sexual relationship with Clash at age 15. Singleton is suing for $5 million in damages.
The federal civil complaint, filed in New York by Cecil Singleton, alleged that Clash — now 52 — picked him up in 1993 on a gay phone chat line.
Singleton said he was 15 at the time, while Clash was 32.
“[Clash] trolled gay telephone chat line rooms to meet and have sex with underage boys,” Singleton claimed in his explosive lawsuit.
“[Clash] groomed [the accuser] to gain his trust by, among other things, taking him to nice dinners and giving him money.”
Even though the alleged sex happened nearly 20 years ago, Singleton said he remained silent all this time, because he didn’t know the psychological and emotional damage the intimate, underaged contact did.
The lawsuit said Singleton “did not become aware that he had suffered adverse psychological and emotional effects from Kevin Clash’s sexual acts and conduct until 2012.”
I’m torn on this story. Until these allegations surfaced, Clash was an inspirational figure, thanks to the documentary “Being Elmo,” which chronicled his improbable rise from the poorer neighborhoods of Baltimore to one of Jim Henson’s most valuable puppeteers at the height of the Muppets’ fame. What were the chances a young black man from Charm City with an unusual childhood penchant for creating characters out of foam and scrap fabric could turn that hobby into a prestigious career? But he did. As a young man, he played puppets in features like “Labyrinth.” Later, he created one of the most famous characters on the planet in Elmo and made it his mission to mentor young people interested in performing.
And, all that sounded sweet and amazing before now sounds creepy. Clash was married as a young man and has one daughter, now 19. He is divorced from her mother. In the wake of this incident, he announced he is gay:
The episode this week led to Mr. Clash coming out as a gay man, something he had not previously discussed in public. “I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter,” he said in the statement on Monday.
The fact that the first accuser recanted his statement a day after going public is fishy. The fact that there are two accusers lends credence to the first accuser’s original story, but then, the second accuser is also looking for $5 million in damages. And one must always calculate the allure of a fame-ball career propelled by a TMZ appearance in these stories. Sesame Workshop says it did several investigations when the accuser brought the charges to them in June, both by their “own staffers and outside firms,” according to the NYT. Sesame Workshop has an incentive to protect its brand, and Clash had become a big part of it, but one would think any hint of sexual impropriety with minors would have gotten Clash tossed out of an organization whose entire mission is to work closely with children thanks to tremendous trust from parents. Then again, we also know how protective and ultimately destructive a big-money enterprise with a lot to lose can be in the face of a possible in-house scandal.
Update: Oh, and of course, there’s the glaring fact that Clash has yet to forcefully deny any of this.
Two things. Is this something that can get resolved privately? Thus far, this is all civil, but it is criminal to have sexual contact with minors. And, in a fun twist on “imagine if it were a Republican,” notice almost none of the copious coverage of this scandal wonders if it warrants an examination of whether the rather well-off Sesame Workshop deserves our tax money.