THEIR STORIES

12.06.12

‘I Always Felt It Was Creepy’: Stories of Sex With Elmo Puppeteer Kevin Clash

Three men have come forward to accuse ‘Sesame Street’ puppeteer Kevin Clash of having sex with them when they were minors. Now, two tell their stories to Maria Elena Fernandez as they fight off charges of being money-hungry opportunists.

Three years after divorcing his college sweetheart, Kevin Clash—who until recently was known as the voice of Sesame Street’s Elmo—described that painful period in his life.

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Puppeteer Kevin Clash poses for a portrait with Elmo. (Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images)

“Often it is harder to find the courage to face a personal difficulty than it is to understand and accept a large-scale tragedy,” the Emmy-winning puppeteer wrote in his 2006 memoir, My Life as a Red Furry Animal. “We love each other deeply, but after 17 years, it was not enough to sustain our marriage.”

What Clash neglected to mention was the main reason his marriage didn’t last. But following breathtaking accusations last month that he engaged in sex with male minors, Clash decided to publicly admit that he is gay. A friend of the family says Clash struggled with his sexuality for years until he and his wife, Alice Eugenia Loving, finally decided they were better off as friends. No one in his inner circle believes there’s any truth to the allegations, the friend added.

Clash’s privacy about his sexual orientation ended on Nov. 12, when the gossip website TMZ broke the news that a college student from Pennsylvania was claiming that he had a sexual relationship with Clash, 52, that began when he was 16.

“I am a gay man. I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter,” Clash said in a statement. On the same day, Clash, who has a 20-year-old-daughter, also admitted he had been involved with the student, but said the relationship began after he was an adult.

The next day, the student retracted his accusation, but before Clash could be redeemed it all came crashing down: two other men came forward and sued Clash in federal court for having sex with them when they were teenagers.

As the accusers faced a barrage of criticism, scrutiny, and anti-gay attacks online, Clash resigned from the job he held and cherished for 28 years and had wanted since he was a little boy. The story may not be over, either. Jeff Herman, who represents the two men suing Clash, told The Daily Beast he is vetting other men who have reached out to him with the same claims.

Clash’s attorney, Michael Berger, declined to address the accusations specifically but told The Daily Beast that all of the allegations against Clash “are without merit and we’re going to defend them vigorously and defend Kevin Clash’s reputation vigorously.” Berger also declined to discuss how Clash is doing in the wake of the scandal.  

Clash’s publicist, Risa B. Heller, declined to comment for this article.

As Clash prepares for the legal battle of his life, his three accusers are being publicly censured for essentially taking down Elmo. Are they gold-digging liars, as they have been depicted in the press, or are they young men coming to terms with their own demons and summoning courage in the face of certain disparagement?

The Daily Beast interviewed two of the three accusers at length, Sheldon Stevens and Cecil Singleton. (The third accuser has concealed his identity, going by the initials D.O.)

ACCUSER NO. 1: SHELDON STEPHENS

Over the course of three extensive interviews, Sheldon Stephens maintained that he had no intention of going public when he approached Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street, about his relationship with Clash in June.

(When The Daily Beast first contacted Stephens, a woman who said she handled his publicity asked if he would be compensated for speaking out. After he learned he would not, Stephens agreed to be interviewed anyway, because he wanted to set the record straight “that I am not a bad person.”)

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Sheldon Stephens (Photo Courtesy of Sheldon Stephens)

For about a year prior to emailing the organization, Stephens—a 24-year-old from Harrisburg, Pa.—said his mind had been going to “dark places” remembering events that he had been advised by a relative to suppress. He said he’d sometimes visit his toddler nieces to relax, but instead he’d be bombarded with images of Elmo—on the TV, in Sesame Street toys and on DVDs.

“It was, like, an overwhelming thing,” said Stephens, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree at Harrisburg University of Science & Technology. “It started to become, like, wow, maybe something is telling me to do something. If I turned on the TV, if I opened a book or a magazine, or even Netflix, there it was. And it just wouldn’t shut up in my head.” (He had two jobs until the scandal broke; he lost them.)

Stephens’ narrative goes like this: when he was 16, he met Clash at an entertainment-industry charity mixer. The handsome green-eyed teenager, who had been modeling and acting since he was a boy in Florida, struck up a conversation with Clash, who would have been 43 or 44 at the time. Clash offered to stay in touch and introduce him to prominent industry representatives. Clash didn’t tell him that he worked for Sesame Street, but during their first phone conversation shortly afterward, he told Stephens to look him up on Google to find out who he was.

Over a period of six or seven months, Stephens said, he and Clash communicated by telephone, email, and video chats. Clash asked him for photographs and said he would send them to his contacts.

“Because I grew up with six brothers and sisters, I grew up a little faster,” Stephens said. “I was more independent. I started working when I was 14. I just knew that in life you have to know certain people and you have to put yourself out there to elevate yourself and open up other doors. For me, I was thinking, ‘This could be a great thing. This could be the doorway to possibly making my dreams kind of come true.’”

But no meetings or job opportunities ever materialized. Instead, Stephens said, he and Clash became friends. Then, gradually, “it got more to Kevin insinuating sexual things.” At the time, Stephens said, he was a virgin and had only dated girls.

That all changed the first time Clash invited Stephens to his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. According to Stephens, Clash, his driver, and Stephens all used crystal meth and engaged in foreplay. But Stephens said he only had sexual intercourse with Clash and never saw the driver again.

“I was still finding myself,” Stephens recalled. “I knew it was wrong, but I also felt like I was growing up and they were very smart about it. I can’t even really explain it. I always felt it was creepy. I always felt it was wrong. But I stayed. I wasn’t raped. I just told myself it was OK so I would not be constantly depressed or confused.”

Stephens said his sexual relationship with Clash continued, but that they would only see each other when Stephens could find the time to visit Manhattan on weekends. When they got together, he said, they would have sex and sometimes use poppers. They were also bonding emotionally.

“It started to develop that way,” Stephens said. “Now I’m into men all of a sudden. And I tried to make it right in my head. I was trying to justify it. He told me he loved me. Slowly, as time passed, I started to believe it. I thought, ‘Maybe this is really something. Why else would he say it?’”

After Stephens graduated from high school, he moved to New York City, but he and Clash saw less of each other. Stephens said he went through a “rebellious” stage, partying and getting into some trouble, until he decided to confide in his grandmother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness.

“She’s been in the church for, like, 50 years, and they don’t go to court, they don’t get involved in politics,” he said. “So it wasn’t like she wanted to call the cops. She told me sometimes things happen in life and you just have to move on. … She opened up this new chapter for me.”

Stephens left New York City when he was 20 to begin college in Harrisburg, but he travelled often to the city for work. He also maintained a sporadic sexual relationship with Clash, he said, until “he told me his [personal representatives] told him not to have interaction with me anymore. I think his people saw certain fluctuations and patterns. Maybe him spending money on all this crazy stuff.”

Stephens, who was 21 at the time, wrote Clash letters.

But as Stephens continued to network in New York City show-business circles, he met other people who knew that he had been involved with Clash. From them, he said, he learned he was not the only teenager linked to Clash. He never met any of the others or knew their identities, but he said he often thought of them, especially when he played with his nieces, surrounded by Sesame Street merchandise.

“When he told me we couldn’t talk anymore, I wrote him that instead of helping me out, he focused on stealing my manhood. He never replied. I think he thought he had me in a safe place.”

Last summer, Stephens decided he could not stay silent any longer. In June he emailed Sesame Workshop to tell them what he knew about Clash. “It was information they needed to know, because he was hanging out with a lot of young boys and that’s crazy. And I was literally going crazy inside my head because I couldn’t tell anyone. I knew what was behind that thing, Elmo.”

Stephens said he followed his grandmother’s advice and didn’t go to the police. “It would bring my brain down even more to call the cops,” he said. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I did have a little respect for [Clash]. I knew he had a daughter. I knew that he pays for his family’s mortgages, and he has a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t trying to bring him down. A lot of people tell me now that I’m the victim, that I shouldn’t be worried about those things. But I didn’t really understand that until now. I just wanted them to know because he works with children.”

Stephens said he also told Sesame Workshop that he didn’t want any money and that he wasn’t looking to have Clash fired.

In multiple statements last month, Sesame Workshop acknowledged receiving the allegation and conducting an internal investigation, as well as commissioning one by an outside firm. Based on those investigations as well as “Kevin’s vehement denial, we found no evidence of an underage relationship,” a statement on Nov. 27 said.

A source close to the investigation told The Daily Beast that the organization responded “seriously and without delay” to Stephens’ e-mail.

“He was repeatedly asked to present his allegation with any supporting documentation he might have,” the source said. “He did not do so. He did not present any information about any other persons making similar allegations, nor had any such information otherwise been presented to Sesame.”

According to Stephens, after Sesame Workshop received his email, the company bought him a train ticket so officials could meet with him in person in New York City. When he did not take the train, the company’s general counsel, Myung Kang-Huneke, traveled to Harrisburg to meet him.

“She asked how they could make it go away, and if an apology from Kevin would be enough,” he said. “But he never came with that apology. Nobody ever brought it up again.”

A second meeting in Harrisburg was arranged in July. This time, Stephens said, an outside attorney, Kathleen McKenna, of Proskauer, accompanied Kang-Huneke and things quickly got tense. The lawyers accused Stephens of being an “extortionist” and handed him his own criminal background report, he said.

“I told them if I knew the meeting was going to be like this, I would have brought an attorney or my parents,” Stephens said. “I told them I just want Kevin to know he needs to stop doing what he is doing. But after that, I felt my life was being threatened and I needed to lawyer up to protect myself.”

McKenna referred a request for comment to representatives for Sesame Workshop, who declined to be interviewed. But the source close to the Sesame Workshop investigation told The Daily Beast that Stephens “was not accused of engaging in extortion” but he did, in fact, “suggest as resolution ‘substantial monetary payment.’”

Stephens denies this version of events. “That’s definitely not true,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gone to a major company like that without any legal representation demanding money. That’s not what I did and that’s definitely not what I said.”

After the second meeting, Stephens hired an attorney, Ben Andreozzi, whose firm specializes in sexual-abuse cases, including one of Jerry Sandusky’s child-rape victims. Andreozzi asked Stephens to take a lie-detector test and advised him to sue Clash, even though Stephens said he told him from the start he was not interested in legal action. Andreozzi declined to be interviewed for this article.

On Nov. 12, TMZ broke the story that Clash had taken a leave of absence to deal with the allegations. At the time, Stephens’ identity was not public, and he vehemently denies he was the leak. Clash issued a statement that day which said: “I had a relationship with [the accuser]. It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to make it into something it was not."

But behind the scenes, Stephens said, there was panic. Andreozzi went to New York City alone to meet with lawyers for Sesame Workshop and Clash. He called Stephens several times during that trip, in an effort to draw up a settlement agreement. Stephens said Andreozzi told him that if there hadn’t been a leak, he probably would have been able to get close to $1 million. But because of the press reports, the lawyer told him, negotiations began at $250,000 and went down from there, Stephens said.

“It wasn’t about the money initially,” Stephens said. “But they put the money on the table and I’m going to take it. I’m going to finish school, my mom needs help paying bills, my niece is about to go into pre-school. I’m taking the money to better other people’s lives and my own.”

On Nov. 13, Andreozzi issued a statement saying that Stephens, whose identity was still unknown, “wants it to be known that his sexual relationship with Mr. Clash was an adult consensual relationship.”

Under the final settlement, which Stephens said he signed on Nov. 13, Clash was to pay him $85,000 within 10 business days and another $40,000 within 12 months. For his part, Stephens says he was supposed to say publicly that his relationship with Clash began when he was 18.

“I told my lawyer that I didn’t feel right with this because I’d be lying, and he told me it was the only option we have because the information got leaked,” Stephens said. “They wanted to kill the media stories. He told me not to talk to my parents or anyone. I was just listening to him. This is my lawyer. Because I was mentally confused and everything was happening so fast, I went into the contract. I didn’t want it to go public. I didn’t want to go to court. I didn’t want any of this to happen. I feel like the devil really got a hold of the whole situation. When we signed the contract, my name was private.”

That didn’t last long. On Nov. 14, The Smoking Gun website disclosed Stephens’ identity and published a report about his alleged run-in with the law, including a Sept. 2009 incident at Harrisburg International Airport, where police stopped Stephens after he exited a flight from Los Angeles wearing what they believed to be $250,000 in stolen diamond jewelry. The charges were dismissed two weeks later, and Stephens refers to the incident as a “misunderstanding.” But he immediately lost both of his campus jobs in the wake of the revelations.

When contacted by phone, Darian Pollard, founder of DP Music Entertainment Group, who had reported the stolen jewels to Beverly Hills police, said he had not heard of Stephens. He later referred all inquiries to his attorney, Gloria Allred. Stephens said he and Pollard remain friends and have traveled together since.

In the days after he signed the settlement, Stephens was interviewed by The Insider and 360Magazine on camera and stuck to the new story that he was 18 when he and Clash embarked on their relationship.

On Nov. 17, TMZ reported that Stephens signed the settlement, but “he continues to insist Clash had sex with him when he was a minor and was pressured into signing the settlement.” TMZ did not reveal its source for that information and Stephens maintains that he was not the source of that leak either. TMZ did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

When asked why he said he was 18 then and now says he was 16, Stephens said, “I did lie on film because of what my lawyer advised me and what the contract had said,” Stephens said. “I didn’t know other people would be influenced by me to come forward. If I had known that, I would have never signed the contract. I would have just been a role model for people and a voice for people. Honestly, I feel like I was set up.”

Stephens said he still hasn’t received any money from Clash, although the 10-day mark for the initial settlement payment has passed. Stephens’ lawyer, Ben Andreozzi, told him he received a letter last week claiming that Stephens had breached the settlement because of the reports that he had taken back his recantation, but Stephens said he and Andreozzi have not spoken since.

Out of the three men that have come forward, Stephens is the only one who knew who Clash was from the beginning of their relationship. When they met, Clash had just divorced and he shared some of his personal pain with Stephens.

“We’d be hanging out and there’d be an invitation on the table to the Emmys, but the person I saw wasn’t that person,” Stephens said. “He was divorced, and he was single and mentally confused about his sexuality. Those changes may have taken all the joy out of his life. Or maybe he was living his life in a way where he just didn’t have rules anymore.

“I feel kind of bad that the media put his sexuality out there and destroyed the product of Elmo,” he added. “I didn’t like the way they put Elmo in every picture with me. What does he have to do with this situation? I mean, Kevin worked for them, but Elmo doesn’t have a sexual organ. Why is everyone going off about Elmo? I didn’t encounter anything with Elmo. It was Kevin.”

ACCUSER NO. 2: CECIL SINGLETON

On Nov. 20, another firestorm hit Clash—a second 24-year-old college student, Cecil Singleton, came forward claiming that he and Clash had had sexual relations when he was 15. Singleton said he was watching the TV show Parenthood when his local station teased a story about a sexual-abuse allegation against Clash.

“It was like, Bam!” Singleton told The Daily Beast. “It just hit me. I Googled it and it really blew me away. It made me kind of sick to my stomach. I immediately felt that it was probably necessary for me to come forward. It felt like it was the right thing to do.”

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Cecil Singleton (Photo Courtesy of Cecil Singleton)

This time, there was no retraction, and Clash quickly resigned from Sesame Street. 

In a statement, Clash said: "I am resigning from Sesame Workshop with a very heavy heart. I have loved every day of my 28 years working for this exceptional organization. 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."

Meanwhile, Singleton hired an attorney, Jeff Herman, and attempted to press criminal charges against Clash, but learned he was a few months past the statute of limitations. On Nov. 20, Singleton filed a civil lawsuit in federal court claiming Clash coerced him into sexual activity when he was a sophomore in high school.

“At the time, I didn’t know that Sheldon Stephens had gotten paid or any of that,” Singleton said. “When I heard it on the news, I felt intuitively that he was telling the truth. I felt I had a strong responsibility considering my lack of judgment and how inappropriate my relationship was. I had to come forward, even if I wasn’t taken seriously, even if no one believed me.”

Singleton, who grew up in upper Harlem and had just spent two years in foster care when he first met Clash, said he met the puppeteer not at a fancy industry party, but on a gay phone-chat line. Singleton called in March 2004 and created his introduction profile. Clash pushed a button, he said, indicating he wanted to speak to him.

“Back then, the Internet was not as popular as it is today,” Singleton said. “I’ve always been very androgynous and openly gay. Living in this urban neighborhood in uptown Harlem, it wasn’t exactly an ideal place to meet someone. I was the only out gay student in my high school’s history. It wasn’t a recipe for meeting people romantically.”

Singleton recalled that he and Clash spoke on the phone for about an hour; he claimed to be 18 and Clash said he was 36 and worked as an official in the school system. Clash invited Singleton to meet him for dinner near his home. Over dinner,  Singleton said, he confessed that he was only 15, “and Kevin didn’t seem surprised or alarmed and, in fact, he told me his age. I believe he was 43 at the time, because I remember doing the math in my head and he was two years older than my mother.”

It wasn’t unusual at the time for Singleton to date older men, he said. He came out when he was 13 and had already had sex with other adult men, he said, but no one as old as Clash. That night after dinner, Clash invited Singleton to go up to his condo “for a proper kiss,” and the two engaged in sexual behavior but not intercourse, Singleton said.

“I was never comfortable with his age, but I tried to be,” he said. “I allowed him to pursue me to see what would develop. The one thing I can say that was consistent the entire time that I’ve known him is that he was a gentleman. He was never disrespectful or aggressive verbally with me. If there’s anything I was seduced by, it was that fact. That distinguished him. He was very nice.”

Singleton said he and Clash went on six or seven dates, and that Clash always offered to pay for his cabs and sometimes gave Singleton small amounts of cash to help him get by. Clash would check in by phone twice a day, Singleton said.

Two weeks into the relationship, however, Singleton called it off. “I came to the realization that I was never going to be comfortable with his age. And I thought it was very selfish of me to lead him on, considering he seemed to really like me. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I just didn’t see myself liking him as much as he liked me.”

During that period, Singleton said, he and Clash never had sexual intercourse, nor did Clash offer him drugs. They lost touch—Singleton said his phone number changes a lot—until they found each other again on the same chat line when Singleton was 17. They went out on two more dates before they broke it off again, he said.

But a couple of years later, around 2007 or 2008, Singleton said, he called the chat line again and there was Clash. They began seeing each other again and had sexual intercourse for the first time, he said. Singleton said he was 19 or 20 at the time and still had no idea about Clash’s fame. He didn’t even know his last name.

“But at that point, there were certain details that were suspect to me,” Singleton said. “I guess because I had matured and was starting to notice things. It was pretty clear he was a man of means. He had a personal driver. He took me to extravagant restaurants. He had a phone answering service.”

One day, Singleton called the answering service and spoke to the operator, who told him Clash’s last name. He Googled him and was stunned.

“The thing that upset me the most at the time is that he lied,” Singleton said. “I think at some point it crossed my mind how inappropriate our relationship was, as someone who works with children. I confronted him in person with the information. He gave me very roundabout answers. It was evident on his face that this was something he never intended for me to find out. I think I saw him one more time after that, and if I can attribute it to anything, it was him being uncomfortable that I knew his identity.”

Until Stephens’ allegations surfaced, however, Singleton continued to believe that his relationship with Clash “was something different, individual and different.”

“I don’t know if you can understand unless you’ve been in the situation,” he said. “It’s like if you date a teacher you have a crush on and you believe it’s something special. You know you shouldn’t do it but you can’t help it. I thought it was all about me. But I realize that whether it’s a man or woman, gay or straight, it’s inappropriate, illegal and immoral. I’m not saying I’m not responsible. I did play a part. But I feel strongly now that he’s a predator. He knew I would be susceptible to him because I had just gotten out of foster care. I think he preyed on us.”

At the same time that Singleton and his lawyer were making TV appearances and doing interviews about his relationship with Clash, reports surfaced that Stephens wanted to take back his recantation.

“I feel sympathy for Sheldon, but it’s very difficult for me to empathize with his situation because there’s no sufficient amount of money to make me compromise my reputation and word,” Singleton said. “You couldn’t pay me $2 million to say that I made it up or was confused. I don’t have ill feelings toward him, but it just hasn’t made the situation easier for the rest of us.”

Singleton has said he will drop his $5 million lawsuit if Clash admits what happened between them. Before he filed his suit, Singleton said, he requested a meeting with Clash so that they could openly talk about their relationship, but the puppeteer turned him down.

“I am not capable of ruining someone’s life just for the hell of it,” Singleton said. “But I feel really guilty about how long I waited to report my relationship. People are pegging me as a gold-digger and it doesn’t sit well with me. What I wanted was the truth to come out. If Kevin would acknowledge what happened, own up and tell the truth, I will drop the lawsuit. I’m not comparing my situation to a child being molested. Seduction and molestation are two different things but when it’s a child, it’s still abuse.”

ACCUSER NO. 3: D.O.

It only got worse for Clash. On Nov. 27, a 28-year-old Florida man sued Clash for having sex with him in 2000, when he was 16. Like Singleton, “D.O.” said he met Clash on a gay chat line called “Power Chat.” According to the lawsuit, Clash claimed he was a 30-year-old man named Craig, and after two days of phone conversations, invited D.O. to visit him in his apartment.

At the time, D.O. was staying with friends in New Jersey while working on a modeling gig in Manhattan, according to his lawyer, Jeff Herman, who is also representing Singleton. When D.O. arrived at the apartment, the suit says, Clash offered him alcohol and the two engaged in sexual contact, “including oral sex and digital penetration of [D.O.’s] anus.” D.O. was a virgin at the time, according to the lawsuit.

“Both Cecil and [D.O.] allege that Mr. Clash courted them when, in fact, what he was doing was grooming them,” Herman said. “He was getting to the point where they felt compliant when, in fact, there’s no such thing with a minor. Interestingly, in 2009, [D.O.] started writing a memoir about his life and relationships, and he wrote about what happened to him with Kevin Clash in detail.”

In pages of the unpublished manuscript, which Herman distributed to the media, D.O. refers to Clash as “The Tickler” and writes that Clash initially told him he was a successful businessman, but that he later learned he was in the entertainment business. D.O. describes their relationship as a game between “father and son.”

“On our first night, I did not lose my virginity; however, I learned what it felt like to have a man kiss you and take your breath away,” according to the manuscript. “I could tell by the slight smile on his face that he wanted to be my first. ‘We will take things slow, just let me taste you,’ he requested.”

Even after the teen went back to his home state, Clash continued to call “incessantly,” trying to arrange meetings for sexual encounters, the complaint states. They kept in contact, and after D.O. graduated from high school he moved to New York City, where the complaint states he and Clash resumed their relationship and began having sexual intercourse. He was 18 at the time, the complaint says, and he soon discovered who Clash was.

“They were together for about a year, and then after that year, periodically from time to time,” Herman said. “The reason he’s remaining anonymous is that he’s moved on with his life and has a job and he does not want to be re-victimized. But he stands behind these other victims.”

Although the statute of limitations for the federal claims is six years—which has elapsed for both Singleton and D.O.—Herman said the manuscript will help him argue in court that the period for making claims began this year because neither man realized he had been victimized until he learned about the other man, “and realized they were manipulated and it was an ongoing practice.” Neither of the two men ever reached out to Sesame Workshop about their relationships with Clash.

“We did not know about subsequent accusations until they stepped forward two weeks ago,” Sesame Workshop said in a Nov. 27 statement. “We trust the judicial process to reach the ultimate conclusions about the truth or falsity of these allegations.”