LOS ANGELES, Nov 12, 2012 (AFP) - The puppeteer behind Elmo on "Sesame Street" says he is taking time out from the much-loved US children's TV show to fight a "defamatory" claim he had a sexual relationship with an underage boy.
Kevin Clash, the man behind the furry red character's high-pitched voice and frenetic gestures, admitted he had a relationship with his accuser, who claims he was 16 years old when they started dating, according to studio officials.
But Clash - who was the subject of an award-winning documentary last year - said Monday that the accuser was not under the age of consent, which is 17 in New York, where the show is made.
"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. I had a relationship with the accuser," said Clash, in a statement forwarded to AFP by publicist Risa Heller.
"It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to characterize it as something other than what it was. I am taking a break from Sesame Workshop to deal with this false and defamatory allegation."
Sesame Workshop, the studio behind the legendary show, said it was contacted by a man who claimed to have had a relationship with Clash seven years ago, when he was 16. Clash was reportedly 45 at the time.
"In June of this year, Sesame Workshop received a communication from a then 23-year-old man who alleged that he had a relationship beginning when he was 16 years old with Kevin Clash," it said.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action," it added, noting it had interviewed both the accuser and Clash about the claims.
"We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated," it said.