When she's in character, Jessica Miller is so determined to project the true, giggly essence of Elmo that even when hidden behind a big furry suit, she smiles when someone takes a picture.
And being "in character" means something very specific to the performers of Sesame Street Live: When Elmo Grows Up: Miller is inside the furry red contraption that transforms the 27-year-old performer into a giggly 3-year-old monster.
"You have to act like your character, so every time someone takes a picture, I smile," Miller said.
She had danced most of her life and had been a cheerleader. She was in college when she auditioned for a Sesame Street stage show. (Her older sister also had been involved with the shows.)
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When she got the part, Miller planned to try it for a year. That was seven years ago.
To prepare for the tour, which comes to Rupp Arena for five shows this weekend, the troupe spends about two weeks in rehearsals, both in and out of costume. The show travels with just 25 people — 13 performers, a seven-person stage crew and five people who sell concessions. They travel by bus and have the typical town-to-town tour schedule, with little time for more than a quick trip to the laundry or the post office between shows.
"It's a hard life," she said, "but it's a life I love."
Immediately before each show, Miller does some quick jumping jacks to psych herself up before going on stage and "just to get the bouncy-ness" of the little monster. She says she gets her Elmo energy not from a quick shot of Red Bull but from really reaching inside for the child that lingers in all adults.
"I have a hard time growing up," Miller said cheerfully. "It's a good thing, though; it works for me. It helps me bring out the inner Elmo."
While in costume, she and the other characters are not allowed to talk to fans or talk on stage — they are legally not licensed to make Sesame Street-like voices and sounds, so there is some puppet lip-synching involved. The actors make the characters' mouths move with a hand brake-like apparatus that they squeeze to make the characters' jaws move up and down.
But even in personal meet-and-greets, the kids don't seem to mind an uncharacteristically silent Elmo. Miller said they never seemed to question when they are told that Elmo is resting his voice in preparation for the big show.
Still, being Elmo to a room full of pre-schoolers is like being a cuddly rock star.
"The kids go crazy when you walk on stage or into a room," she said.
Although she has said it before and then returned to the road, Miller plans to hang up her big fuzzy feet after this season to become a teacher.
She's sure she'll miss the reflected limelight.
"Being Elmo is almost a chance to just take a break from reality and be somebody else and watch the kids fall in love with you," she said. "It's the coolest feeling in the world."