Piecing the clues to Steve Burns’ journey

Nickelodeon fans likely remember Steve Burns as the singing, smiling, dancing host of the hit show “Blue’s Clues.” 

But behind the scenes, Burns was fighting against the blues. 

In a conversation on campus Tuesday with Minnesota State students and the Mankato community, Burns opened up about his experience with mental illness.  

“The whole time I was the host of ‘Blue’s Clues,’ I was suffering with undiagnosed severe clinical depression,” Burns said. “You can imagine that made my job kind of hard, right? It was literally my job to be the happiest man in North America, and I did not always feel that way.” 

“Blue’s Clues” invited viewers into an animated world with Steve and his non-human friends where they solved puzzles with the help of the audience. For six years, Burns played the role of Steve in nearly 100 episodes. 

“I (Burn’s character) was super happy all the time. I was so happy; oh my god. I was happy, and so excited about absolutely everything,” Burns said. “And I was bright eyed and so excited, and I talked to my soap and my furniture, and I had deep conversations with my condiments.” 

However, while Burns portrayed this positive person on the show, his real self was living an opposite life. 

“I felt extremely unqualified to be doing what I was doing. I felt extremely unworthy to be empowering people. I found it difficult to show up every day happy. I found it difficult to provide a gazillion children with self esteem when a lot of days I didn’t even have my own approval,” Burns said. 

While Burns became a recognizable figure online, rumors circulated about the actor’s alleged death. False accusations such as death by suicide and overdose filled the media, “all of these horrible things that I would never want associated with the show that I worked so hard on and loved so much, and it was just terrible,” Burns said.

As the speculation about Burns continued, he attempted to brush off the comments through humor and public statements. Years passed, yet rumors of his death persisted. 

“It started to feel like a cultural preference, like what, would everyone prefer this to be real?” Burns said. “And I can tell you that it went on long enough that when coupled with unaddressed, undiagnosed severe clinical depression, it started to make me wonder if I was supposed to be.” 

Although Burns fought an internal conflict behind closed doors, he learned how to speak up about his hardships through his ‘Blue’s Clues’ character’s teachings. 

“Weird, stripy Steve stepped back up to the plate and he reminded me of something very important,” Burns said. “He reminded me that it is so totally OK to stand in front of someone and stare at them, and say with all the vulnerability you can find, ‘Will you help me?’” 

From analyzing his character’s curious nature, Burns found the clues toward healing his mental state regardless of the online commotion. 

“Curiosity plus anticipation and excitement and a sense of awe — that was what I used to play Steve,” Burns said. “Practicing how to live your life in a practice of wonder is an awesome thing.” 

Paired with wonder, Burns also recognized the importance of looking for signs from the environment, or to, “look for the clues.”

“Look for the signs from the universe, the little things. The little things in your life that seem small, but actually when you take them in aggregate, are part of the path to greater understanding, much like clues on the show,” Burns said.

Burns also stressed the value in mindfulness and listening to one another. 

“When you do that (listen), that’s when you start to notice the good clues,” Burns said. “The awesome clues. The stuff that moves you. The stuff that lights you up. The stuff that inspires you. The stuff that resonates with you. The stuff that explains the world to you. When it makes you think, that’s the good stuff.

Rather than thinking of listening as a natural action, Burns considers listening to be a gift. 

“Mr. Rogers, a friend, said, ‘Listening is one of the greatest gifts a human being can give another person.’ I love that because we tend to think of listening as receiving information. It’s not, it’s giving the gift of your attention,” Burns said. 

While Burn’s was sharing his own struggles, he also touched on the idea of struggles in life as, “mandatory.”

“From a certain perspective, to struggle is part of a beautiful life as a human being on planet Earth. You know, it’s about how we meet that struggle that kind of becomes what life is about,” Burns said. 

MSU freshman Caitlynn McCarthy grew up watching Burn’s character like many other students in the crowd, and saw a different side to Burn’s authentic self. 

“I liked how personal it was just because it didn’t make you feel like you were just a watcher, it made you feel like you were actually part of the show,” McCarthy said.

“I just liked how he was very vulnerable, and he was like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m qualified to do this, but let me tell you what helped me personally.’ I think that really made a better connection with the audience.” 

Additionally, MSU freshman Bethany Cacka shed light on what resonated with her from Burn’s talk. 

“It was really interesting to see such a childhood idol, and then to have him talk about more stuff that nobody would think he’d talk about. He’s a real person, and just seeing that was really interesting,” Cacka said. 

With many Blue’s Clues supporters in the audience, Burns expressed his gratitude for having the ability to reconnect with the same viewers at the university decades after his departure from the series. 

“That’s why I’m here,” Burns said. “That’s why I’m doing this. I love doing this. I love the fact that we are continuing the conversation all these years later. That feels special to me, anyway. It feels pretty unique and rare and cool to me.”

Header photo: The Student Events Team hosted Steve Burns from “Blue’s Clues” in the Centennial Student Union Ballroom. Burns talked about his battle with depression while making the show. (Dylan Long/The Reporter)

Write to Mercedes Kauphusman at Mercedes.Kauphusman@mnsu.edu

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