Kel Mitchell, the former Nickelodeon teen star who headlined Kenan & Kel with Kenan Thompson, died in 2006. According to the Internet, that is: Back in the pre-Twitter era, an email originating from MySpace was sent around from what was probably Hotmail inbox to Hotmail inbox, circulating the news that Mitchell had passed away at the age of 27.
Since then, of course, it has come to light that Mitchell is alive and well; he makes his presence known through various social media sites and the sporadic press appearance. Mitchell just hasn’t worked with his former co-star—who’s been a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live for 10 years—since their seminal show ended in 2000. Reports quote Mitchell as saying Thompson wants nothing to do with him anymore, but that hasn't stopped online GIF-compiling campaigns from attempting to reunite the beloved duo.
But besides these suggestions of a falling-out with Thompson, little has been reported at all about Mitchell’s life in the past decade—a startlingly different story from his former costar, whose work on SNL gets watched and shared by millions almost every weekend (Thompson went viral yet again this week). Mitchell's disappearance from the public eye has remained a mystery, causing fans and Internet rumor-mongers alike to ask, Whatever happened to Kel from Kenan & Kel?
So I decided to ask Kel Mitchell directly. He spoke to me on the phone from Los Angeles, where he lives.
When Kenan & Kel ended in 2000, Mitchell explains, “I was currently shooting films and guest starring on television. The plan was to continue doing that.”
But when Mitchell and Thompson both tried out for Saturday Night Live in 2003, the latter won the coveted position. In the decade since, Mitchell told me, he has kept himself busy writing for, acting in, and directing the occasional film (Mitchell directed 2012’s She Is Not My Sister, a film about dealing with bullying through faith, and he takes the film around to schools and churches throughout the country) while focusing on his Christianity and raising a family.
The suggestion that Mitchell and his former Kenan & Kel costar do not remain in touch was never confirmed, but it's worth mentioning that Mitchell's publicist requested that I not ask questions about the relationship between Thompson and Mitchell. Yet Mitchell, recently married, expressed no negative sentiment towards his former costar and revels in the attention he still gets for his ’90s sitcom.
“It’s one of those things where I don’t get upset about it,” Mitchell said of the persistent attention from Kenan & Kel fans. “You have actors that get upset about their past projects being brought up. But I have to realize that [Kenan & Kel] was a staple for a lot of people. … Even though Will Smith has done I Am Legend and all these other great films, [and has] been nominated for many awards, you still love him for Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Despite the massive differences between his own career trajectory and Thompson's, Mitchell makes a valid point: His orange-soda-gulping, lovable nimrod character is an integral part of his body of work and an inseparable part of his life. Even his son Lyric, now 14, used to act out scenes from the show, one of which involved him leaping into the family’s kitchen garbage can. And Mitchell’s mother drops specific lines from his work.
"My family, they love the sketch comedy like on All That. My mom loves Coach Kreeton,” Mitchell said. “She’s always quoting Coach Kreeton."
In conversation, Mitchell hardly goes a sentence without referencing his family. When he first heard of his own death rumor seven years ago, it was his family he thought of first: Mitchell had to explain to concerned distant relatives that he was still living, as their calls poured in. “As soon as they called and I picked up, I think they figured it out,” Mitchell said, erupting into a self-deprecating laugh. “It was kind of laughable, you know what I mean? It’s laughable, but at the same time, it’s a serious matter. It’s shocking to me that someone would sit there and say someone else died.”
The Internet remains such a breeding ground for rumors that even real celebrity deaths are sometimes presumed to be hoaxes—as was the case with the recent death of actor Paul Walker. But despite what the web’s salacious fire-starting ability has done to him personally, Mitchell values the Internet—specifically social media—as a tool to remain in touch with his devoted fans. He contends it is easier to dispel rumors quickly now because of the ubiquitous culture of social media.
“I like to give back and just let people know that I’m thankful for them watching the show. And just to interact with them. To put a smile on somebody’s face like ‘Hey, they actually responded back.’”
Mitchell includes an explanatory sentence in his Twitter bio ensuring that his identity is not misrepresented by fake accounts: “My TRUE Twitter all others r fake!!” he writes for his 64,000 followers.
I had wondered if perhaps Mitchell’s “death” was a subconscious effort on fans’ part to explain why Kenan and Kel didn’t remain together; after all, many comedic duos have historically met their demise when one passed away. (See: Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, David Spade and Chris Farley.) But when I asked Mitchell whether he believed that to be the case, he responded with a simple, genial, “All press is good press.”
“When they said that, it was like people started looking me up to see what was going on and if I was alive,” Mitchell recalled. “It basically changed everything around. It actually worked out in my benefit.”
Today, Mitchell occupies a territory somewhere between prospective dreams of being on Dancing With the Stars and recollections of times gone by with his crew at the Nickelodeon studio on Sunset Boulevard. He, however, recently revisited the hallowed ground upon which he guzzled orange soda when he returned to Nickelodeon for a guest appearance on Sam & Cat, which stars Ariana Grande, one of the network’s new stars. “I got to play a character called Peezy B,” Mitchell said, and described Peezy B as “like Kanye and Diddy mixed together.” Peezy B, he said, “was trending worldwide on Twitter. Which is kind of cool.”
Mitchell, it’s worth noting, contextualizes his success with the colloquialisms of the modern Internet, using a “trend” as a barometer of the impact of his presence. Maybe that’s merely Mitchell’s way of paying dues to the tool that killed and resurrected him in real time.
But in 2013, Kel Mitchell is alive, no matter what the Internet says. He’s been quiet all these years, shying away from explicit conversations about his viral “death” and reawakening, because he’s been content with his career and thrilled for the future, even if it's one of quiet quasi-anonymity.