SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the Jan. 2 series premiere of “The Masked Singer.”
Every television show has a bible — a document that details the story arc and character descriptions, as well as format and structure notes, so that writers and producers can keep things consistent and evolving over time. But Fox’s new reality competition series “The Masked Singer” actually has two bibles: one for format and one for “secrecy” — and “the secrecy bible is thicker than the format bible,” says executive producer Craig Plestis.
Adapted from the popular Asian reality franchise, “The Masked Singer” features well-known public figures donning elaborate costumes and stepping onstage to perform musical numbers for a panel of celebrities that are tasked with guessing who the person behind the mask is. The contestants wear their costumes the entire time they are on the show, only removing the mask after they have been eliminated. And keeping their identities a secret, not only from the media and the public but also the majority of the production team, was the utmost concern for the producers.
Plestis tells Variety that only seven people on the production team knew who the contestants were. In order to keep the secret, the contestants had to wear “masks and special visors and couldn’t show any of their skin at all — they had to wear gloves and long pants,” Plestis says. Production provided them with oversized sweatshirts that said “Don’t talk to me” on the front, reminding everyone they encountered they could not be interacted with, for fear of their identities being discovered upon hearing their speaking voices.
The contestants were driven to rehearsals and the set, meeting the drivers at a neutral location, rather than at their homes. Once they arrived on set, they had to stay in a special cordoned off area. And “if they came there with their manager or their loved ones or their agents, those people also had to wear costumes,” Plestis says.
All of the contestants voices’ were disguised during interview packages that ran before their on-stage performances. The interviews were designed to provide real clues as to their identities, despite the audio trickery. And even though their performance costumes are elaborate, Plestis is insistent their singing voices were untouched and that the performances were not pre-recorded.
“A lot of research and a lot of energy was spent on sound quality and testing out these masks,” he says, noting he personally traveled to Asia to understand the production quality on the other sets. “It’s about constructing the mask so there’s not an echo; it’s about making sure there’s enough screens in front of the mouth — there are certain ways to construct these masks so the voice can come out and project the voice properly. We tested it and tested it and then retested it with singers before our celebrities even put the masks on, to make sure it’s not impeding their vocal quality at all.”
While a great part of the fun of the show, Plestis believes, is not only watching the panelists try to guess who belongs to which singing voice, but also playing along and doing the same from home. To do that, Plestis admits Fox “really rode us hard in the sense of getting people in these costumes that America would recognize.” The goal was not to have someone pull off a mask and leave the audience Googling the person, but instead “when the mask comes off, they’re well-known — and they’re especially well-known in their fields.”
“It has to be someone that, if you play along from eight to 80 [years old], you can guess who it is,” Plestis continues.
Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown was the first contestant to be unmasked on the show. “He said, ‘I wear a mask every day, this is just a bigger mask for me,'” Plestis says of signing up the football player.
In fact, Plestis says it didn’t take that much convincing to sign stars such as Brown up for the show, partially because the format is a hit show in Asia, running as the No. 1 show in Korea for years (Ryan Reynolds even went on it when he visited the country on his “Deadpool” media tour), as well as revitalizing a network in Thailand with its launch in 2016. “The brand itself is a strong brand,” Plestis says. “So leading with that was a plus for us.”
For almost everyone who appears on reality television, the goal is exposure. But with “The Masked Singer,” the contestants wouldn’t be seen until their very last moments on the show, and they weren’t allowed to talk about appearing until that day they were revealed on-screen — which Plestis admits did bring about a unique challenge in trying to sell the show to the contestants, as well as the network and the audience.
“You can’t use the big names, at all, to sell,” he says. “I can only say there are 65 Grammy nominations here, four Emmy winners, four people who are Walk of Famers, three who have best-selling books. You can use that to sell it, but that doesn’t help American understand who they are. What it does help is the game play.”
But Plestis says the talent that did sign up to be contestants “got” the concept and were excited to “shine doing something completely different.”
“The Grammy winners in our show, they’re known for a particular kind of singing, but we told them to do whatever they want, and a lot of them went, ‘I’ve always wanted to sing in this genre.’ So they changed their voices, and there was a freedom they had when they were behind the mask,” Plestis says.
After they are eliminated, though, they get the chance to sing without the mask on, as well, which Plestis says was important for the show — to prove that the singing is not pre-recorded — but also for the contestants, who are opening themselves up to the audience in new ways.
As a professional athlete, Brown is perhaps one of the best examples of someone who is at the top of his field showing off a completely different skill set that many might not even know he had. But Plestis and his team knew — because they saw the “Madden NFL 17” video of Brown singing and vetted him for the show.
“We were really looking at people not just who were names but also wanted to sing [and] had some singing talent that we could coach a little bit and prep a little bit. We wanted them to shine, but they did have to have the chops to begin with. And he was great; he had no fear at all,” Plestis says.
This vetting included showing Brown the sizzle for the show, based on the Asian formats. Brown also sat down with the show’s costume designer to pick out which outfit would be his for the duration of his run on the show. Plestis says he settled on the hippo because “he wanted something fun and he wanted something that gave him great mobility.”
It was also important to production that the big-name talent they had didn’t hit pause on their regular gigs for “The Masked Singer.” While this meant they sometimes had to shift production to accommodate other filming or, in the case of Brown, games, Plestis says they “really wanted them to be out there in the world doing what they normally do so no one would guess they were doing our show.”
And, of course, so they could get the most well-known people possible not only to sign up, but also enjoy themselves after doing so.
“We wanted them to be our brand ambassadors,” Plestis says of the inaugural masked singers such as Brown. “So for the next season [new contestants] would see our contestants had a positive experience and learned something about themselves, as well as made a great TV show.”
“The Masked Singer” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.