There's a flurry of truly bonkers activity on The Masked Singer set when EW visits in late July.
In one backstage area, there's a collection of disembodied heads and costumes waiting to come alive in the new season — we spy a Cow, Anteater, S'more, Hibiscus, Hawk and Donut — all fully decked out and bedazzled down to the last feather and crumb. (Sneak a peek at some other new costumes, including The Cuddle Monster, the biggest costume the show has ever had, in the preview clip below.)
The theme of today's episode is "I Wanna Rock," and accordingly, a gaggle of dancers dressed like something out of a metalhead's fever dream are on stage dancing in sync as fire and dazzling lights billow around them. In the far corner, a celebrity fully covered in the show's iconic "Don't Talk to Me" gear and full-face visor is being led by the crew to a dressing room to get changed for rehearsal.
A little while later, a famous Masked Singer alum, this time unmasked, is seen introducing themself to everyone backstage and high-fiving those seated in the audience as they prepare to perform one of their hits, which the semifinalists in this group must later also sing to fight for their place in the finale. Another former contestant is waiting in the wings to deliver clues.
It's all par for the course with the wacky disguised celebrity singing show, and yet, they've still managed to somehow go more gonzo with the new episodes, which feature cherry-picked format twists from past seasons, famous guest stars and alums galore. And for good reason: It's the 10th season of the US version of the series, which originated in South Korea. It's a landmark for any show, let alone one that showcases singing celebs dressed as Thingamajigs and Squiggly Monsters.
To break it down: Season 10 is set to feature 16 total contestants, broken up into Groups A, B, and C. Group A will start out with five singers, and B and C will be comprised of four apiece. One special wildcard contestant will be added to each, though, in the second episode of each group. The groups will compete separately, working their way toward the semifinal Battle Royale episodes (like at the aforementioned taping), where only one singer from the group will ultimately remain and head to the finale. The "Ding Dong Keep It On" bell is returning, but this time, panelists Ken Jeong, Robin Thicke, Nicole Scherzinger, and Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg are only allowed to use it one time to save a contestant, and it can only be used in one of the three Battle Royale episodes. For those that don't care to do the mental math, this means that the finale will have four contestants in it — one from each group, plus one saved competitor.
Or, as Thicke simply sums it up, "What I think is really exciting about season 10 is not only celebrating the previous nine seasons, and some of the contestants and the winners and bringing them back for fun moments, it's also the collective growth of 10 seasons, and putting all the best stuff into season 10."
Fox Meet Anteater from 'The Masked Singer' season 10
Executive producer Craig Plestis also promises the new episodes will feature "some of the biggest stars and biggest names" yet. "We're really proud with not only the name quality that we have, but just some of the performances are beyond belief — of the people who can sing, and also the people who can't sing," he says with a laugh.
Although naturally no one is allowed to name names, Wahlberg teases that, in season 10, one major artist in particular will appear on the show and trick everyone until the very end. "It's insane because this incredible artist actually tricked us, put on a real act because he/she basically knew all of us. And so the fact that this artist got all the way to the end and we were stumped is shocking, because it is one of the biggest artists ever," she says.
Those are tall claims for a show that has already welcomed everyone from Dick Van Dyke to Lil Wayne, LeAnn Rimes to Gladys Knight, to name a few. If you want to know where you're going, you've got to know where you've been, or so the saying goes, and in the case of The Masked Singer, it wasn't always this easy to nab talent to participate on the show.
Plestis recalls how, back when they were filming season 1, the creative team knew they had something special, but it was a tough sell to convince others of the same. "It wasn't easy. I have to tell you," he admits. "The first season when we went around to agencies, managers and asked, 'Hey, we have a show. It's a crazy bonkers show from Korea. And we'd love to put this celebrity underneath the mask and have them perform.' Everyone said, 'Ehhh… I'm not sure about that. Come back to us in season 2, when we know it's working.'"
Plestis says he truly commends Knight, T-Pain, Rumer Willis, Donny Osmond and all the other season 1 players for taking that leap of faith. "They watched the episodes, they saw the charm and magic that was in the original series. And then everyone started following after that," he says.
The EP also credits the panel and host Nick Cannon, all of whom have been part of the series since its inception, with the show's consistency and longevity. With the panel especially, what you see is more or less what you get says Plestis, who likens their dynamic to a family at Thanksgiving — they fight, they bicker, they poke fun at each other, but ultimately, they love each other.
The panelists all agree with this characterization, with Thicke adding that he and Jeong are mostly there for fun and spend most of their time "ribbing each other backstage about our outfits or our hair." It's Scherzinger and Wahlberg who are the competitive ones, he says.
This was especially true when the show introduced the Golden Ear Trophy — a competition among the panelists to see who could guess the most contestants correctly — in earlier seasons. That particular twist hasn't been used since season 7... and possibly with good reason. Scherzinger admits the added competition did fuel some behind-the-scenes clue Googling. "You know what? I'm not going to lie. I think in the beginning we did," she says. "When they got the trophies involved, we did because we wanted to win, but now that they took the trophies away, it's a lot more fun. And we're on our 10th season, so we don't Google anything."
Even still, the competition remains, though now it's more unspoken. Scherzinger says Wahlberg looks to her to pick up on the familiarity of someone's vocals, and she looks to Wahlberg to figure out the clues. But, she says, laughing, "It's funny when we know, but we don't say anything [to the other] backstage. Like if one of us has figured it out and then we'll just keep it on the DL."
The competitive streak occasionally heats up among the panelists when it comes to voting, too, Wahlberg says. Although they don't ultimately know who everybody votes for because each panelist votes on their own devices, she says they do sometimes debate it behind the scenes. "There has been a few times where we've gotten really mad and kind of yelled at each other. I'm like, 'No! Are you crazy? Are you deaf?' But the funny thing is, we're arguing based on who we think it might be [under the mask]. There's times that we'll argue and later be like, 'Oh my God. It wasn't that person at all.' So as the show's gone on, we kind of just have to surrender. And thank God for the audience, too, so it's not all on us."
Fox Meet Cow from 'The Masked Singer' season 10
Of course, the wild way the votes go or who ultimately ends up being under a mask is only part of the crazy shenanigans the show has seen over the years. After all, who could forget Mickey Rourke taking off his Gremlin costume and eliminating himself from the competition in season 4? Or Duff Goldman's McTerrier head coming off during his performance in season 7? Or Firefly a.k.a. Teyana Taylor choking and needing medical assistance mid-performance, also in season 7?
Plestis swears the producers are just as shocked up in the booth as the audience is at home. "We're in the booths and literally, we're watching it happen on the day that the rest of America saw when it aired later, and we were floored when that happened. You can't predict it," he says of the Rourke and Goldman incidents. "But you know, we embrace it, and we go with the flow, and it becomes great TV."
Thicke confirms that the panel is not coached beforehand about any potential looming shockers. Alhough Thicke says he and his fellow panelists are always encouraged to have "season premiere energy" throughout, ultimately, "[the producers] just give us room to be ourselves. They want us to have natural reactions."
This was even true with what's widely considered to be the show's most shocking revelation — the season 7 unmasking of controversial figure Rudy Giuliani — which led to an upset Jeong departing the stage abruptly. Jeong opted not to participate in this interview in solidarity with the ongoing writers' and actors' strikes in Hollywood, but Thicke says simply that the panel was "genuinely surprised" by the unmasking.
When asked about the decision to have Giuliani on Masked Singer, Plestis says, "We try to be a big tent with our show, that anybody can come in to The Masked Singer. And it's just, again, another name to play the guessing game."
Speaking of guessing games, the fifth season introduced the Cluedle-Doo, a rooster dressed up to look like a court jester who interrupted the show at various points to deliver clues, and eventually to sing Mark Morrison's "Return Of The Mack" and unmask himself. In what Wahlberg calls her favorite moment on the show to date, the crooning rooster was revealed to be her own husband, Donnie Wahlberg — much to her shock.
In a very Cluedle-Doo twist of fate, Donnie popped up unexpectedly in EW's interview with his wife to explain why "it's not that complicated" that his own spouse didn't guess his identity. Donnie worked in lockstep with the show's producers to go out of their way to make her think he was in New York filming his show Blue Bloods when he was actually on the Masked Singer set. He says he went so far as taking the clothes his character, Danny Reagan, would wear into his dressing room at the Masked Singer's Los Angeles set and FaceTiming with Jenny and the panelists.
"So I suspect her impulse was to guess that it was me, but we had built in so many diversions and distractions and decoys that it just made it impossible that it could be me," Donnie says. "I think when the impulse came in to say, 'I think that's Donnie,' she was like, 'I can't say that, because it's clearly impossible that it's Donnie.'"
His wife more or less confirms this. "When I watched the show back, [I could see] how it registered with Nicole before my brain," she says. "I think it was probably more of a possibility in Nicole's brain than it was mine, because I was like, 'There's no way he could do this.' There's a whole beat of me staring at his head going, 'Oh my God.' And that's when I literally died, died, died, died. It was such a great shocking surprise. I loved every second of it."
Fox Cow performs on stage in season 10 of 'The Masked Singer'
It was another family affair back at the taping in July, where, during a brief break in between performances, Thicke could be seen FaceTiming his children and getting the audience to say in unison, "Good night, kids." The singer says he finally brought his kids to see a taping this season, and "they were mesmerized." (More specifically, he recalls with a chuckle, "They were like, 'What the hell is that enormous Donut doing?'")
It's this mesmerized sense of wonder that first drew Plestis to producing the show. He recalls dining at a Thai restaurant in Studio City, Calif., and the Thai version of the show was playing in the background. "The whole restaurant was mesmerized, and I [thought], right there, 'I have to get this show. I gotta find out what it is.'" And, he says, when T-Pain took the stage as Monster and Donny Osmond sang as Peacock in season 1, he knew his gambit paid off. "When they started singing in those first episodes, and brought these costumes to life, there was something magical about it."
Scherzinger and Thicke both also cite T-Pain's Monster — who ultimately became the inaugural winner of the show — as a moment that sticks out to them that pointed to the show being special. (For her part, Wahlberg says she and her husband had no doubts from the beginning the show would be a hit, though her team was less sure: "My agent initially was like, 'What's that? That's a little weird.' I'm like, 'Yeah... But I am weird.'")
Specifically calling out Monster's performance of Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," Scherzinger says, "I just felt like in a weird, trippy way, I was staring at this big, hairy monster with one eye on this TV show, and he was singing this song with all the honesty in the world. It was this juxtaposition of like, 'This is so wrong, but it's so beautiful at the same time.' And when that happened, it clicked for me."
Thicke recalls arriving home after T-Pain had won, and being overcome with thoughts of his late father, Alan, who died a few years earlier in 2016. "My dad loved big tent television," Thicke says of the Growing Pains star. "He loved these kinds of TV shows. And when I got home, I was like, 'You know what, I think this could be a big hit.' And then I thought of my dad, and I knew my dad was smiling down like, 'Oh, son, you got a big hit show on your hands.' I know that he'd be proud. He loved television. He loved Hollywood, and he would have loved this show. I don't think he would have missed an episode to be honest." (And yes, Thicke believes if his father was still around he'd totally have been a contestant at some point: "Sooner or later, of course. Oh, he was a ham just like his son. He'd be like, 'You know, I can hum a tune or two.'")
Fox S'more performs in season 10 of 'The Masked Singer'
Looking ahead, the season 10 competition officially kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 27 on Fox, but not before the show has yet another surprise up its sleeve in the form of a special one-off premiere episode. This episode, which airs Sept. 10 after Fox's NFL Double Header, will feature duet performances from Masked Singer alums, a special masked celebrity performance, a clue package, guesses from the panel, and a reveal that the network is touting as "one of the biggest, can't-miss unmaskings in the show's history."
When EW speaks with Plestis, he has just come from the editing bay working on this exact episode, which he says is "one of the best" and features "probably one of the best reveals we've ever had in Masked Singer history." He knows what you're thinking though: "The hype is always there, like, 'It's going to be the biggest' — it is."
Back at the Masked Singer set, this particular group semi-finals episode also features a smattering of impressive unmaskings, both of which come after the customary panelist guesses and "take it off" audience chants. And as fun as the performances are, it's this moment of anticipation where the excitement in the air is so palpable it's electric.
Plestis says, for all the ways they try to evolve the show and tweak it from season to season, this is the one thing that will never change. "In the end, it's a guessing game of who's underneath the mask. That's the core of why the show exists. And that's why people love it and it trends every week. We're never gonna divert from that, that's the core reason of why."
However, he says they're always looking at ways to improve, and thankfully since the show is so bonkers, it gives the producers more freedom to try new things. So, looking to season 10 and beyond, Plestis teases, "Expect the unexpected is what I would say from this season to all future seasons."