King of Mask Singer is a very popular show in South Korea, but executive producer Craig Pletsis had never heard of it until he and his daughter happened to be eating in a Thai restaurant.
"[We] ordered our food and it came, and I noticed like nobody in the restaurant was eating their food," Plestis' daughter Clara Plestis explained to E! News. "Then we were all just staring at this TV watching this crazy kangaroo in like a pleather outfit singing, and we didn't even finish dinner. We got on our phones and just researched what this show was."
Plestis had the rights within weeks, and then during casting, a strange miracle happened: Ryan Reynolds made a surprise appearance on King of Mask Singer, and the clip went viral even in the U.S., giving the audience here a taste of what they were about to experience.
"That was kismet," Craig Plestis says. "It was like, oh, thank you Ryan Reynolds. It really made [celebrities] look at the show and go, oh, Ryan Reynolds went on it, maybe I should go on it."
The Masked Singer lives and dies by its ability to keep the identity of its contestants a secret until they are unmasked on the show, no easy task when hundreds of people work on the show, there was a live audience, and social media exists.
"In another life I think I maybe should've been a spy or an FBI agent or something because I was extremely excited by the idea of how to keep this all a secret," executive producer Izzie Pick Ibirra said with a laugh. "We had a lot of security measures that were in place from the moment somebody was booked until they are unmasked on the show."
Some of those measures? "We never, ever, ever refer to anybody by their real name and that goes for the entire production."
Plus, most of the production team had no idea who the show had booked. "The director didn't know. The writers didn't know. The studio team didn't know," Ibirra revealed. "I was extremely, extremely careful about how many people were really privy to that information. People were learning who the cast were as we were taping the show."
In total, about 25 people knew the identities of the celebrity contestants.
When it comes to a reality competition series in its first season, casting is always hard. But Ibirra had experience in this arena, thanks to her time working on Dancing With the Stars. "It was not nearly as hard as I anticipated," Ibirra admitted.
Still, "This was an extraordinary ask for these celebrities. People either get it or they don't. it was either one or the other in terms of a response."
Their strategy was to approach the casting conversations "through their costuming," she explained. "We had a lot of the costume sketches and we would send those when we asked people to be part of the show, just so they could see the level of design that was really going to go into them."
Another selling point for many of the participants was the potential to really shock viewers who may have a pre-conceived notion about them that would disappear when their identity was masked. "There's something freeing about that. For the majority of them, that appeal was there: I want America to see a different side of me, hear a different side of me.
Before casting its 12 celebrities, The Masked Singer team designed 20 costumes to give potential contestants a sense of what they could dress up as on the show. But once they signed on, Ibirra said they really wanted the celebrity to pick the one they most identified with and it often had surprisingly emotional outcomes.
"Some people when they came to look through sketched went automatically to one costume, and there would be tears and there would be a very deep story behind why it had to be that one," she said. "It was a really interesting process, there were a number of people who reacted emotionally to the costumes and the explanation that came out about them were things that none of us would've ever have known. It's deeply personal."
While it was emotional for some, for others it was more about the characteristics and traits of the costume.
After being revealed to be the Poodle in week four, comedian Margaret Cho walked E! News through her decision-making process when it came to picking her character when she was offered Poodle or Alien.
"I chose the Poodle because I'm a dog lover, and I thought that would be really fun, and I loved how strangely robot the dog was, so I went with that."
Joey Fatone didn't just play himself in a Rabbit costume. He went full crazy rabbit, taking his cues from the straitjacket the Rabbit is inexplicably wearing.
"You gotta embrace it. Maybe at first I went a little too far, because they kept saying 'You're the rabbit, be in the character,' and I'm like, 'What the f--k does that mean? You want me to hop around?" he told us. "I'm like, OK, the guy's dressed in a straitjacket, he's probably got some weird tick, and that's kind of what I went with."
Rehearsals for a major production are stressful enough. Now imagine an insanely high level of secrecy and elaborate costumes on top of that.
"So you went for a number of fittings, and the secrecy around your arrivals everywhere, it was pretty intense," Cho recalled. "They didn't see your hands, or your body, because we had to wear these big hoodies and balaclavas. It was very, very extensive in hiding who you were. You had to go to quite a lot of rehearsals and fittings and blocking rehearsals and choreography, so there was a lot of stuff that you were doing, but really concealing your identity."
She added, "I mean they kept us apart in that we were all scheduled to come onto set at different times. All of our rehearsals were at separate locations where we just had no idea. You never ran into anybody, I never crossed paths with any of the people. We all had very separate, remote dressing rooms. We had separate production people. We didn't crossover at all."
Since not all of the singers are actually singers, they aren't left alone up there on stage. There's even an unseen background singer, who just happens to be Plestis' daughter who helped him discover the show in the Thai restaurant.
"I do the background singing for the show," Clara explained. "I do the tracks for the singing and then I'm on stage every episode in the corner, in a black mask in the corner with a microphone singing."
Clara, who is a professional singer and voiceover artist, did have to audition for the job, and did not get to know who she was singing with up there until the masks were taken off.
If you ever think the costumes look uncomfortable and difficult to perform in while watching the show you are 1,000 percent correct.
"They are so difficult for people to perform in them and put them on in the first place," Ibirra said. "They can't put them on themselves. They have a team of people going everywhere helping put their costumes on and off for them." (Bathroom breaks much be a lot of fun!)
Making the costumes proved to be just as much of a challenge for the wardrobe department, with Ibirra saying, "They take months to make, some of them were easier than others."
The Hippo, for example, was an easier one as it was mostly just clothes to go along with the mask. The characters that proved far more difficult included Unicorn, Lion ("The mask was carved out of clay and then dipped in gold!") and Raven ("The wings are nine foot and heavy!").
There's also the whole sometimes-not-being-able-to-see thing, with Ibirra admitting, "They really cannot see very much. And that's the most disarming thing for them is getting on stage."
From premiere to finale, The Masked Singer's first season took about a month, with the team going to extreme measures to protect the secret identities of its competitors.
"The talent knew they were only going to be referred to be their costume name and that was an extraordinary experience for them because they were kept away from one another, so they didn't know who else was on the show," Ibirra said. "They were kept in these different talent compounds. Their friends, family, agents and managers all had to wear masks and cloaks on set as well, because if you see someone and go, 'Oh, that person reps so and so' or 'Oh, that's so and so's brother!'"
And when the celebrity wasn't performing, they wore "much lighter versions" of their on-stage costumes.
No one really spoke to them. They were basically ignored. "It was a really different experience for them not to be treated like a celebrity," Ibirra said.
Anyone that any of the singers brought with them had to be masked as well, since people around Hollywood tend to recognize reps and managers.
Joey Fatone's manager, Joe Mulvi, had to don a robe and a full face mask when he was on set with Fatone, and that wasn't even the full extent of it.
"They said to me twice actually, Joe, they're gonna meet you at a 7-Eleven," Mulvi told E! News. "And I was like, Ok, and I thought to myself, did they just tell me 7-Eleven? And sure enough, right off Melrose, I met at a 7-Eleven and I got in a car and there was a purple robe and a mask and they said put it on before we pull through the gate, and I thought it was a joke. I get out, I'm walking around, everybody else has a mask and a robe on. And I was like, is this what it feels like to be on drugs? Because I don't do drugs, but if I did, this has got to be what it feels like to trip, because this is the weirdest thing for me."
The very short time commitment for the singers was vital to the show working at all, and that was only possible with the use of stand ins. Whenever the singers were on stage performing or answering the panel's questions, it was the actual celebrity in the costume. Any other time, it was not.
"When you see the clues, the clues are more or less a voiceover that we did, believe it or not," Fatone explained. "There was so much stuff going on that they actually had somebody else in the costumes when we did the vignettes. When you see the clues, that wasn't me in the costume. The voice was me, but the costume was not."
That meant the singers only had to focus on the performances and maybe one or two voiceover sessions, instead of, you know, shooting in the desert or at a carnival or in front of a green screen for hours on end. Fatone still has no idea who played the Rabbit in his place.
When it came time to find a person to lead the festivities, Ibarra only had one name on her list: Nick Cannon.
"He was my number one choice from day one. I can't imagine any other person hosting the show. Not only because of his experience in having done shows like this before, that obviously goes without saying, but there was also his fashion sense," she said. "You can't have somebody hosting the show that is going to be standing there in a gray suit or a white T-shirt standing there next to these people. You need someone whose got as much flamboyance and creativity really in how they dress themselves. For me, that was the perfect person. He's experienced, he's really, really warm and he's funny!"
One particularly hilarious moment came when Ken Jeong discovered that Margaret Cho, his longtime friend and the woman who played his sister on his sitcom, had been masquerading as the Poodle. That wasn't planned, but producers were pretty sure Jeong would figure it out.
"We research everybody, so we knew who knew what. That didn't bother us at all, but it was so out there, every clue was there—the LGBT, San Francisco, stand up—all the clues were there. We thought, there's no way. Everyone's going to figure this one out, and they didn't. We just don't know, you don't know, and he was honestly floored, gobsmacked, everything. It was great. That was like perfect, a perfect moment of TV history," Plestis said.
No one warned Cho that Jeong was one of the panelists, so she discovered it when she walked out on stage.
"It was great because I think it's one of those things like, it's so obvious, but you're like, oh it can't be, because it's too obvious. Maybe he was thinking, oh, they wouldn't cast somebody that's that close to me," Cho told us.
Ken may never live it down.
When assembling the four-person panel that would act as detectives on the audience's behalf, Ibirra explained they wanted a mixture of pop culture personalities and musical artists to achieve the right balance. "We weren't looking to create a panel of singing experts to give technical critiques. It was important for us that the tone of the panel was comedic, so that the singers as well would realize that they were not going to be dressed down in any way."
Crazy Rich Asians' star Ken Jeong was the first panelist and was "a no-brainer" for The Masked Singer team because he already knew the show as the Korean version it's based on is "his mom's favorite show...his mother was extremely insistent that he did it here." Plus, he's, you know, really funny.
As for Jenny McCarthy, Ibirra said the TV host fell in love with the concept and costumes and "also she is extremely nosy and will say that and extremely competitive, and genuinely wanted to be part of this and wanted to get the guessing right!"
Given his expertise when it comes to vocals, singer Robin Thicke was next, with Ibirra describing him as "incredibly engaged and into the format...he brings a singing expertise to the panel and that helps you with the guessing."
Also bringing serious artistic street credit is Nicole Scherzinger who had even "more of a performance background."
Of the assembled panel, Ibirra gushed, "I really like their chemistry. They're an unusual mix, but it really works." And for the record: None of the panelists were originally approached to be contestants.
So what instructions were Jeong, Thicke, McCarthy and Scherzinger given when it came time to guess who was underneath each mask? None...except no filters.
"Just to voice the first thought that is going on in their head because what we were trying to do was to have them help you at home to be accumulating information," Ibirra said. "We told them, ‘Try and think aloud. And try and explain and link the singing performance then to what that person could be based on what they had heard.' That was really it."
And while some contestants may seem obvious to those sitting at home, Ibirra explained it's a totally different experience for the panelists. "They had no idea who we had and it's season one and for all they know it could be anybody under there. There's a different when you can sit at home and Googling something, but when you're sitting on a stage and it's happening all in front of you, it's harder. It's a harder process for them."
Plestis said there was hours and hours of footage, mostly because of all the guessing, which then had to be extensively edited down.
"We couldn't stop them from guessing," he told us. "They were invested in it. They came to play, they wanted to guess, they didn't want to know anything."
One of the hardest aspects of the show was figuring out the right clues to offer the panelists and viewers about each celebrity. "The game really was from their perspective was to throw everyone off the scent of who they are, so whether that is by changing...none of them wanted to be guessed," Ibirra said.
So that meant the celebrities often came up with their own cryptic answers to the panelists' questions.
"They wanted clues that were pretty obvious, but at the same time, not," Cho explained to us about the clue-writing process.
Ibirra did admit that figuring out how much to reveal about contestants over the entire series proved to be one of the most surprising challenges of the first season "because everybody has different things that they know about people and what might be obvious to you might not be so obvious to me. So how much information can you give about somebody?"
Even after their fellow competitors were unmasked and eliminated from the competition, the celebrities were not allowed to know who else was on the show.
"When people were unmasked, you were not able to see,' Cho said. "That was really disappointing, because you know, you wanted to see who it was. I did not get to find out 'til it aired. Nobody would tell you! They really did keep it on the down low, which is really cool."
Ibirra confirmed all of the characters and costumes "will change" for the show's second season, which Fox officially announced on Jan. 30, with Fox's Rob Wade saying in a statement, "The response to The Masked Singer has been fantastic and we are thrilled to bring it back for another season. I am so happy to see a singing Peacock burst into pop culture! The Masked Singer is unique, bold, original and embraces the DNA of all the best FOX unscripted shows. We look forward to Season Two being even more fun, weird and wonderful than the first."
And yes, they've received a lot of interest from celebrities who've seen the show about becoming a contestant.
"It's really good and interesting people have started coming through," Ibirra teased "It's really, really interesting."
No one is off-limits, even if they have a signature voice a la Mariah Carey.
"No, because there are surprising people that are going to be revealed over the weeks that are maybe you would say they would be too obvious," Ibirra explained, "but the way that they can perform in genres that are not theirs doesn't always make it so obvious."