'The Masked Singer': How the Fox Reality Show Scored Top Talent (and Kept It Secret)

Veteran reality show producer Craig Plestis (The Apprentice, Deal or No Deal) discovered The Masked Singer while out to dinner with his family in Los Angeles. They were at a Thai restaurant waiting for their food when they looked around the room and every single person was glued to the television — so naturally, he Googled the show (the Thai version of The Masked Singer) and tried to find out if he could purchase the American rights. Days later, he had secured the rights, and the following week the reality TV veteran began his latest venture.

"It was flypaper TV right from the get-go," the Fox reality show executive producer told The Hollywood Reporter. "I just knew right away this was a special show. It was unbelievable in its appeal — and the game play, spectacle, family-viewing...[and] it was this huge hit in Asia.... If we do the job here, it should work here."

The Masked Singer is a top show in South Korea, where it originated — and where Ryan Reynolds appeared on the series (and went viral) while promoting the first Deadpool movie — and has versions in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The premise is simple: Stars, clad in elaborate (and occasionally nightmare-inducing) costumes, sing for a panel of judges, who then try to guess who they are. The American version, which premieres Jan. 2 on Fox, has a panel that includes Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger, and Robin Thicke, with host Nick Cannon. The first season was filmed during a month in the fall, with insanely thorough security — and strict NDAs — that prevented the identities of each participant from leaking.

THR spoke with Plestis about adapting the show for an American audience, securing (what he purports to be) top-level talent to participate and exactly how secretive the process was. Read on to find out just how seriously security took their jobs, how he got A-list stars to sign on and whether he worries the show is a little too weird for American audiences.

The show hinges on its celebrity guests and getting a certain tier of talent. How did people react when you approached them? How did you get top-level talent to agree?

From the get-go, Fox asked how we were going to cast this. They were firm in saying, "We're not going to do the show unless you get unbelievable talent for the show." It has to be recognizable names. When the masks come off, everyone has to recognize that face — or they have to have some huge credibility, either in sports, in entertainment, TV, film, music. Some people were easy to cast. They saw the potential of the show. They loved the idea of being behind a mask and no one knowing who they were, and showing off the talent that no one knew that they even had. They got it right away. Some people said no. In the end, we got great names, and all of them are big in their field in one way or another. The stats that we have, between the Grammy winners [and other achievements], is really phenomenal. When we started putting together and looked at all the awards all these people have won, we realized we just don't have one or two great people; we have 12 great people.

How did you keep the contestants a secret?

It was phenomenal what we had to go through to keep everyone a secret. All the stars, before they even left their house, they had to meet at another location. They dressed in cloaks and masks. We had drivers who had no idea who they were. Everyone was under a different alias, and when they pulled up on the lots, everyone had to wear these cloaks and wear these masks. They were sequestered into a private area that was guarded by security guards. When they came on the set, they had to either wear their complete outfit, or they had to wear, again, these cloaks that had gloves. No skin appearing at all. No way to identify the person. If they were accompanied by a manager or a loved one, those individuals had to wear cloaks because, as we know very well in this town, if a big celebrity came and their manager or agent came, it's kind of easy to figure out who it is. It's one of seven possible people. It worked out great because on the whole production only seven people knew who these people were. Our director didn't know. Our lighting people didn't know. No one on the crew. And it created this magic on the set that I haven't seen before.

Between takes on a typical show, the crew is calling loved ones. They're checking sports pages and whatnot. And I noticed during takes and down times, I would walk around the set. They would all huddle, and everyone is trying to guess, "So who do you think is the peacock?" "I think it might be this person, or that person." And they're all playing the game.

This was another moment where walking around we'd be like, "It's gonna work." You're playing the game. These people who have seen 101,000 reality shows are playing the game right now in the studio, and I think America is gonna be playing the game as well.

Did you film the reveals in front of the audience?

We did the reveals in front of a truncated audience that we vetted thoroughly, and some friends and family, as well. We needed to have that immediate response, especially for the performers. They've spent weeks before they even got to the set perfecting their craft and their performances and their singing, so we wanted to make sure they felt the energy from a portion of the audience. But that audience was extremely well-vetted. We took all cameras away from everyone. Our lawyers [wrote] contracts that were a mile long that everyone had to sign to keep the secrecy.

And then also, we told them before each reveal that they're part of this family now. They're going to see who that person is, and we kindly ask them don't tweet, don't mention who it is, and be part of this special experience. So far, everyone's gone with it. Knock on wood.

When setting up the judging panel, was there anything you were looking for in terms of the people that you ultimately hired?

We tried to get a good mix. Panels are hard to cast and to get that chemistry to work. We've seen it only a few times on TV and I really think on day one we had that. Robin is an incredible performer, and when I interviewed him, he watched the sizzle of the show that we had put together from the foreign formats. He got it right away. He loved it. I only wanted people who loved the show, not people who wanted to work on the show. So, he got it.... He told me a story where he plays a game with his son where, when they watch animated TV shows or commercials, and when there's a celebrity voice in there, they try to guess who it is. And he goes, "I always guess who it is. I have a golden ear and I can figure out any voice." I said, "OK, we're gonna put you to the test." And he just got it right away.

Jenny got it right away as well. She saw the sizzle and she wanted to be part of it from the get-go, as well as Ken. Ken has a great story, because not only did he love the show, his mother loved the show. He went to his mom and said, "Should I do this Masked Singer show?" And she goes, "It's the hugest hit in Korea. You better do it!" So his mom actually made him do the show.

Nicole brought such joy and life to the set, as well as her credibility of knowing so many people in the music industry. We do have Grammy winners within the show, so does she recognize the voice of someone who possibly worked with her?

The celebrities helped design their costumes, but how much say did they really have?

They all picked them for particular reasons. I can't go into it, because it will divulge a little bit who they were, but for a good number of them, it was part of the experience. There was one character, when they were picking out their costume, reminded them of an experience that they had with their family. We had laid down all the pictures of the different costumes we were starting to work on, and they gravitated toward one, and then they made some notes on it, and they made some additions to it, and this one particular person started crying because it brought up memories. It was really amazing because these costumes became a part of them. They lived who that creature was. The person who is inside the peacock became the peacock. Even off the set, they were the peacock.

Also, just by being inside the mask, they could not talk to the crew. They could not talk to anybody. They had these T-shirts when they'd do rehearsals that said, "Don't talk to me." Just so we made sure no one on the crew would go up to them and talk to them. So when the masks finally came off at the end of the show, it was a huge experience for them. They exploded in talking nonstop about their experience. They're celebrities [who are] used to people constantly coming up to them, asking questions and stuff. For the first time in their lives, they actually were more contemplative and isolated in a way they've never experienced before. There was a whole Masked Singer therapy show out there, I'm sure.

How do you think audiences are going to receive the show? Do you worry that it could be a little too weird?

I don't try to predict 100 percent what America is going to want to watch. I go into my head a little bit of what I like, and what I want to see. I really gravitate toward nonderivative formats, and something that's fresh and different. I think when you look at the landscape, people want to see something different that they haven't seen before. When you're first in that field doing something different, and if you're good, people watch it. I think if they do come, they'll have a great experience, and they'll have a fun time. They get to see some incredible TV, some incredible performances. They can play a guessing game like no other guessing game on TV, and then they can find out if they were right or wrong.

It's a game the whole family can play on the couch, as well, and have a debate. Within the show, besides just their singing voice, you can kind of make a determination who they might be. There's some Q&A with the contestants, but their voices are distorted on stage. And then, before each performance, we show a small, little clue package as to who they might be, and within that clue package there are clues that, if you pay attention, you can figure out who that person is. But like a good detective story, you have to pay attention. At the end of every episode, we reveal a little bit of some of the clues that were shown in that episode of the unmasked individual. So, just again, to put it out there, if you're a good detective, if you love detective TV shows, this is another great show for you. Because it's right there in front of you.

Have you started thinking about season two and who you'd want to get for it?

Yes. I have a list I would kill to have on the show. Hopefully the individuals will watch it and be inspired to be on the show and, just like in Korea and in Thailand, it really sparks a lot of other people to want to be on the show and surprise their kids when they're watching the show. It's such a family show over there and a lot of moms and dads go on the show and they don't tell their family, so they watch it together and then, when the mask comes off, the kids go crazy. "Oh my god! You were on the show?!" And actually they film it and they put it on the web.

We really try to make it a fun experience for everyone who is behind the mask. So it's hard work, but it's a rewarding experience for those individuals. And also, I just hope for our costumes to get bigger, crazier, and then just more of a wow factor on top of that.

The Masked Singer premieres Wednesday, Jan. 2, at 9 p.m. on Fox.