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'The Masked Singer' Trims Tree: Who Was Under the Tinsel? 'It's Horrible to Have to Lie'

The Tree on The Masked Singer
Michael Becker/FOX

The Tree on The Masked Singer.

[Spoiler alert: this story contains the identities of the eliminated contestant on Tuesday night's The Masked Singer.] 

Tuesday night's (Dec. 4) reveal of a former Saturday Night Live and Broadway star on The Masked Singer made all the sense in the world once you put all the puzzle pieces together. For weeks, the judges have lobbed some totally off-base guesses as to whose powerful pipes were behind a rocking cover of Meghan Trainor's "No Excuses," a take-no-prisoners run through Aretha Franklin's iconic "Think," Panic! at the Disco's "High Hopes," Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and a scorched-earth "Edge of Glory" by Lady Gaga.

Judge Ken Jeong was absolutely certain that it was Nia Vardalos, because they have worked together and he knows those clues about Broadway and a smelly cat revealed all. Fellow judge Joel McHale was just as positive that it was multi-talented star of stage and screen Megan Mullally -- another great guess, but also wrong.

If only they had connected the dots and hit up the iTunes store they might have been able to put together that the Broadway and TV star with the giant pipes and sparkling stage presence was Ana Gasteyer, who just happens to have an excellent 15-track holiday album, Sugar & Booze, which mixes vintage songs ("You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch," "Sleigh Ride") with some originals such as the Latin-tinged "Secret Santa" featuring pal Maya Rudolph.

Billboard spoke to Gasteyer before the reveal to find out why she decided to break her silence on the show and why it ranks in the top things she's done in her career.

Were you a fan of the show? Because you brought a particular sense of joy to your portrayal of Tree.

Thank you! I knew the show, not well, though my kids. My conundrum always professionally is: How do I connect the dots for people around Ana Gasteyer the singer and Ana Gasteyer the comedian? I have a Christmas album out, Sugar & Booze, which is my first holiday album, and I wrote original music for it and it's an incredibly ridiculous and joyful holiday record, so for me it was incredibly important to bring that to the costume, to the show. That's the entire reason I did the show, to help connect those two dots for people. That explains the jollity and the gaiety, if you will, of the character.

It's also obviously great product placement for the album -- a tip of the hat to your roll-out strategy. 

Thanks! It’s a homegrown passion project, so I appreciate it. I'm doing it all on my own. It's an entertainer's era, which we referred to in the clue packages. The music that I make and when I'm on the road with this nightclub act is very much this late 1950s/early 1960s ... If you were to hear a singer in a supper club, or on the radio or on television, Dinah Shore-era, that person was expected to tell jokes as well as they were expected to sing. For me, it's a very natural progression, but people no longer do that because we're in two separate boxes. The Masked Singer is kind of a cool opportunity because you're dealing with this kind of artifice, so I thought long and hard about what the costume was. Obviously I wanted a nod to the holidays, but I really wanted a nod to the mobile party unit and joy of the holidays and the jollity and goofiness of music in its celebratory nature.

Were you conscious of trying to tamp down your stage moves and personality to not give it away?

No. I really didn’t think anyone was going to get it was me. Ken [Jeong] and I did A Christmas Story live on television and we actually hung out -- our dressing rooms were next to each other -- it was ridiculous. For whatever reason, it's very confusing to people that I do both things, so I wasn't that worried about it. To most people, it was a surprise. The show is largely pop music, it's good karaoke at best, so I wasn't overly worried about that and I kind of can't help myself. Music starts to play and I'm wearing a big sparkly outfit, I'm gonna shimmy. That's just the kind of person I am.

How hard was it to perform in that ridiculously bottom-heavy costume?

It wasn’t as hard physically. I definitely had room to breathe, but it's much harder to sing inside the mask. I'm used to my voice live. I've done a lot of shows on Broadway and I perform with a band, so I'm used to hearing my voice out in the house amplified. So to hear it compressed up against the mask was the hardest part for me. It's a very muted experience, very muffled. It's kind of like being on Sudafed, like if you have a really bad sinus infection -- but your whole body. You can't really see, you can't really hear, so it is a very sensory-deprivation-tank experience.

That's what Paul Shaffer said -- he couldn't really walk, or see, or hear himself.

It's very, very confining. That's part of the whole experience overall because you're kept in isolation, so you really don't know who the other people are and you're relegated to your car and your dressing room and shuffled about. And I'm a really social person, that's why thank God for the Tree. I'm a very social person and the Tree and my persona are very connected. I deliberately perform with a band so I can connect with people onstage. The weeks I had dancers, like when I did Meghan Trainor and was out in the audience, I felt much more myself than the other weeks.

You were on Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers recently and you did a great job not spilling the beans. Was that hard to lie to their faces?

It's horrible to have to lie. I've been avoiding the whole thing since I got back on the plane to come home! Obviously people have been speculating all fall, people who know me and know my voice. But a lot of people don't, so that's fine too.

Speaking of guesses, some people floated your name, but also Megan Mullally and Nia Vardalos -- which is pretty sweet company, no? They're also very accomplished performers/singers/actors as well.

There were some really good comedy girls in there, for sure. The funnier ones to me were all the celebrity chef [guesses]. I just love the idea that there's this arsenal of celebrity chefs with incredible voices out there that we don't know about. That makes me laugh for some reason. I would like to get together a band with all of them, to be honest. Ana Gasteyer & The Celebrity Chefs -- that's gonna be the name of my group.

The food clues didn't help. Or did they?

The producers are in charge of the clue packages... but they were conscious in terms of coming up with the soup... I knew they were going down the food hole because of [SNL skit] Schwetty Balls and Martha Stewart. There was a lot of food affiliation with me because I had done the Soup Nazi for Seinfeld.

It seemed like you made it hard on yourself with Meghan’s “No Excuses” and Aretha’s “Think," not to mention "High Hopes," all of which are vocally pretty tough. Did you purposely choose difficult songs that would challenge you? 

I’m a high belter, so I think if anything on Meghan Trainor, we actually added a bunch of high notes. That's my sweet spot, are those big high notes. Stylistically, definitely different from what I do on the record, which is a much jazzier vibe. They offered "Think" as one of the smackdown songs and I did it and they liked it, so they suggested it for my second week.

Were you familiar with Panic! at the Disco? Or is that more in your kids' lane?

It's my son’s favorite band and Brendon [Urie] is a really brilliant singer. The producers proposed that because they always want it to live somewhere between pop karaoke... it's a big audience. My personal karaoke songs tend to be campier and in the funnier range, stuff like "Bohemian Rhapsody" with five other people or "Baby's Got Back" or Donna Summer. It's tricky because you're trying to find songs you can get cleared, songs that the network wants, it's definitely a challenge. I knew I wanted to do Meghan Trainor because she definitely has this throwback blue-eyed soul thing that I also do, so that felt like a good fit for me. She's a person I'd love to collaborate with one day, so that seemed fun. And there's a joy to what she does and a winky feminism. Aretha was just fun and belty. The Bonnie Tyler was a suggestion of my producer and it's such a hilarious, insanely '80s karaoke song that I decided to go for it. It just made me laugh. 

You managed to outlast a member of Destiny’s Child and Patti LaBelle, not to mention Kelly Osbourne and Raven-Symon√©... that's pretty impressive. 

It's super nice and flattering. Who knows? At the end of the day, it's a really, really good group of singers now. The show is incredibly popular and I don't think it's as much a singing competition as a guessing game. I have deep admiration of those singers and would be very happy to meet them for karaoke and a beer one of these days.

That sounds like a great Netflix holiday special pitch. 

Right? We should have our reality aftershow where we all sit around and cry and do karaoke together.

You’ve done TV, movies, Broadway -- how does this compare, difficulty-wise?

Like Paul Shaffer said and you indicated, it's hard. I found it very challenging because mostly at a certain point in a performer’s career... I guess it depends on what you want out of it, but the sense of control is really lost. Like I said, you can't see, you can't hear, so you have to really go with the flow, and I think at a certain point in your career, there are not a lot of situations where you have to do that. Even though with live television you have to go with the flow all the time, so I was uniquely equipped that way. But it was definitely super interesting and super challenging. I knew why I was there... I'm super excited about my record, which I love. I knew I was there dressed as a Christmas tree to literally spread holiday joy and spread the word about something that I threw my heart and soul into making. It is a combination of everything that I am -- I'm a comedian who sings and that was a great opportunity for me to do both of those things: to be funny and sing. There aren't a lot of places where you can do that.

So who knew and did anyone figure it out? 

My immediate family knew. My parents didn't know, so my mother will find out for her 80th birthday [today], which seems like a shocking gift. My Saturday Night Live girlfriends figured it out after the first episode and a couple of other friends. But aside from that, I've been keeping my blinders on and pretending I don't know what's happening.


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