'Masked Singer' Showrunner Promises Big Changes for Season 3, Says Cast is 'Unbelievably Interesting'

Masked Singer Banana
Michael Becker / FOX

The Banana on The Masked Singer. 

In case you were wondering, yes, there is a "shame" sash for crew members who just have to use their phone on the secretive set, Izzie Pick-Ibarra tells Billboard ahead of post-Super Bowl debut.

Keeping things secret on the set of The Masked Singer is a full-time job. And it's one showrunner Izzie Pick-Ibarra takes very seriously. It's a CIA-level endeavor that involves strict smartphone rules, cloak-and-dagger visual tricks that alert the singers in the cumbersome, hard-to-see-out-of costumes which crewmember they can trust, and the signing of iron-clad non-disclosure agreements.

"The people singers are allowed to talk to and the people who are allowed to know the singer’s identity wear a bit of cloth on our backs that let's them know they can use their real speaking voice with us," Pick-Ibarra tells Billboard, noting that a "select few" get that top-secret bit of apparel that the singers can spot at a distance through their masks. "With the others, [the contestants] won't speak. They're really good about it and they all take that very seriously."

The piece of stealth cloth changes from season-to-season -- so someone can't just go to a tailor and get a knock-off made -- and the singers are never, ever allowed to be on set without a mask on, even when they come onto the studio lot. In fact, they don't even have their names listed at the security gate, or anywhere on set. And don't even get her started on the "shame sash" that staffers have to wear if they absolutely must use their smartphones on set.

Billboard spoke to Pick-Ibarra about all the levels of security, as well as the exciting new twists in store for the third season of the show, which will kick off after the Super Bowl on Sunday night on Fox (10:30-11:40 p.m. ET), with performances from Miss Monster, Llama, Robot, Turtle, White Tiger and Kangaroo. The show will make its time-slot premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 8 p.m. ET.

How much harder is it getting to keep the celebrities secluded while they’re on the show after the success of the first two seasons?

It’s really hard. The difficult thing with this show is about the way Hollywood works, with agents and managers and reps, who are trained to share information with one another. To ask them to go against every ounce of instinct and not share the identity of the cast is a big ask. What's become easier is us asking agents and managers to sign NDAs [non-disclosure agreeements]. Season 1 was difficult because they didn't know what the show was ... whereas now everyone understands the premise and why we're asking them to sign those things. 

The show is notoriously tight on security. Tell me one of the lengths you go to to keep things under wraps.

Our security procedures have gotten much more elaborate and we have different levels of access to different parts of the stage. For instance, we'll humiliate anyone who wants to use their phone on set. Everyone tries to justify their need to use their phone, so if they want to do that, they have to go through the humiliating task of wearing this pageant sash. We can't ban them entirely, because then people couldn't do their job on show days, but we do humiliate them with the sash, so they only ask if they need it.

Do you ever slip up and call someone by their real name?

I still refer to the season 1 and 2 singers by their costume names. It's so drilled into me that I will never say their names. I actually get very shocked when they’re revealed, even though I know who they are, because I haven't seen that person ever without their costume.

What kinds of changes can we expect to see this year?

We changed the format up to make three mini-seasons. So we have six singers in each mini-season: groups A, B and C. We start with six in a group and they get whittled down to three. Then we go to the next group and the next and then we bring all the singers together so you have nine champions from the groups and they'll compete against one another to the end. It helps the viewers when we have a cast as large as ours and it's hard to track people's stories and personalities if you're flip-flopping between 18 people from the get-to. It's a way to let viewers know them in smaller groups, and by the time they come together, they have a handle on who each are over 19 episodes.

What’s been the most surprising thing about the success of the show so far for you?

Literally the speed at which it caught on. I'm not surprised that the show has done well everywhere, because the premise of the show is so genius. I take no credit for that whatsoever because of the South Korean format [we picked up]. You're using performing as the premise for a guessing game. We all needed the genre to change, it had gotten very tired. There wasn't anything out there that was family fun and where you could utilize a different part of your brain other than just critiquing someone's singing ability.

There are so many moving parts too. What's your favorite part of putting the episodes together?

To me it is heavenly to do these clue packages that are like mini-films. It's interesting as a producer to have this clue-driven thing that's different from the singer's emotional journey. We spend a huge amount of time on the clues and tracking what the panel is guessing. It's a really interesting, motivating challenge for us that we don't normally get to do.

It also seems like the perfect diversion in these anxious times.

It is if you think about what you're watching: a giant banana leaping around the stage with pyro going off. This season we have different packages with friends and family of the singers who are also in disguise. So we have Banana and mini-bananas that we interview to tell [viewers] what they're like as people. It's meant to be entertaining while you're sitting at home with all the generations and arguing and fighting about who is under the mask. Clue hunting is a fun thing to do... there aren't the same stakes as a career-making competition.

Why did you make the clue packages harder?

We thought we made it harder in season 1 and 2 and realized there are two kinds of people who watch: the very dedicated, Reddit clue hunters who figure things out very quickly and are obviously Googling everything. And then there's my mum, who doesn't really know that many famous people and who wouldn’t go Googling anything. We have to service both these groups, so enough clues for Reddit hunters to be engaged and to dig around in the packages and also enough clues to play at home when you're not a rabid hunter. It's such a weird balance. We realized in the past that we've given away things too definitively that could only be applied to one person. Now all clues have to be able to apply to numerous people.

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This season's cast is unbelievably interesting, so the reveals will be even more unexpected. We've had really strong voices before, but I definitely feel with this season ... we have people you literally would never think would be on the show. There are those who do it to surprise their kids, which are people you would not normally get, and then people who want to showcase that they're not stuck in one genre.

Do you have any dream contestants you haven’t tapped yet?

Yes, but I can't obviously say who they are. [Laughs]

What’s the secret to balancing real singers, actors, athletes, etc.?

When we're looking, we don't really look for a specific number of singers, so much as we want a percentage of the cast to have voices that will entertain people for a couple of months. When you can’t see someone’s face, you don’t realize how much you lose. In season 1, we learned a lot of really weird things -- we're used to shooting a performance show in a certain way with a lot of close-ups during an emotional song or when the singer hits high notes. We started doing that on this show, and we realized it's abolutely pointless. All you could see was someone with a deadpan expression, all the time, and you can't shoot that. You have to look for the way they're communicating without facial expressions. You have to get them to communicate physically with the audience ... how they use their hands, their body. ... We realized how important it is for someone to be deeply entertaining as a performer through their choreography and how their personality shines through under the costume. So, yes, they're great vocalists, but also great performers, and they are entertaining as hell to watch, and that's what will keep you tuning in.

Do the judges really not know who the contestant are?

They really don’t, and we go to great lengths to make sure they don’t. If they’re not invested and desperately trying too find out who is under the mask, it shows in the way they discuss the clues. Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg is the most competitive of them all. She has a very analytical brain and is very up on all the celebrities. When she's really stumped, it drives her absolutely around the twist.

Can we talk about Ken Jeong? He's so enthusiastically wrong so much of the time.

He's making a logical connection that may not really be the people under the mask ... "so-and-so did that and that's connected to this and that got me here." It actually makes sense, but the end result is that he's almost always wrong.

Do the celebs have to have a vocal audition?

Some people we ask to hear. It's not that easy to find examples of celebrities singing acoustically sonmwhere where it's just their voice stripped-back. Some people you might think are great, but you can't find anything online of them singing acoustically. Maybe they can't sing without help. We ask people who are not singers to send us clips.

How much say do the contestants have in picking their songs and costumes? 

They are very invovled in the picking and they get free rein of all the costumes we have. Some people request specific constumes, and when we can, we design what they ask for. We tend to get 25 sketches of costumes that would be good for a season and present ones we think they’ll respond to by doing a lot of research about them and what we think they'll like. Most of the time, that works brilliantly. But every single person, and I'm not sure why it happens, there's one costume they zone in on and that has a huge meaning for them on a personal level. We've had tears during costume-picking moments, when you find that costume that represents something they're going through that nobody would know about. Raven [Ricki Lake] was really brought to tears over her costume because her husband had recently passed and she felt like a a phoenix rising and the Raven is about mourning, if you look into the symbolism. They have to own the costume and feel that it's a representation of the character they can be. It's so important to us that they connect with the costume. The songs are a collaborative process. The singers submit the songs they want to do, we submit the songs we think would be great, and the ideas merge as we go through the clearance process.

Is the Masked Dancer spin-off a testament to your success so far?

I hope so. I'm not involved in The Masked Dancer because that's happening now [while we're working on our show]. But I will help out as a consultant and advise a bit, because it's a very difficult show to wrap your head around. It's a great testament to the show that people want more.

Super Bowl 54