The first season of Fox’s The Masked Dancer has already served up a wide variety of mystery celebrity hoofers, including Jersey Shore‘s Vinny Guadagnino (Hammerhead), singer Brian McKnight (Cricket), child safety activist Elizabeth Smart (Moth), science guy Bill Nye (Ice Cube) and rapper/actor Ice-T (Disco Ball).
So when it came to Wednesday night’s (Feb. 3) episode that would determine the semifinalists, a lot was on the line for the top five. One of the judge’s favorites, Exotic Bird, had put together a pretty epic run with impressive moves to Daddy Yankee’s “Con Calma,” another nice trip around the stage to Disclosure‘s “Latch,” an emotional take on Lewis Capaldi‘s “Rush” and, on Wednesday’s show, a surefire banger for the judges with Paula Abdul‘s “Opposites Attract.”
The latter should have won over judge Abdul, but alas, it was not enough to save this career singer from just missing out on one of the final spots. It’s not like it was her first ride around this reality show rodeo — not even with Abdul. In fact, the 31-year-old singer has been performing for more than half her life and, not for nothing, won the sixth season of American Idol, with Abdul watching from the judges’ table.
Yes, we’re talking out none other than “No Air” singer Jordin Sparks, who tells Billboard she had an absolute blast learning the choreography for the show, which she now plans to make a bigger part of her stage show. The singer is celebrating Wednesday night with the release of her first new single of the year, “You Still Think of Me” — which she co-wrote with Lisa Goe, Savvy Giersch and Marc David Schneider — the first of what she promises will be a steady stream of new music in 2021.
Billboard spoke to Sparks about why Exotic Bird let her spread her wings, how her 3-year-old son reacted to seeing her dancing on TV, and why the experience might forever change how she approaches her career. Check out the interview below.
You’ve obviously been down the reality show road before, so what was it about Masked Dancer that appealed to you?
To be honest, I was terrified at the very beginning and it took me a minute to say yes. “Are you crazy? You want me to get up there and dance like that? What?” I thought Masked Singer would ask first… but then Masked Dancer reached out and I said yes. We have a habit in life of not doing something because we’ve never done it before, but I decided to do it because it scared me a bit and it’s not my bread and butter. But I do love to dance. When I finally said yes and went in there, I had the greatest time. It was proving to myself that I could take on new challenges, even when they scare me a bit.
What was the hardest part of dancing in the costume?
That head, it gave me so many problems! It was so amazing the first time I tried it on… but they put these really cool plastic things on the back that looked like sea coral and when I put it on I almost fell backwards because it was so heavy. So they changed it and put lighter and thinner ones on there, but they still had their own push and pull, so if I went one way it took a second for the feathers to come back around.
What did it allow you to do that you might normally not do in public?
I know for me that if you give me a microphone I have no problem doing it, but dancing, as I said, is not my bread and butter. It was very nerve-racking at first, but when I put the mask on and started dancing, I realized I could be free. There’s such a huge freedom in being anonymous and going all out in a performance. Also, it’s not a judging competition, it’s just a guessing game, which takes major pressure off.
I saw you move it in your “Red Sangria” video from last year, but you haven’t really leaned into dancing that much in your career. What made you want to go for it on this show?
I’ve done a bit of dancing over the years in my career, but you’re right, I never really dove head-first into it. It was a moment to challenge myself and be like, “OK, even if it’s not the thing I’m best at I still enjoy doing it so I’m gonna do it!” After doing the show, I said I can get some choreo now and follow it and make it cute for a video. I think you’ll definitely see more dancing incorporated into my stuff coming up here.
Are you the kind who dances in her bedroom? Because your dance to “Con Calma” made it seem like you might.
I definitely am! [Laughs] I’m laughing because my husband just started dancing in the middle of the living room! We dance all the time, every day. My son will be 3 soon and every time we put music on he’ll say, “Play it again!” So yes, definitely dancing in the living room, kitchen, garage … I love to dance. For me it’s my favorite form of fitness and cardio.
What about the Exotic Bird costume appealed to you?
I loved the bright colors as soon as I saw it it was so me… it felt like it was about spreading your wings and flying and reaching new heights. I thought of that since doing the show was something new for me. After doing this since I was 12 for the past 15-16 yeas, there are not that many opportunities where you can do something entirely new or different in your career. That’s why it’s been eating me up inside that I haven’t been able to talk.
You have a 3-year-old son at home — did he know it was you?
I showed him a rehearsal video and in the middle of it I said, “It’s a bird mommy, but that’s also me. Mommy’s in there.” And he was like, “What?” He was very confused for a second and when the episodes started airing, he was like, “That’s you mommy!” and he was so excited to watch it. “Look at mommy being a bird on stage!” It was fun for me to watch him enjoying it.
Were you working the judges with your dance to Paula’s “Opposites Attract” for your last dance?
We were talking and they were like, “What do you think if around this week you dance to a Paula Abdul song?” And I said yes because it was a full-circle moment for me to be on another stage with Paula sitting at the table, such a huge moment. With “Opposites Attract” there’s no way you can’t start grooving when it comes on. I wanted to do the best I could and it was the only one where I was really nervous because it was Paula’s song and I really wanted to do it really well.
Did you think you were going to make it to the cusp of the semifinals or even win?
I never count myself out. I think given the opportunity and all the right things falling in place I think I could have made it to the finals or win. But I’m grateful to be where I am and grateful to have the opportunity to dance my butt off and have a good time, especially with the year we had, it’s nice to be on stage again.
You’re releasing your first new single of the year tonight “You Still Think of Me.” Can you tell us a bit about it and what it means to you?
It was a beautiful song that came up when I was looking for music and a friend sent it over and I was really affected by the emotion of it. The more we listened to it we thought we have to flip it. My husband and I were talking and we were like, “What if we flipped it from his point fo view?” In 20 minutes we flipped the words and put some stuff in there to make it closer to my experience. When we were done recording, we looked at each other and felt it was so special. I love the duality of it, the tense emotional feeling but also the really redemptive [vibe], which can come off a bit sad, but also really hopeful at the same time. Also vocally I was able to do things a bit differently… I usually do songs with a lot of background vocals and high notes, but this song is very raw and it has a lot of space. There’s a lot of space and breath between the lyrics. I’m really grateful that this is the first song people get to hear from this new chapter in the new year. There’s a lot of stuff coming music will be dropping all year.
Listen to “You Still Think of Me” below.