[Spoiler alert: this story contains the identities of the eliminated contestant on Wednesday night’s The Masked Singer.]
Wednesday night’s (Dec. 4) reveal of the world-famous vocalist underneath the towering butterfly wings on The Masked Singer was one of the biggest, and most shocking, of the season so far. For weeks the judges have tried to figure out the clearly professional chops behind soulful takes on Norah Jones‘ “Don’t Know Why,” Bon Jovi‘s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Bang, Bang” by Jessie J, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande.
But when she busted out Demi Lovato‘s “Sorry Not Sorry” and then Imagine Dragons‘ “Believer” in the smackdown against Thingamajig, most of the panel thought they knew exactly who was beneath the mask. The clues seemed to throw the others off, though, including teases that she had shared the stage with giants (which led some to think that was a football reference), a glimpse at a Broadway Playbill and the a Billboard Hot 100 chart and a promise that she was “done apologizing” for who she used to be.
Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg was pretty certain it was Destiny’s Child‘s Michelle Williams, while Robin Thicke thought Leona Lewis or Monica and Ken Jeong was certain it was Kerry Washington, maybe Victoria Beckham.
Turns out McCarthy Wahlberg’s nose was the best, as once Butterfly took off her glittery head it was none other than DC’s Williams, who followed on the heels of previous unmasked celebs skater Johnny Weir, gamer Ninja, boxer Laila Ali, Dr. Drew Pinsky, bandleader Paul Shaffer, comedian Sherri Shepherd, actress/singer Raven Symoné, Kelly Osbourne and R&B icon Patti LaBelle. The unveiling broke a yearlong hiatus for Williams, who left the Broadway cast of the Tony-winning Once on This Island last December on doctor’s orders, six months after the singer checked herself into a mental health facility to deal with depression.
Billboard spoke to Williams before the reveal to find out why she decided to break her silence on the show and why it ranks in the top five things she’s done in her career.
You took a year off last December and said you weren’t going to do anything, but then you did this. How come? Did this seem like a good way to ease back into the public eye?
I thought so. The cool thing was it was right in the middle of me taking time off. I really intended to take this entire year off. Management and everybody was like, “Your identity is hidden, no one will know who you are until the day you have to be unmasked.” So I was like, “OK, I can rock with that.” Of course a few people knew… I’m close with the music director of the show, he’s a friend of mine, so I felt comfortable and I’d be taken care of. And as it relates to anything I’ve done in 20 years in the industry, The Masked Singer is probably one of the top three to five things I’ve ever done.
Why is that?
The way they handle you, it’s good energy. Everybody wants you to be your best. I miss people that worked on the show. And musically for me, it worked for me to do… I felt like I was able to shine a little bit.
Were you a fan of the show before they asked you to be on it?
I definitely was a fan of the show during season 1, when so many people thought I was on the show! My Twitter feed and Instagram were blowing up during season 1 before I knew what was going on. I was like, “Oh, lord, what was said? What is going on?” But it was all because of some excitement because people thought I was on season 1.
Who did people think you were?
I can’t recall. I want to say the Lion [Rumer Willis]? … I actually loved it. I’ll take it!
Were you conscious of trying to tamp down your stage moves and perosnality to not give it away?
Uh-huh. What I battled was… say the first song I did, “Bang Bang,” it’s high-powered choreography and the background I come from is fierce choreography — the moves, the singing… I was like, “How do I dial that down?” It’s so hard for me to dial that down. I tried as best I could. [The show’s musical director] is one of best ever, and he did these amazing arrangements. And you pair him with me, this church girl, who loves live music? I was like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.” That music just got down in my soul. There were times when I said [to myself], “Don’t do this, that’s a signature Destiny’s Child move, don’t put your hand on your hip, or don’t do that. There are certain signature placements that our creative director has given to me personally that works well for me and I found myself doing that because that’s in me. I was like, “Girl, you’re just giving yourself away!”
How hard was it to perform in the giant wings and bulky head?
The crazy thing is I loved my costume. I loved the colors. [Costume designer] Marina [Toybina] did such an amazing job. I will say this: Were the costumes a little hot in terms of breathing, especially when you’re doing technical days when you’re doing a lot of waiting? I was like, “Can I please take this head off?” They give you a little portable fan so you can get some air. Other than that, I was patient. The wings were heavy and I had to walk sideways down hallways and onto stage beause the wingspan was so wide. But these were amazing costumes, and if I ever have to do something that requires a costume, I’m calling Marina.
You talked in the package about insecurities about your voice, which seemd odd since you were one-third of one of the most popular groups of all time. Was that for real?
Oh yeah, that was no lie. Because I’ve done a lot of gospel, so I’m kind of insecure because mainstream [fans] don’t know my voice. And sometimes social media… it’s bad when you read the comments. I like engaging with people on social media. I don’t want to not talk to the people that are being gracious all because there are some mean ones out there. But sometimes before you get to the nice ones you have to get through a couple mean ones. Apparently I don’t have the most commercially appealing voice or whatever. People have their favorites, but vocally I was not a favorite in the group, and that stuck with me.
That struck me, because here you are in this enormously popular group and you still feel that way, which is proof that despite all the sucess, it’s still a struggle every time you go out there.
It’s still a struggle. I’m in a theater show as we speak, and you want to make sure… I hope the people like it. That’s what we signed up for — people are buying their tickets and you want to make sure they’re pleased so they’ll continue to support you on the next move you do. At the same time, you have to go up there and be you, not bend or conform… no, do it the way God gave it to you. Be who you are.
The Demi song seemed right in your range, but were you nervous about the Imagine Dragons one? That seems like more of a challenge, even though you totally made it your own with that ad lib at the end.
Yeah! But when I think about it, I probably should have done more stuff like Imagine Dragons, because I probably would have stayed on the show a pinch longer. When you’re doing songs like “Bang, Bang” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” or Norah Jones “Don’t Know Why,” I’m telling you the musical gods took over because there’s one thing I did in “Don’t Know Why” where it’s like you just can’t temper that church girl in you. You just had to belt. I think it was the higher register that gave me away. If I had continued to do stuff like Imagine Dragons and songs I would think would be more intimidating to do… actually, I can’t say that. From September to December until episode 9 or 10…
But really, how is the best vocalist — I’m going to assume that there’s no one else with your resumé left on the show — going to go out before the final episode?
The only thing I can think of was at what point could the judges act like they didn’t know who it was? I was sad that I was off the show, but when I tell you I left all of me out there, I didn’t leave the show saying, “Man, if I would have sung this, or did this…” I think I did everything I could do. I gave it my all. I literally collapsed because I left it all out there. I’m pleased… but thank you for saying that. I would have loved to win.
You’ve played Coachella, the Super Bowl, which were also very hush-hush, surprise gigs with DC. How did this show compare when it came to nerves, prep and secrecy?
It’s the difficulty of lying. Remember for the Super Bowl I couldn’t tell anybody. For Coachella I didn’t even tell my immediate family because they get so excited and they’ll start Facebooking it and telling it. Even for The Masked Singer — I do have a personal Facebook page and I use it to lurk and make sure that my nieces and nephews aren’t posting. I can’t police them, but I’ll be like, “Take that down! That has curse words!” I looked on my sister’s page and I think on my first performance she was like, “I know that voice anywhere!” But I couldn’t tell her anything. I couldn’t tell her, “Hey, sis, take it down.” Or if you do post don’t allude that it’s me. I couldn’t say anything. I talked to my aunt not too long ago when I called to see how she was doing and she was like, “Oh, well, before you leave, Miss Butterfly.” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And also I’m in a musical now called A Snow White Christmas and a lot of the cast members, I believe they know it’s me, so they’re asking me questions like, “We’re going to watch The Masked Singer tonight, do you want to come to our hotel and watch it?” And i’m like, “No, I’m still learning lines. I got an early morning. I can’t watch.” Some of the little kids are asking me, “Miss Michelle, are you on The Masked Singer?” And I’m like, “No, I’m in rehearsal here with you, I don’t have time for that!” I had to lie!
That must be tough for a church kid!
Oh yeah. I said, “Jesus, now I know one of the commandments is to not lie”… and I’m like, “I’ve been lying… but I think you’ll forgive me, right?” These lies are not compromising anyone’s health or anything like that! I’m saying that to say I come from a stock where we’ve had to lie because the element of surprise, you don’t want to give things away. I’ve seen Kelly Rowland do some interviews and they keep asking her about a Destiny’s Child reunion. Like we’re gonna tell you? We’re not gonna tell you! So I have to use that same energy for The Masked Singer.
So did you tell Kelly and Beyoncé?
No, I can’t because I’m just so scared. But I’ll tell you this: I know they’re watching.
Who did you tell?
My management knows. But I’ve been getting text messages from Bey, Kelly, my cousin — so I know people are watching. But I don’t want to say nothing. But I’m gonna go ahead on and say it: Bey and Kelly know it’s me. They know my voice. They know! They know it’s me. But they won’t say anything. But I still signed an NDA [non-disclosure agreement].
What was the hardest part of being on this show?
When I’m comfortable I love talking to people… but how can I say this? Knowing that I’m in my trailer, that I’m secluded, or thinking I know who someone else is on the show and I recognize their body language and I couldn’t say anything. That’s the hardest part. Because most of the time when I’m backstage at awards shows, it’s like a reunion of sorts. You get to hug people you haven’t seen in a while. You can’t do that on this show. Even when I wanted to go grab some fruit from catering, someone else had to grab it for me. You have to be in complete disguise, so that was hard. They run a tight ship over at The Masked Singer.
Now that you’ve got this and the Christmas show, is this a good way to slip back into the public eye after a year off?
Yeah, it’s kind of a good way, and I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that it’s also OK to say no. The world goes on and don’t wear yourself out trying to please everybody. The Masked Singer brought me so much joy, and like I said, it’s probably one of the top five things in 20 years that I’ve done in terms of it being a big platform and a big stage. It’s about how I feel walking away — did I make new friendhships? They’re just so genuinely nice there.
How excited are you going to be to finally be able to talk to Bey and Kelly about it?
It’s like freedom! It’s kind of like a sip of Imodium for a person that’s constipated. There’s lies locked up in me that I can finally let it go. Imodium, that was probably a nasty analogy. [Laughs] Uhhh! I finally get some relief and I don’t have to lie. By the time I’m revealed tonight, the Christmas musical I’m on will still be onstage. But tomororw when I get back to the theater, I can’t wait for the kids and everybody to say, “We knew it was you!”