When a state-side version of South Korea’s eccentric singing competition show called The Masked Singer was first announced, the initial teasers presented a concept that was possibly too unconventional for American audiences. But after bringing in more than 11 million viewers for the first Masked Singer season finale, it was apparent that the series was here to stay. It became a midweek escape where the audience could play amateur detectives and be reacquainted with celebrities who have been off the public’s radar. Most of the winners on The Masked Singer have been musicians whose spotlights have faded: T-Pain as Monster, Kandi Burruss as Night Angel, and LeAnn Rimes as Sun. Their clue packages paint sympathetic portraits, like 2020 winner Rimes who spoke about public backlash over her relationship with husband Eddie Cibrian and her struggles with mental health. But, more and more often, the crop of contestants on The Masked Singer includes newsmakers, too — many of whom have made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The reality show sprinkles in contestants who are, in a word, polarizing. Former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who pushed the racist “birther” movement surrounding President Barack Obama during his campaign and presidency, appeared on season 3 in a cutesy bear costume. When she was unmasked, after attempting to rap to “Baby Got Back,” the panel applauded her performance and panelist Jenny McCarthy called out, “You kicked butt, Sarah Palin!” despite Palin being the first eliminated contestant from her group. The show painted the former Alaska Governor as a wacky TV personality with uncoordinated dance moves. And the moment became so integral to The Masked Singer, that throughout the past two seasons, the panel has justified far-fetched guesses by recalling that even Palin has been on the show.
About midway through the 2021 season, Grandpa Monster was revealed to be YouTuber Logan Paul, who passionately screamed the “I don’t give a damn about my reputation” lyric from Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” — a blunt reminder that his infamy stems from multiple controversies including his 2017 “suicide forest” video. Paul eventually removed the video and it was replaced with an apology posted on his channel. The following year YouTube suspended all advertising on his channels after more unsettling behavior, which included tasering two rats. In 2019, he joked on his Impaulsive podcast that he would “go gay for for just one month.” He later tweeted that it was a “very poor choice of words.” When he was unmasked on the Fox series, he requested the camera zoom in for a close-up of his face. He claimed to be reformed and guest host Niecy Nash was able to “confirm” his transformation by looking into his eyes.
Later, '90s boy band Hanson was also eliminated from the show after masquerading as the Russian Dolls. The panel jumped up and down as they complimented the group for their vocals and being the first band on the show. Hanson’s clue packages focused on Zac being in an accident and their early disputes with their label, but most recently, the band was called out by fans for their lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and apparent disregard for COVID-19 restrictions. A Vice article from November 2020 addressed Zac’s now-deleted Pinterest account called “Commanding Officer” that included memes; for example, one that implied men who do not like guns are gay. He later defended himself and called the meme a “joke.” That same month, Isaac posted an Instagram story in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people not to travel during the holidays to avoid spreading COVID-19. “I for one will not comply,” Isaac posted. Isaac emailed a statement to Vice apologizing for the Instagram story. “I don’t believe there is a group conspiring against Christmas, only that I hope value is placed on both practices of safety and of faith,” he wrote.
California gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner also appeared this season for one episode as the Phoenix, and while her rendition of Kesha’s debut single “Tik Tok” was almost unrecognizable, the real issue is the timing of her appearance. After Jenner was unmasked, the panelists were gentle on her, as they typically are when singers can’t quite keep up; McCarthy told the former Olympian that her children would be “proud.” But her stint on the show came just two months before her announcement that she is running for Governor of California, a campaign in which one of her promises is to prevent trans girls from playing on girls sports teams after years of supporting the Republican Party, which has launched several attacks on trans rights. This appearance gently put Jenner back on the public's radar, just before announcing her run for political office.
Whether purposely or indirectly, The Masked Singer appears to be becoming a place where polarizing and political figures can drum up positive press, without any way to fruitfully address the divisive views or hurtful actions that those figures may represent. Even the panel’s guesses suggest that anyone is welcome to rehabilitate their image with a goofy, lighthearted display — no matter what controversy lurks in their past.
In season 4, McCarthy suggested that former Minnesota Senator Al Franken could be Squiggly Monster, even though Franken resigned from the Senate in 2018 after multiple sexual misconduct allegations. In the season 5 premiere, McCarthy theorized that Texas Senator Ted Cruz was possibly the Snail. This episode aired a week after Cruz traveled to Cancun while many Texans were trapped without power or water during a historic winter storm. McCarthy would not have known Cruz would be involved in this scandal considering the season began shooting in February. However, at the time of filming Cruz was being widely criticized, including by former staff members who told New York Magzine’s Intelligencer they were “disgusted,” over his continual backing of Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud ahead of the insurrection on January 6.
And before Grandpa Monster was revealed to be Paul, Scherzinger guessed that his younger brother Jake Paul was inside the costume. In 2018, a freestyle rapping video of Jake Paul included him saying the n-word multiple times. He also threw a huge party in Calabasas, California last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about the party during a November 2020 interview with The Daily Beast, Jake called the virus a “hoax.” Calabasas Mayor Alicia Weintraub told The LA Times that a representative for Jake apologized to her, but he has yet to issue a public apology. Predictions and guesses are not the same as actual casting, but the series still kept these theories in, using the Franken, Cruz, and Paul guesses for shock and quick laughs rather than considering the message those guesses send.
The Masked Singer, for all its ridiculousness, is supposed to be a show where people who’ve been wrongly cast aside can finally make things right. From Rimes getting out from under her tabloid romance, to season 1 winner T-Pain overcoming his biggest transgression in the music industry (too much auto-tune) and season 3 victor Kandi Burruss using her anonymity to rediscover her confidence — and her serious pipes — The Masked Singer convinces audiences to give performers a second-chance to define themselves and their careers. But what happens when The Masked Singer gives the same compassionate backstories to contestants whose transgressions aren’t about low confidence, being misunderstood, or the callousness of the entertainment industry, but instead their own inexcusable actions or statements? What do we take away from a series offering the same redemption, without possessing any of the tools to prove evidence of growth or accountability? Well, The Masked Singer is not the only mainstream series to capitalize off of controversial personalities. And as we’ve seen in other series, audiences tend to push back.
In 2016, Saturday Night Live tapped then-candidate Donald Trump to host the show, in which he performed silly, popular dances. Former cast member Taran Killam, who appeared in a sketch with Trump, later called the episode “embarrassing and shameful as time goes on.” Critics accused SNL of helping Trump win by giving him a platform that made the controversial presidential candidate appear innocuous ahead of the 2016 election. The sketch comedy program also recently had billionaire Elon Musk host in May of 2021, rubbing many the wrong way for multiple reasons especially because Musk spent much of 2020 sharing questionable COVID-19 opinions with his 53 million Twitter followers. And we can’t forget the most heated Dancing With the Stars casting ever: former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer competed on season 28. Spicer’s participation on the series caused then-host (and one-time Masked Singer Taco) Tom Bergeron to voice his disapproval, saying he’d previously hoped for a “joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of divisive bookings from any party affiliations.” Dancing With the Stars and SNL faced immediate public backlash for Spicer, Trump, Musk's appearances, but the anonymity and the absurdity of the Masked Singer premise (along with the panel’s pacifying comments) act as a mask over any potential controversy.
If this celebrity guessing game wants to continue being entertaining and feel-good, though, something's got to give. The Masked Singer and its panel endorse the show as a place for a fresh start and a little fun, but that does not mean its viewers are not mindful of what they are watching. When the identity of a contestant becomes obvious (generally after a couple performances), and it's clear that the singer is someone known for sharing hurtful content or commentary, the whole experience becomes uncomfortable, and any potential joy feels diluted. Yes, The Masked Singer dresses celebs in bizarre costumes and we watch them act out scenes in over-the-top clue packages, but the show can also be genuinely moving, when contestants open up about getting through past troubles or finally feeling appreciated and recognized beneath the mask. These moments of vulnerability peppered throughout a genuinely silly set-up is a much needed break on a Wednesday night. But how can we shift our focus to the emotional, charming side of The Masked Singer when we have to anticipate the discomfort of watching someone who’s yet to really earn a redemption arc being celebrated during the series' weekly unmaskings?
If this trend continues, instead of trying to be the first to analyze the Masked Singer's clues correctly, soon we’ll be calculating how much longer we can tolerate seeing notorious figures take that bedazzled stage.