From the moment of its Jan. 2 debut, the show was a bona fide hit. And when Knight, disguised as the Bee, performed Sia’s “Chandelier” the following week, it was clear there was a seasoned performer in the
hive house, someone who would be one to watch. That was after audiences had already seen lively performances from the Peacock (Donny Osmond), the Lion (Rumer Willis), the Rabbit (Joey Fatone), and the Monster (eventual winner T-Pain).
Over the course of the 10-episode season, Knight also performed Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to do With It,” and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” and on Wednesday’s finale she sang Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” She didn’t have to make us — everyone already did. Like audiences, celebrity panelists Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, Ken Jeong, and Nicole Scherzinger had their suspicions that the Empress of Soul was under the mask.
Check out Knight’s unmasking above, and then read on for EW’s exclusive interview, where she tells us about how her “phone is ringin’ off the hook” since the finale, how hard it was to keep her participation a secret, her surprise at seeing who the other celebrity contestants were, and what advice she has for season 2’s contestants.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Doing this show has surely introduced you to a whole new audience — or brought renewed interest from those who do know you. With that I would think you’ve seen a boost in record sales or social media following. Is that the case, and if so how quickly did it happen?
GLADYS KNIGHT: Immediate. My phone has been ringin’ off the hook. My husband’s phone has been ringin’ off the hook. My office’s phone has been ringin’ off the hook. Different ages, different cultures — it’s been amazing. That’s what I’ve always loved about what I do, and the fact that I get a chance to interact with all kinds of people, all genres of music, all ages, I love that.
The calls you’re getting, those are offers for new projects?
Oh yeah! I get offers for television shows and things like that, interviews, movies.
All just in a matter of 12 hours.
Yeah. Heyyyy! [Laughs] It’s amazing.
Of these offers coming through, is there anything that has immediately piqued your interest?
Oh yeah. I’ve been looking at for a minute now doing my life story and just all kinds of different things that I’ve been a part of. They’re waiting on new music from me. So many people have called and said, “When are you going to do the next thing?” So I’m about to go into the studio now. And I know so many people in the industry – the fact that I was called to do the [national] anthem [at the Super Bowl], I was shocked. [Laughs] I just, to be honest with you — and I’m not trying to be…whatever — but I just prayed about it. “What would you have me do?” I love my country and anything that I feel — and that was my prayer, that I would touch somebody with our anthem, and seemingly, seemingly, it did. And that’s all I could ask. So there are a lot of things like that happening to me. You know, this particular show was a hit in Europe first, and I’m getting ready to do a tour there for about three months. I just love working over there. Royal Albert Hall is always packed full for me. I’ve been to Australia, Africa — I’ve just been so blessed.
With regard to a biopic, that sounds like something you very much want to be part of.
Yeah, yeah. Well, you need to be involved to sort of control [how it’s put together] because people have their own ideas about who we are and how we are. You have to be involved to help keep them on the straight and narrow. They kinda go left sometimes. [Laughs]
Kelly Rowland is portraying you on BET’s American Soul — do you have ideas for who you’d want to portray you in a movie? Is she on your list?
When I first started meeting with people about my life story, they asked me that question, and I had said Kelly or Regina King, who won her Oscar the other night, I thought about Brandy.
It’s not narrowed down at this point; the net is still kinda wide?
Yeah, pretty much. And I know these ladies. You gotta kinda know what you’re doing in terms of the actress, someone who has a considerable [idea] of being in the same place as the [character] is.
Let’s talk a bit more specifically about The Masked Singer. On a scale from one to 10, how difficult was it for you to keep all this a secret?
A 10! [Laughs] I’m tellin’ ya, day and night, especially people that know me, they kinda felt like they knew who it was. First they got into the show — that was the greatest part of it. They are loving this show. I got 10 great-grandkids and 17 grandkids, and they were so into it. So they were just pulling for me. “Poppie! Poppie” — that’s what they call me [laughs] — they were saying “Poppie, Poppie, we think that’s…” But we couldn’t tell them because then they would go tell their friends and their parents. But it was that kind of thing, and that was quite exciting to see them go through that.
You mentioned after you were unmasked that it was hard to see because of the Bee head, but beyond that, how difficult was it to perform in that costume?
Well, the singing part was cool. They got some amazing musicians up there. They are all phenomenal. But the other part of it, as far as the costume is concerned — I would’ve liked to have moved a lot more. Every piece was separate, and it was heavy. It was heavy. They had to redo a part of it because, even though I had the mic up to my mouth, they had to redo the screen because they had sound problems so I could get it closer to my mouth without the screen. So we adjusted a few things to make it better.
When this offer came to you, did you say yes right away, or did they have to talk you into it?
Well, I have to give credit to my team. My husband is my manager. One of my granddaughters is my assistant manager, and then I have Steve Walker is also part of my team — he used to do the Backstreet Boys and more — I have a great team. And I can’t leave out my agency, CAA. And I trust them. Now, I had never heard of The Masked Singer, but they had all kinds of information about it, and that’s how I knew it was such a big thing in Europe, so when I was over there I got a chance to see it, because I’ve been over there this year. But when they called me, I never would’ve guessed they were calling me to do it! [Laughs] And I’m kinda brave like that, being a Gemini who’s all over the place. [Laughs] So I’m always looking for things to do and ways to get it done so you can touch a broader sense of what people like. And I just love people. They are the most amazing thing, these people!
Okay, so you trust your team, but did there ever come a point during the show where you were like, “What have I gotten myself into here?”
When I first got there, yeah! [Laughs] I did not have a clue. I had no clue. First we went through the musical part and that I was very comfortable with, except that it was kinda out of my genre as far as the music that I usually do. And I was so glad to get to do some of the other stuff, like “Chandelier” and songs like that, which I’ve always loved singing, but people have always known me in a certain bag. But that was fun getting to express those songs. And I love country music, so they gave me an opportunity to do that. I mean, it was just awesome.
But we didn’t know nobody! Nobody knew nobody!
Yeah, you were operating in such a bubble, which I’m sure you’re not used to.
Yeah! They have that show down pat. They don’t even let you show your shoes. You get shirts to wear that say, “Don’t talk to me.”
At one point, even though the at-home audience had starting guessing it was you, there were some clues that made everyone think, “Wait, is it Patti LaBelle? But it doesn’t sound like Patti!” Given that the show was filmed last year, did you then go back to read new clues and play into social media reaction to try to throw people off?
Yeah, they would do that. It’s to their good that they had all of those things lined up to make it more interesting, in my opinion. You can talk to somebody and they can tell who you are, but that takes all of the suspense out of the game. So of course they have to think about, if you’re going to speak, if you’re going to talk about something, you have to disguise your voice. They have all of those technical ways to disguise them, which I think is great. I really loved that.
So just to be clear, you didn’t even know who your fellow competitors were until you watched and saw them unmasked?
Correct. Absolutely not. We weren’t in the same room, we weren’t on the same stage. When it came time to rehearse your spot, the studio is clean. Nobody’s in there watching you except the people that are going to be part of the performance.
So as you were watching the show — and I have to assume you were getting into it just as much as everyone else in the audience — was there anyone in particular you found yourself rooting for?
Yeah! That’s the other side of the coin. They had some fantastic performers, and I liked the fact that everybody didn’t sound alike. They had different ways of projecting their musical choice. I would’ve loved to have moved more than what I did; I was kinda anxious to do that, but my costume didn’t allow it. My wings were really heavy, and I had on these big boots that I’m not used to walking in. And there was this really high stage — they were even afraid because they didn’t want anyone falling off. So I didn’t get a chance to do that like some other artists did. But I could have done some songs with a little more tempo, I guess.
In the finale, you said, “We should always strive to do different kinds of things because they elevate us eventually.” How do you personally feel elevated by this experience?
Well, first of all, the unique nature of what it was — not just walking on stage, people know you, they either boo you or applaud. [Laughs] But technically, the way that they did it, the kind of music that you were able to do. And even though you didn’t know the others, it was a competition. I started off my whole life in a competition at 7 years old, and I just happened to be blessed enough to win it — that was Ted Mack’s The Original Amateur Hour, in 1952. So to be in another contest where you were against other people, I had really done that since then. It was so fun.
We know there will be another season of the show, so what advice do you have for future contestants?
I hope they would be open-minded enough — you’re never too old or too young to learn and progress with whatever you’re doing. If you’re singing or dancing or whatever you’re doing, you get a chance to learn a different genre or vernacular. Get out there and do it! It is a fun show… even though you don’t get a chance to hobnob with your buddies and know it’s your buddies! [Laughs]