Spilling the T: First ‘Masked Dancer’ reveal is controversial ‘90s rapper

If there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s that everything is better when you’re wearing a mask. And Fox’s The Masked Singer was totally ahead of the curve, enforcing face-covering, extreme sequestering, and social distancing in 2018, long before such measures became pandemic safety precautions. For two bonkers seasons in the bonkers year that was 2020, The Masked Singer provided escapist entertainment when we all needed it most. (It’s still hard to believe that Sarah Palin rapping “Baby Got Back” dressed as a Flaming Lips/Care Bear furry wasn’t the craziest thing that happened that internet-breaking night back in March.)

And now, as we head into a scary and uncertain new year, equally bonkers spinoff The Masked Dancer has arrived to keep us all amused and bemused. Honestly, at this rate, I would gladly welcome other spinoffs like Masked Idol, America’s Next Top Mask, The Real Masked Housewives, The Masklorette, or RuPaul’s Masked Race in 2021. (Side note: If you’re currently craving more actual Masked Singer, the U.K. version just started airing this weekend. You’re welcome.)

As you can imagine from its title, the Masked Dancer concept is pretty simple: Just like its sister show, it stars a tro of mystery celebrities dressed as bipedal animals, incredible edibles, and rando inanimate objects. Hijinks and hilarity inevitably ensue. The hardest-working man on Fox, Ken “I Know Exactly Who This Is” Jeong, has returned as the main judge, but I wouldn’t call it a triumphant return; his already-spotty guessing track record is unlikely to improve, since he and the rest of the judges (which include High School Musical graduate Ashley Tisdale and Brian Austin Green, a.k.a. the Giraffe/David Silver) must rely mainly on clue packages and body language. But we do get to briefly hear the cosplaying contestants’ unaltered speaking voices in the “Word Up!” segment. (Another side note: I’m always happy to see Larry Blackmon and Cameo get some recognition/royalties.) And if there’s anyone with an expert eye who can figure it all out just from studying these mystery hoofers’ fancy footwork, it’s the panel’s resident vibeologist, Paula Abdul.

Sunday’s premiere kicked off with the dancers-in-disguise of Group A, and ironically, the first celebrity to exit was the most dance-floor-appropriately attired of them all, the Disco Ball. From the neck up he looked like a Studio 54 limited-edition of Mr. Potato Head, with those Elton John eyeglasses and that plastic Burt Reynolds ‘stache affixed to his spherical chrome cranium. But from the neck down, he was a little stiff. While the judges guessed that this might be an old-school emcee like LL Cool J, MC Hammer, Rev Run, Coolio, or Diddy, and the Twitterverse was guessing Snoop Dogg (who actually once told Yahoo Entertainment that he’d like to compete on The Masked Singer), I would have never guessed that this leisure-suited booty-shaker was the one and only Original Gangster himself, Grammy winner Ice-T.

“My daughter watched The Masked Singer,” Ice explained to host Craig Robinson. “And then when I seen Lil Wayne [a.k.a. the Robot from The Masked Singer Season 3] take the helmet off, I'm like, ‘OK, this is cool.’ Then when I see Busta [Rhymes, a.k.a. the Dragon from The Masked Singer Season 4], I'm like, ‘Imma get a call eventually.’” Ice also said signing up for The Masked Dancer was the craziest thing he had ever done in his career — which is a saying a lot, considering that this is the man who created a national PMRC scandal 30 years ago with his metal band Body Count’s controversial track, “Cop Killer.”

Anyway, Ice was a good sport about his early elimination, although he did take issue with Ken’s wrong-as-usual guess: the much, much older Smokey Robinson. “Hey, Smokey Robinson was Ice-T back in the day!” Ken reasoned, unconvincingly. Were the judges’ other guesses any better? Were mine? Let’s assess…

The Hammerhead

Busting some funky-fresh ‘90s moves to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” the Hammerhead brought a full-on sharknado to the stage with his energy, attitude, and athleticism. He really sank his teeth into this performance! But he was no pro — the Hammerhead’s dancing skills weren’t much better than Left Shark’s, really, and the rudimentary choreography was total Hip-Hop 101.

The clues: We saw carrots, a bowl of alphabet soup that spelled out the word “TALK,” a coffee mug with the name “Joe,” and references to early fame/burnout, workaholism, lifeguarding, and painting. His “Word Up!” phrase was “dramatic” (uttered in an exaggerated Spiccoli surfer brogue). Overall, he gave off a comedian vibe, but that one-word clue implies he could also be a serious actor.

Judges’ guesses: Carrot Top, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Joe Jonas, Zac Efron.

My guess: The “Talk” soup caught my eye, but I think it would be too obvious if this were Ken’s Community buddy, Soup veteran, and frequent Masked Singer guest judge Joel McHale. I do think this could be Hal Sparks, who hosted E!’s Talk Soup from 1999 to 2000. Hal does standup, and — as evidenced by his star turns on Fox’s Celebrity Duets and VH1’s Celebracadabra — he isn’t above doing a silly show like The Masked Dancer. But Hal is also known for his five dramatic seasons on Showtime’s Queer As Folk. It’s possible this could be original Talk Soup host-turned-thespian Greg Kinnear too.

The Tulip

This slim-stemmed contestant put the petal to the metal the minute she sashayed onstage, but she really blossomed during her tap-dance number to “Fergalicious.” As anyone who’s watched So You Think You Can Dance knows, tapping is a learned and specific skill; there are many professional dancers who don’t even know basic tap. So Paula, a former SYTYCD judge, was amazed, telling the Tulip, “Your footwork is clean and precise — you are definitely a trained dancer!”

The clues: We saw the number 11 (twice), plus references to the Glee Club, Tik Tok, acrobatics, a Mountain Lauren High School yearbook, Wicked, and a journey from Alabama to Washington, D.C. She talked about being bullied as a kid and said, “We’re all in this together” — a possible High School Musical reference that certainly made Ashley take notice. The Tulip also confessed that she was rocking a ponytail under her floral headpiece. Her verbal clue was the word “triple,” which could be a skating or gymnastics clue, but Paula thought it meant this flower-girl is a triple-threat.

Judges’ guesses: Addison Rae, Charli D’Amelio, Ariana Grande, Heather Morris.

My guess: Could it be Vanessa Hudgens? Besides making a triple-appearance in the High School Musical trilogy and knowing how to tap dance, she was bullied as a child. And Vanessa is part of the SYTYCD/Fox family as well.

The Cricket

I don’t think the Cricket has quite gotten the dancing bug. He did his best trying to jump around to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” but he mostly just lumbered about, goofily swinging his bulky frame. I’m actually surprised he survived over the more charismatic Disco Ball. This performance got a reaction of figurative crickets from me.

The clues: We saw lots of Vegas references (a casino, four aces, the word “jackpot”), the numbers 12 and “90210,” the word “punked,” and a mention of being one half of a “power couple.” His verbal clue was “accomplished,” spoken in a noticeably older-sounding voice.

Judges’ guesses: Ryan Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Ian Ziering, Ashton Kutcher.

My guess: I don’t think Ashton would do this show (even if many of the too-obvious clues did add up), so Ian, a former Beverly Hills, 90210 and Chippendales star, is the obvious guess for me. But if it is Ian, I just wish the ex-Sharknado actor had dressed as the Hammerhead instead!

The Exotic Bird

This fierce feathered creature had dancer’s legs and the showgirlship to match, and her sexy salsa to Daddy Yankee’s “Con Calma” could have given many Dancing With the Stars contestants some stiff competition. Paula wasn’t entirely sure if this was a professional dancer, but she was impressed by the Bird’s ability to quickly pick up choreo — indicating that this is a seasoned performer comfortable with flying around a stage.

The clues: We saw the number 17, a racetrack, a glitter gun, perfume, a Venus flytrap, and a carton of eggs marked “Best by ’07.” She mentioned that she got her start as a teenager and was later attacked for her relationships and for being a “big bird.” Her “Word Up!” phrase was “scored,” spoken in an alluring whisper.

Judges’ guesses: Marion Jones, Hope Solo, Fergie, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Venus Williams.

My guess: I think this could be Jessica Simpson. She got her start around age 17 and had her recording heyday from 1999 to 2007; the tabloids have often given her a hard time over her love life and weight fluctuations; and she has her own fragrance line. Plus, Jessica’s daughter’s name is Birdie! In general, I do think this is a former teen star.

On Jan. 6, The Masked Dancer shimmies into its regular Wednesday time slot, with Group B performances by the Zebra, Cotton Candy, Ice Cube, Moth, and Sloth. I don’t have great expectations for the Sloth, for the obvious reasons (my prediction is he’ll be doing a waltz to some slowcore ballad), but it would be awesomely meta if the Ice Cube turned out to be another ‘90s rapper, O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. the actual Ice Cube. Watch this space.

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