Taylor Swift. Katy Perry. Ariana Grande. Monster. Unicorn. Rabbit.
These are just a few of the brass-hat stars who’ve been draped in the fabulous threads of Emmy Award-winning costume designer Marina Toybina. If you have a difficult time recognizing some of the aforementioned performers, you clearly aren’t watching the pageant of semiotics that is “The Masked Singer.” In which case, honestly, shame on you.
Based on a hit South Korean series, the mildly terrifying yet absolutely addicting singing competition on Fox features a dozen celebrities ― best described as people you don’t totally not care about ― disguised in full-body interspecies garb. Each week the various Geryons converge to perform pop songs before a studio audience and a famous-person panel as we lowly viewers at home rack our brains to determine who the brave souls beneath the suits are. One by one, the masked singers are voted off, and only then are their identities revealed.
The real stars of this show, however, are neither the respectfully has-been contestants nor the just-about-to-be-has-been panel of judges. No, the true scene stealers are the full body enclosures that transform their wearers into creatures part Chuck E. Cheese, part haute couture, part too much Ambien.
We have Toybina to thank (or curse) for these unforgettable additions to our shared cultural imagination. (Truly, no matter how hard you try, you will never forget that red-eyed Rabbit in a straight jacket once you’ve glimpsed it.) She spoke to HuffPost about creating the most delightfully deranged getups to ever grace American television.
How did you get involved with the show?
I got a call from an executive producer and they sent me a link to the South Korean version of the show. It’s something so unique and different from anything I’d done on television.
What did you think of the South Korean version?
I loved it. I’ve designed for a lot of stage performances and dance TV shows, so it was right up my alley. Seeing how over the top the Korean version was, I wanted to take it to the next level.
The costumes for this show are next level, dazzling and sometimes terrifying. What was your vision going into this, as far as the overall aesthetic of the show?
I wanted to do something we’re not used to seeing in a reality competition. I had so much creative freedom from the network to create this world. They allowed me to sketch my ideas and present different characters, and from there we were able to choose the 12.
What were some of the characters that didn’t make the cut?
I can’t say, in case we do another season.
What were some of your influences when first dreaming up these creatures?
There were a lot of cinematic influences, like the Rabbit is very much inspired by Donnie Darko. And I’m a huge fan of the movie “The Crow” ― that’s where the Raven came from. The way we built the costumes with the handwork that went into them really channeled the intricacy of Alexander McQueen, the architectural world of fashion design.
To me, the show’s look seems rooted in rave, steampunk and music festival culture. Were those cultural movements on your mind?
Absolutely. We wanted each costume to combine elements of light and dark, harsh and gentle. With the Deer, there are a lot of steampunk elements; everything was distressed. That was a way to age the costume and create this ancestral world, everything being distressed. The way we constructed the costumes was like what I would do for a musician on tour. We combined parts of different genres of glitzy concerts.
Did you have any rules at all going in? Like, cover up the entire celebrity inside?
We had to do full coverage, as to not reveal any body parts or any skin parts. That was the only note I got as far as guidelines.
Did you attempt to throw people off by obfuscating the celebrities’ physical forms with the costumes? Like making someone appear taller or bigger than they really are?
Honestly, that was not even my thought process. In the masks, these people become something different, they become the world they are wearing. I wasn’t so keen on making it that discreet. We wanted to create a comfortable world for them. The hiding became more about the mask than the full costume. The rest is about the theatrical feel.
Were the contestants involved in choosing their own animals?
We started creating the mockups before the full casting was complete. As we were creating them, we were finding out who might be each character. It was a step-by-step situation.
So viewers trying to identify celebrities by the animals representing them would be barking up the wrong tree?
It went both ways. There were a few contestants who signed on early who wanted to choose their own animals. And there were some who came on later who we guided, thinking they would be perfect for a certain costume. Nothing was ever proposed out of the realm of who they wanted to be or how they wanted to perform. Looking back on it, anybody on the show being something else wouldn’t have worked.
Are there clues embedded within the costumes about the stars’ identities? Was there something Margaret Cho-y about that poodle?
Not really. There might be a few little things if you really pay attention. But most of the clues are in the promo packages.
Can I ask you about a costume-related conspiracy I read online?
On Reddit, a fan theorized that the Rabbit is Joey Fatone, which seems very likely, and that his straight jacket is an allusion to his video “I Drive Myself Crazy.”
I wouldn’t even think that! The conspiracies are pretty incredible. That costume was fully inspired by creating a cool character that’s the opposite of what people think a rabbit would be. Most people think rabbits are fluffy and cute, like the Easter Bunny. I wanted something a little bit uncomfortable but at the same time super cool. A little bit Tim Burton, a little bit Donnie Darko.
Can you please walk me through the making of the Unicorn because, my God, she is glorious.
Unicorns in general are such ethereal creatures. I made sure everything was full-on white, kind of like a snow queen. This beautiful female presence, with a little bit of a Narnia influence. A lot of the costume was inspired by runway fashion. The entire thing was done by hand, head to toe. The draping and the handwork were all done the old school way.
What was the budget for costumes overall?
We were in a good place. I think one of the most important things to me was that the network understood we needed to get the quality we wanted to produce. I was fully supported by the network.
Any estimate? I’m so curious.
How many people worked on constructing the costumes and around how long did it take?
It took me about three weeks to sketch the different characters and a few days to choose them. The mockups started happening right after. It took a little over two months to build the costumes and get them ready for fittings. About 20 to 30 people were part of my team, working at three different venues.
Are the costumes washed between episodes?
We have a wardrobe department, so the costumes are sanitized, cleaned and treated. And any signs of wear and tear are fixed right away.
The contestants sometimes comment about how hard it is to sing and even see in the costumes. Have you personally donned the outfits? How do they feel?
I tried on the majority of the masks. When you wear a mask, everything starts to get blurry ― the vision, the sound. We had to create these elaborate characters but have them able to perform, sing and breathe. If the costume was cylindrical, like the Monster or the Pineapple, we put vents in there so the people inside can breathe.
What about the vision? How hard is it to see?
We put mesh in there so they can see without giving away who is inside the mask. When you’re inside the mask, it’s difficult. I’m proud of our talent who was able to carry through the performances.
Were there any wardrobe malfunctions on set?
Because the costumes were treated so carefully, there wasn’t anything major. But little malfunctions happen. Like, we molded the horn of the Unicorn from blown glass. And whenever she was under the heat, it started to melt. Eventually we realized the more stage lighting we put on the horn, the more it melted.
That’s hilarious. Any other tweaks you had to make?
There was another one in the very beginning with the Monster. He has one eye that is a centerpiece. Because it’s plastic, the more he breathed inside the costume, the more it fogged up, so eventually he couldn’t see anything. We had to figure out how to open up the vent so the oxygen could have an exit out of the costume.
What happens to a costume after a celebrity gets unmasked?
Right now, the network has all the costumes, and they are being used for promos. I’m not sure what’s going to happen after. It would be nice to see them in a museum, like the FIDM [Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising] costume museum. Especially the Lion mask.
Are you surprised by the cult fandom the show has garnered?
So overwhelmed! There are some moments I drive around the city and see all the billboards and don’t know what’s going on. I’ve been a designer for a while now and this is the first time costumes are being recognized as the centerpiece of a show. I’m happy to see how much people are enjoying them. I’ve seen some reviews that are great, some that are not so great. But even those, it’s nice that people are watching.
Have you seen any reaction, in particular, from the furry community?
I haven’t yet. We did see some mockups for costumes from the show in Asia. There are some people that are trying to re-create them. I’m inspired and excited by what the fans are doing worldwide.