A peacock, a hippo, a monster and a unicorn each take to the stage, performing choreographed moves while belting pop tunes like “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Oops … I Did It Again.” No, you didn’t eat one too many edibles. You’re watching “The Masked Singer,” Fox’s new competition series that pits 12 extravagantly costumed celebrities against each other. An adaptation of a South Korean series called “The King of Mask Singer,” the American version debuted earlier this month to an audience of more than nine million viewers.
Because the identity of each famous participant is kept secret until the contestant is voted off the show, “The Masked Singer” can’t rely on the spectacle of their star power. (The host Nick Cannon, along with the celebrity panelists that include Jenny McCarthy and Robin Thicke, are low-wattage at best.)
That’s where costume designer Marina Toybina comes in. A four-time Emmy winner, Toybina got her big break working on Britney Spears’s 2007 music video, “Piece of Me,” and has since collaborated with other A-list pop stars, including Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. And remember when Katy Perry was famously upstaged by two anthropomorphic dancing sharks during her 2015 Super Bowl halftime show? Toybina deserves much of the credit for the joy that Left Shark brought to our lives.
Toybina spoke to The New York Times about her knack for idiosyncratic animal outfits and creating full-body costumes that won’t suffocate the person inside. (Hint: hidden fans.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
If you saw what I was wearing right now you’d probably die. I work from home.
Girl, I just had a newborn. I’m in, like, two robes. I feel you.
You seem to have carved out a niche for yourself as a creator of elaborate viral animal costumes. First, the infamous sharks for Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show; and there were a couple of designs you did for Pink’s 2018 tour that involved some very realistic animal masks that look somewhat like the ones on “The Masked Singer.”
Somehow, they’re all coincidences. Going back to the Super Bowl, that was a pretty incredible experience. It was the first time I’d ever dealt with puppetry, so we had to figure out how to start from scratch and learn the entire process day by day. Then in the beginning of last year, I did the costumes for Pink’s tour, and the idea was to have this very avant-garde forest scene where it’s like, half human, half animal. So there were masks involved there, which was like my trial-and-error before “The Masked Singer.”
After designing Pink’s tour, two months later I got a call from one of the producers of the show and she sent me the original concept. I watched a few episodes and I was like, “Oh my gosh, we just did this.” Everything I’ve learned in the past five, 10 years led me to figure out how to do this show.
So you don’t have a secret animal fetish.
No, not at all! To be honest when I got the call I was just like, “What is happening with all these animals?”
The costumes almost reminded me of Julie Taymor’s animals in the Broadway version of “The Lion King” — it’s almost just a suggestion of the animal, rather than a literal rendering.
The idea was always to combine the elements of fashion with costume. So the costume part of it becomes the mask, and the fashion part of it became the outerwear. It wasn’t so literal. The deer that I created almost looks like a soldier. We put a lot of details into aging the jacket and creating the elements of this character.
Every character had some sort of world that they lived in. I’m such a big fan of movies and the one thing I haven’t really done in my career is film. I was able to introduce everything that I was inspired by — “Donnie Darko” and “Edward Scissorhands” had a huge influence on the rabbit costume. The whimsical side of Narnia had a little bit of an influence on the lion and the unicorn.
How did you conceive of the designs for the show? Did you first come up with the costumes and then the contestants chose which ones they liked? Or did they have more input?
All the artwork was done before the casting, and once we were working with the casting, the producers and I we were able to figure out which 12 we wanted to keep. From there it was more collaborating, letting some of the cast members possibly choose their own costume or us hearing who’s being cast and thinking, “This would be a perfect costume for this person.” Somehow it just magically worked, even though it was trial and error.
It sounds like you have really good karma!
Usually when you sketch a 2D design, you do a lot of alterations to it when you start building the costume. If you look at the original sketches for the show versus the costumes that are onstage, we barely had any changes. I think it gave our celebrities, the famous behind-the-mask personas, a little bit of freedom to play around and become these characters because what they saw on paper is exactly what they look like onstage. It almost became like an inner-child experience for a lot of these people, an alter ego — to go out, cover their faces and become this character and truly have fun with it. I think that’s what made this show come to life.
How do your designs differ from those on the Korean version?
The one difference is how anime some of the [Korean-designed] masks were. I wanted to bring something that was a little bit more of a 360[-degree] mask that really hid our talent and embodied all these characters. A lot of the Korean elements had this extravagant mask and extravagant shoulder piece but then everything else was kind of toned down. We created fuller costumes, head-to-toe characters.
One of my favorite designers is [Alexander] McQueen and I made sure the lion and the unicorn had this couture-y drape work that you don’t even see anymore. I think both fashion and costuming, the art of it is slowly going away. You see more and more digital work in film, in music videos. It was important for me to design this show the old-school way. It was important to do it all by hand.
Does anyone ever complain that their costume is too heavy or difficult to move around in?
Of course — you know, a costume is a costume. The difference between the stuff you buy at the store and a costume [is] you are going to have weight. You are going to have extra protection, extra seams, extra material, extra linings. But we were able to adapt different ways for the costumes to be removed so they can breathe. Everything from the way they were constructed was considered — breathing mechanisms, putting fans inside of masks, putting fans inside of the monster costume. Just making sure that we can circulate oxygen.
Do you have a favorite costume?
It’s hard to choose one but as far as intricacy I think the lion would probably be the one that took the longest to figure out, and a lot of heart and soul went into that one.
What is your ultimate career goal as a designer?
My biggest dream is to do film. I would absolutely love to work with someone like Tim Burton. Looking at movies like “Mary Poppins [Returns]” or “The Nutcracker [and the Four Realms],” that’s something I would love to do.
So, a trippy adaptation of a beloved classic.
If these characters on the show could be part of Marvel, that would be amazing.