It was a wild ride on season 8 of The Masked Singer, which once again served up its patented mix of non-singing celebs (William Shatner, Jeff Dunham, Mario Cantone, Daymond John, Jerry Springer, Le’Veon Bell, George Foreman, Chris Jericho, Adam Carolla, Linda Blair, Nikki Glaser), veteran pop and R&B singers (Chris Kirkpatrick, Montell Jordan, Gloria Gaynor, Kat Graham, George Clinton and Ray Parker Jr.), as well as some actors who’ve been known to carry a tune (Eric Idle, Brady Bunch trio Christopher Knight, Barry Williams and Mike Lookinland and Joey Lawrence).
But in the end, when all the masks came off, it was seasonlong front-runner Harp who plucked her way to the winner’s circle with a commanding run that began on this season’s first episode when she turned P!nk’s “Perfect” into a soaring R&B ballad that blew the judges away. On episode 2, she soared with Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” then cruised through the Golden Girls theme song “Thank You for Being a Friend” and easily bounced along to Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” last week.
She showed her versatility by going toe-to-toe with Panther in a battle over Steppenwolf’s road dog classic “Born to be Wild,” easily bested Fortune Teller in the “Everywhere You Look” battle, and absolutely shut it down on finale night with Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” and a moving version of John Mayer’s “Gravity.”
As is always the case, judge Ken Jeong was wrong all along, absolutely confident that the woman under the golden dome was Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, giving off super-confident vibes while describing all the reasons he definitely nailed it this time. Fellow judge Robin Thicke was certain it was another triple threat, Jeong’s former Community castmate Yvette Nicole Brown, while Nicole Scherzinger was the one who knew what was up.
Wednesday night’s epic two-hour finale found judge’s favorite Harp facing off against three-headed threat The Lambs, who were in perfect harmony on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” But in the end, the three doe-eyed ladies (Wilson Phillips) were not woman enough to beat former Glee star and Broadway veteran Amber Riley.
Billboard caught up with Riley before the final reveal and spoke to her about how it felt to cruise to victory, what it was like to constantly lie to everyone she loves for months, and when we can expect new music from her.
You came out strong with your P!nk cover, and it felt like you were the front-runner all season. Did you feel pretty good about your chances after that first performance?
I felt great about my performance because it was a song that I really love and I decided every time I go out I was going to leave it all on the floor. I honestly didn’t hear anyone else singing so I didn’t know where I stood. I was just as surprised as anyone when I made it through every round.
Who figured out it was you right away?
Oh my gosh, I’ve been lying my face off for the past couple of weeks. My family has been listening to me sing since I was two-years-old and my sister is calling me like, “I know it’s you little girl!” And I was like, “Huh? I have no idea what you’re talking about!” I had to lie to everyone’s face and it’s been torture.
How did it feel to be crowned first Masked Singer queen?
It felt fitting because I am a queen anyway! [Laughs] Just kidding! It felt great because it was so cool. We’re Americans, so we don’t have kings and queens. If you want to give me a crown, I’ll take it!
I’ve seen a lot of complex costumes on the show, but that giant instrument on your back seemed pretty physically limiting. You said there was no chance you could shake your booty so the vocals had to be super on-point.
[Laughs] Honestly, the costume department is incredible. They are imagineers. It wasn’t as difficult as it looked because they put it on wheels. With every step I took they asked me if it felt comfortable. Even for the moment when I had to get out [of the costume] they imagined a way for me to easily be removed from it… it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
You mentioned that there’s something freeing about being masked as well as feeling like you were not always appreciated by the industry. What were you able to do in disguise that you can’t as Amber?
I think I’m always myself, but it was a way for people to just listen to my voice and have no preconceived notions of who I am or my gifts. That was cool to me. I’ve been in the industry for a pretty long time and I’m sure people think they know who I am, but knowing that they got to hear me with new ears and see me with new eyes when I was revealed was exciting.
You’ve been on a hit show [Glee], won an Olivier for playing Effie in Dreamgirls on the West End, and you won Dancing With the Stars back in 2013, but watching you cry through your mask really made it seem like this was a big, cathartic moment for you.
I’ve been in this industry a really long time and just like anyone else I’ve dealt with rejection and second-guessed my gifts. I’ve gone through it when it’s 90% rejection and 10% go for it. Being able to hear my peers and people I admire, especially Nicole [Scherzinger], encourage me and [praise] my gifts brought me to tears. As we try to pretend we are an island, we do need to hear people encourage us. I needed that and it was inspiring to me.
Was it inspiring enough to work on the follow-up to your 2020 Riley album?
Yes! I’ve been working on it the whole year. I went into the studio with an ignited fire and the music coming out of it and the confidence I have now has been absolutely incredible. I didn’t know that was going to happen doing this show.
How did it feel when Jenny [McCarthy-Wahlberg] said your Gaga was the best performance ever on the show?
I couldn’t even believe that. I watched LeAnn Rimes’ season, and she floored me every single week, so hearing that was big.
What’s coming up for you next? It sounds like you’ll be on our screens a lot over the next few months.
I’ve got the Black Beauty Effect [available now on the Black Experience on Xfinity channel], which is an amazing docuseries I got to be part of that is talking about black women in the beauty industry and how we disrupted the status quo. It’s about finding ourselves and making a mark in beauty, makeup and hair in Hollywood. It’s a story of triumph and it’s very inspiring to hear from women behind the scenes. I’m also going to be on Celebrity Name That Tune [premiering Jan. 11 on Fox], which I got to do with my little brother [fellow Glee alum] Chris Colfer. Me and Chris are super competitive, so it was really fun to do that with him.