Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan gets behind the mask of FOX’s hit reality show and talks to Emmy-winning costume designer Marina Toybina of The Masked Singer.
Before becoming the costume designer for FOX’s The Masked Singer, you may have caught Marina Toybina’s work during Katy Perry’s 2015 Superbowl Halftime Show, when we met the Internet sensations that became the on-stage sharks. It was like we were getting a preview of what was to come, with Toybina becoming the designer behind FOX’s celebrity-filled singing competition show.
Bananas, butterflies, and swans are just a few of the costumes celebrities have donned on FOX’s The Masked Singer, and each one includes specific clues to the personality behind the facade. It’s not just famous people getting dressed up in intricate and funny costumes: They are revealing pieces of themselves in the process.
I was so excited to chat with Toybina about what it’s like to work on this insanely appealing series (now in its third season), how COVID-19 might affect future costuming, and what her favorite character is.
Awards Daily: So many questions. I love this show. First, you have an eclectic career on reality TV (The X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance), but did you ever think you’d be working on a show as crazy fun as this one?
Marina Toybina: No—it was a dream come true when the opportunity came around. What was so wonderful is that I was able to encompass all of my work over the past 15 years into one show. It was great to have the experience that I did with music and doing tours and bigger performances that led me into being able to build out great costumes for this TV show.
AD: I know you did the Katy Perry Super Bowl Halftime Show with the sharks. Did that help you with getting into the idea of doing mascots?
MT: 100 percent. When we were doing the Super Bowl, it was such a new experience for me, to be able to work with any kind of walkabouts or building out costumes that were wire-based or with any kind of mask. So that entire process was a learning experience on its own, and we did tons of research. I was so hands-on with learning the process of staying away from fashion and focusing more on puppetry and then build out the foam and any elements I’d never worked with before. So when this opportunity came about, having that experience dramatically saved my life. We were able to incorporate the same contractors that helped me with the Super Bowl, so it was great for us all to work together again. Every season it’s been a learning curve for me.
AD: I have so many favorite costumes. They’re all breathtaking, but I’m really digging the Rhino this season. What’s your personal favorite?
MT: Every season is so different. I kind of have a lovechild every single episode. It’s just the details that we add onto the costume and the work that goes into it, it’s very difficult to choose something that’s my favorite. For Season 2, I think the Ladybug and the Leopard were my babies, the time that was spent on those costumes. For Season 3, it would probably be the White Tiger and the Kitty. The amount of work that went into them, they make them your favorites, because we obsess over the costumes so much. Every single one of them is so different, so it’s very hard to say which one I prefer over the others. It’s interesting because the Rhino has become a lot of people’s favorites, because of the aesthetic of the costume and this 1920s/30s character that comes to life with the performances that he does.
AD: Do you make the costumes from scratch? Or do you take pieces from old costumes? They’re all so unique. I wondered if you took an old Jurassic Park mask for Rhino. He has a dinosaur look.
MT: That would be the easier process to do, if we combined costumes from before. But no—every season, every costume is from the ground up. Every mask is brand-new. Every costume is brand-new. All the fabrics. Based on artwork that I submit prior to the season starting, we figure out what’s capable on our end to create our own textures, create our own elements, and what I should purchase. So everything is brand-new. And that’s kind of the evolution of costume design for the show as well; we just experience so many different avenues of costumes builds and mask builds. I think for us it’s actually worth it to start from the ground up.
AD: That’s amazing. How long does it take to create these costumes?
MT: Usually we never have enough time. On average, we overlap a lot of the builds at the same time, since we’re so limited on the amount of time between each season. On average, about three to four weeks per mask, and about four weeks for costumes. Since we’re building them all at the same time, you can only imagine how much running around I do. Within a two- to three-month period, the entire show gets built.
AD: Do the singers provide input into the costumes? For example, Sarah Palin considers herself a mama bear, and she was a literal bear.
MT: The process goes in so many different directions. Of course there’s so much collaboration that happens between me and the talent. Usually I start out with the artwork first before the season starts, and I create characters that are then submitted to the network and the executive producers. We see what’s needed for the next season, what can we do for the show that hasn’t been done yet. And then from there, once the casting goes into process and I figure out who’s been cast for the show, we then submit certain sketches to them so they’re able to choose their character. From there, when I get one on one with the talent, it becomes more of a collaboration. Most of the time, they’re very happy with their original artwork and we start building the costume as is. Sometimes I do get pretty specific notes or pretty specific ideas of requests to make a costume a little more costume. The majority of the time, they just love the original artwork and the original ideas and we just go from there. It’s usually in the fittings that I start tweaking, the tailoring, coloration, and details.
AD: I feel like more than ever this season the singers talked about how hot they are behind the masks. Was that a challenge that came up?
MT: I think every time is something different and it’s something that we try to prevent while building the costumes. Sometimes with the intensity of the performances, everyone’s gonna have their personal experience. With Season 3, we went bigger on the build of the costumes. The masks were a little larger. There was a lot more fabrication and details added to each piece. I can imagine that being on stage and going full-out, you’re gonna be losing weight. Everybody is very different. They love the costumes. I’m shocked how well they can handle the performance of wearing head-to-toe superhero gear. Sometimes we do take notes. For every season, if i hear something that’s a little too hot or something’s restricting, we try to adjust as much as possible. But at the end of the day, everyone’s so different, so it’s hard to accommodate all of them at once.
AD: How do you make sure that the singers’ costumes don’t take away from their voices and performance? I’m always amazed that you can hear them so crystal clear.
MT: When we’re building the masks, we do get a few fittings with the talent if we’re lucky. Sometimes we literally have a fitting and they go right on stage. So during those periods of builds, we do test them out ourselves. We test out with a vocal coach before or with a sound engineer before we finish up all the masks and they’re 100% complete. We try to do as much testing as we can prior to the masks going on stage. And then of course, it’s left up to the talent to see how well they can project from the mask, how comfortable they feel inside. And then we have had experiences where after certain tests, we did have to go back and open up the masks a little bit more or interchange different materials around the mask, coming out of the eye screen, to be able to do full projection and clarity on sound and sight. For us, it’s just whatever experience we have from season to season and trying to do all of the directions as we’re building and then literally standing on the side of the stage praying that it works. It kind of also helps because that’s when we get our feedback. During the first rehearsals, we are listening to the talent as well as to the sound engineers and they’re letting us know what’s working. If we’re lucky enough that we have the time to correct it, we do. If not, we have had costumes that are slightly oversized where we had to do something internally to create a better sound, but everyone is singing live at that point. I make sure the masks are as clear vocally as possible.
AD: Do you think COVID-19 will affect the way you costume for next season? Are there new considerations to think about?
MT: I’m sure everything is going to affect all aspects of this show and other shows. I’m still not exactly sure what the restrictions might be. I can only imagine that everybody has certain fears and certain guidelines we might have to follow now. I am thinking about it all the time and trying to figure out creative ways we could build out the costumes and give people a little bit more security and a little bit more stability. I’m just hoping that we can come up with creative ways to not lose the aesthetic of the show but at the same time really be mindful and aware of our current situation. My goal would be to make sure everybody feels safe and secure first and then it’s going to be a challenge for me, because I think creativity is going to have to come second. Before, we’d go big or go home, and now we’re really going to have to sit down and figure out what the safest and smartest ways to build out the costumes would be and not lose the artwork behind it. It’s going to be a new challenge for me.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.