'The Masked Singer' winner: T-Pain, aka Monster, signed on 'just to wear the costume'
They had him at Monster.
T-Pain, revealed Wednesday as the man inside Monster and the inaugural winner of Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” tells USA TODAY the one-eyed, gap-toothed creature helped him overcome his initial reluctance to be part of the hit singing competition.
“I didn’t really get into it until I saw the choices for the costume. Once I saw Monster, I was like, ‘I just want to wear that thing.’ I wasn't going to pass by that Monster,” says the Grammy-winning singer, who fell for the one-eyed, gap-toothed, aqua-tinged fuzzball that seems more likely to inspire hugs than fear.
“I got into the (competition) just to wear the costume. As long as I got to wear it once, I was fine. … I didn’t think I was going to get past the first episode,” says T-Pain, whose birth name is Faheem Rasheed Najm.
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The 33-year-old Tallahassee, Florida, native, now based in Atlanta, was wrong on that front. He was the last of 12 performers to be unmasked, revealing his face after third-place Bee (Gladys Knight) and runner-up Peacock (Donny Osmond) in Wednesday's finale.
For part of the contest, shrouded in secrecy from the start to conceal identities, T-Pain thought there were only six competitors, because the performers were split into two groups for the initial tapings. He had no contact with other performers before or after, and learned their identities at the same time viewers did.
Even when not in costume, “We all had things covering our face. We had to wear gloves and long sleeves. We couldn’t wear shorts. Nobody could know our skin tones. … When I came out of my hotel to go to set, I had to have on the mask,” he says. “Nobody could know who anybody was.”
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That said, he had put his money on Rabbit, who was revealed last week to be ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone. “I thought Joey Fatone was going to win the whole thing. He really got into his character. He made that rabbit come to life.”
As much as T-Pain loves Monster, and occasionally embellished it with a suit, a bow-tie, a leather jacket or even a wig, the wide-bodied outfit restricted his movement compared with the other performers. He thinks his devil-may-care attitude may have separated him from rivals.
"I think I was the most fun. Everybody was so serious, concentrating on their singing or their performance," he says. "I was there to have fun. I don't want to say I didn't care, but it was like a nonchalant, 'If I'm going, I'm going to go out with a bang.'"
Since “Masked Singer” was taped last year, T-Pain was able to time the release of his sixth album, “1Up,” to the end of Wednesday’s finale.
“This is way different” than his 2017 album, “Oblivion,” which was done “so I could fulfill contractual obligations,” he says. Freed from that contract, "I was actually happy during the (most recent) recording process." On the new album, "there’s partying, there’s sex, there’s self-appreciation. It's about being happy.”
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The married father of three, known for such songs as 2008's "Can't Believe It" and 2007's "Buy U a Drank," says he was depressed when he recorded "Oblivion" and I wanted everybody else to be depressed.” His use of Auto-Tune helped his career skyrocket, winning fans and early awards, but his career took a hit when other artists, including Jay-Z, turned against the voice-altering tool.
The singer, who ironically sang in his natural voice while his speaking voice was altered during the competition, acknowledges feeling self-pity in response to social-media critics over the years, but says that's over now.
“That starts adding up, the little things you see online. Every day, you’d see a 12-year-old saying, ‘You should kill yourself,’” he recalls. He shed the depression “once I learned to stop paying attention to that.”
T-Pain revealed some of those feelings in the hints seeded in the show, including "I never cared about the rules of the game" and "It takes one slip to make you lose your place in the world." He said he's now seeking "the comeback I waited for for a decade."
In Wednesday's finale, which featured Monster singing "This Is How We Do It," the costumed character said "Masked Singer" allowed him to perform "without the fear of being judged." He said he appreciated being treated with respect, which is "hard to come by in this industry."
T-Pain, who also hosts the entrepreneur-oriented "T-Pain's School of Business" on Fuse, doesn't know how the odd circumstance of being in the media spotlight, anonymously, will affect his career. He hopes to gain new fans and change the opinion of others who haven't been willing to give him a chance.
"There's more people who (heard) me and who won't judge me from an Auto-Tune standpoint, but my music is still going to be my music," he says. "It's not so much the show as it is about how I handle the follow-up. It's what I do with this opportunity."