When a friend invited me over to watch the first episode of Channel 10’s brain-boiling hit The Masked Singer, I approached it with the mix of irony and fascination I bring to most reality TV events. The first 40 minutes were business as usual: we drank wine, exchanged jokes, rolled our eyes, and wondered why all the judges were dressed like the Mother of the Bride.
Then the first unmasking of the season revealed the octopus as former Big Brother host Gretel Killeen, and the room exploded. We screamed, grabbed at each others’ clothes shrieking, “GRETEL!”
We applauded her backstory, and marvelled at her comedy past. Over the fray someone yelled: “She wrote that book about the boob tube!” Another returned: “She looks amazing!” In the middle of it, I heard myself bark: “THAT HAIR!”
I hadn’t thought about Gretel Killeen in a decade but, in that moment, in that room, she was the single most important person on earth.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Masked Singer, the premise is in the name. Each week “singers” dress in jaw-droppingly odd costumes and “perform” mostly off-key karaoke, and a judging panel of “personalities” guess who they are based on hints, heights and voices. At the end of each episode someone is unmasked.
Host Osher Günsberg called it “proudly the most ridiculous show on television”. In a slightly more acidic description, the Hlcarpenter.com’s Steph Harmon called it emblematic of “the dumpster-fire crapshoot that has become network television in the digital age”.
The Masked Singer began life in South Korea and was successfully exported to the US before arriving on Australian screens, in an attempt to save dwindling ratings at Channel 10. So far, the plan is working. The first episode drew 1.56 million viewers, the network’s biggest audience since the 2015 launch of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here.
That question stayed with me long after peeled my body off my friend’s living room floor. I’d expected the enthusiasm to drop off. But episode after episode, reveal after reveal, I remained hooked. A few celebrities existed in my cultural blindspots: I was cold over Wendell Sailor (Rhino) and Brett Lee (Parrot), and had never heard of Darren McMullen (Prawn). But when it came to Paulini (Spider), Deni Hines (Unicorn), Nikki Webster (Alien) and Kate Ceberano (Lion), I couldn’t believe how much I cared.
Scanning the list of confirmed and rumoured stars (fans are backing Rob “Millsy” Mills for Wolf, Gorgi Coghlan for Monster, and Cody Simpson for Robot), it struck me how many were products of the Australian 2000s media landscape. Perhaps that explains why we’ve embraced it.
For anyone not nursed on the Rove Live teat: host Osher and performer Paulini are both from Australian Idol, while Deni is the daughter of Idol judge Marcia. Many of the predictions so far have included other Idol hopefuls, such as Casey Donovan, Lisa Mitchell, Jessica Mauboy and the aforementioned Millsy. The Big Brother family also includes judge Jackie O, who took over from Gretel in 2008. There was early speculation that Wolf was Big Brother/Neighbours heartthrob Blair McDonough.
There’s a reason why my generation feels so sentimental about this period. In the early 2000s, it felt like Australian pop culture was coming into its own. Previously, homegrown celebrities felt so much smaller than their US counterparts, and they were too accessible: you’d see someone from Neighbours nursing a hangover at your local coffee shop, you went to school with a Home and Away cast member.
But the influx of US and UK reality franchises created a new kind of Australian star that had a bit more sparkle. Local launches of Pop Stars, Idol, Big Brother and Survivor churned Aussies through the same meat-grinder that had produced real celebrities like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. They were on TV every single night; they had to be someone.
At the same time, we were watching homegrown favourites – including Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann, Naomi Watts and Heath Ledger – become Oscar darlings in Hollywood. And there was a little thing called the Sydney Olympics. (If Webster hadn’t turned up on The Masked Singer, Australia would have rioted.)
But the pleasure of The Masked Singer goes even further: much like Lindsay Lohan herself, the show manages to nourish us with both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of a comeback. It feels good to realise you still like that person you used to like is still around, and they might actually be in on the joke.
It’s gratifying to look at these Y2K icons and say: “In Australia, we respect your low-rise jeans, trucker-capped, body-glittered service, and salute you. Now put on this Alien costume and sing.”