The Masked Singer: NE-YO may be weary of love songs, but the ones that helped him win The Masked Singer Season 10 as Cow doesn’t bother him.
On Wednesday’s Masked Singer finale, NE-YO, 44, sang Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” to defeat fellow finalists Donut (John Schneider), Gazelle (Janel Parrish), and Sea Queen (Macy Gray).
“We picked songs that were slightly outside of my wheelhouse, songs that you wouldn’t regularly expect to hear me singing,” NE-YO says in an interview with PEOPLE. “I was adamant about saying, ‘Listen guys, I don’t want to be discovered quickly.'” Let’s figure out how to fool them.'”
The three-time Grammy winner considers presenter Nick Cannon and judges Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke to be pals, which is why he worked so hard to keep his name hidden. Scherzinger, 45, and Thicke, 46, guessed NE-YO early on, but their experience on the show was unaffected.
“It’s been, in a word, fun,” says NE-YO. “I had a great time with it. It was a lot of fun stepping outside of the NE-YO box for a second and pretending to be someone else. “I had a great time and would do it again if I thought I could get away with it.”
The father of seven explains why he chose a female cow costume, which music choice most challenged him, and why he doesn’t mind being a little out of the spotlight.
What first intrigued you about The Masked Singer?
NE-YO: It’s simply for fun. It’s a lot of fun to watch, to attempt to figure out who’s behind each outfit and to vote for your favorites. I take pleasure in my ability to figure out who’s who.
I’ve been duped a few times. It’s also something you can do with each generation of your family. My mother and I would sit and watch it, as had my children. Everyone can sit down and watch this show simultaneously and enjoy it, which is no longer unusual.
Throughout my career, I’ve taken satisfaction in creating music that everyone may listen to at the same time if they so want. This only magnifies something I’ve been attempting to achieve my entire career.
What do you get known for the most now that you’ve been in the profession for a while?
I’ve always considered myself a champion of the people. I am the man you may run into at Target on your own, and I believe my followers have learned to recognize and enjoy this aspect of me. They come up to you, ask for photographs, and then leave. My days of being pursued across the mall are long gone, which I don’t mind.
I’m not in the mood to run. When I’m recognized, the most common reaction is for individuals to approach me and say, “Hey, you know what? If you were a little taller, you’d look just like NE-YO.” “Who is this six-foot NE-YO running around stealing my shine?” I wonder. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Who knew you were going to be performing The Masked Singer?
My mother and children figured it out immediately and quickly after the first performance. “Yo, when did you film The Masked Singer?” they inquired. It’s like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I did my best to put it up, but they caught it immediately away. They were aware.
What made you decide to dress like a female cow?
I’m in a relationship with Robin Thicke, a relationship with Nicole Scherzinger, and a relationship with Nick Cannon. I knew that if anyone guessed who I was, it would be one of those three if not all three, especially once I started singing. My singing voice has a particular tone.
So I was trying to think of any way to get them even more off my trail. When the creators brought the outfit to me, they said, “We want you to be a cow, but we’re going to give you a choice.” You can be either a man or if you like, a female cow.” “Oh, female cow, let’s go,” I said. Let’s spend the entire day doing the female cow.”
How does playing a female Cow alter your approach?
It allowed me to venture a little outside of my comfort zone. As a male cow, I’m sure I could still dance like myself. I’m going to sound just like myself. And I thought to myself, yep, I’ll be caught soon like that.
But because I’m a female cow with large breasts, hips, and the entire nine, I can’t move like a NE-YO. It also provided me with the opportunity to perform some acting. I grew raised in a family full of ladies — my mother, sister, grandmother, five aunts, and me until I was 16 — so female traits came naturally to me.
Was it tough for you to move as Cow?
It’s difficult but in the best manner imaginable. Because she had a lot of breasts, I put on this enormous bra with a lot of padding. I received hip pads. But it helped since I couldn’t dance like I typically would. And it was really hot, extremely scorching.
They had fans on standby the entire time. And I couldn’t see anything. The Cow’s mouth is pretty much where my eyes are, so I could look out of it a little bit, and then the black patches on the mask’s cheeks, I could see through those a little bit. However, your eyesight is virtually entirely obscured for the most part.
Several performances had stairs, and I thought to myself, “You guys must want me to break my neck.” I can’t see anything. “How are we going to do this?” But we managed to make it happen. Being able to see where I was going was honestly the most difficult thing.
Which song did you find the most difficult to perform?
Some were more challenging than others. Some were more enjoyable than others. Disco Night was one song that spoke to me. “Ring My Bell,” is one of my mother’s favorite tunes.
I remember watching her and my aunt dance around the kitchen to that song as a youngster, so that song in particular struck a connection with me. I did an Imagine Dragons song that was a bit more difficult to do.
None of the songs were particularly tough; they just weren’t ones on which I could use my NE-YO muscle. I appreciated moving outside of my usual comfort zone. It was great fun.
What will you do with the Golden Mask trophy?
The Golden Mask trophy will be housed in the same location as my Grammys and every other honor I’ve ever received: my mother’s house. My mother has a vast cabinet full of my accomplishments, and we’ve rearranged things to make room for that enormous, gorgeous golden Masked Singer trophy, right next to the Grammys.
What are your plans after winning The Masked Singer?
The Champagne and Roses Tour, which begins in March, is one of my next foreign tours. As we speak, I’m putting together a new record. It doesn’t yet have a name, but I’m in the studio every other day working on it. And, as I always say, keep your eyes up and your ears down. You’ll hear and see me. I’ll be around simply doing what I enjoy.
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