Laila Ali was born into greatness, had her own successful boxing career, and transitioned into TV while radiating strength and beauty. I never imagined that the first time I'd interview her it would be about singing inside a giant panda costume, but this being 2019, nothing is too unbelievable to be real. So, I talked to Ali following her rapid elimination from The Masked Singer on Wednesday after her rendition of Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," killed her on The Masked Singer.
Knocked out after the Smackdown round in which Leopard yodeled out "Respect," Ali yanked off her panda head and revealed that it was she, the undefeated fighter who could punch my head off its base. This was a tough blow for Ali, who is used to winning in the ring. In this chat with TV Guide, she shared how she felt taking an unexpected L so soon, what it's like singing in that costume, and who she thinks is still in the game.
So, you got eliminated on the first night! I guess you're not a great singer, huh?
Laila Ali: You know what, I guess not? (Laughs) I think it just depends on who you're going against. I was totally surprised. I didn't think I would be gone so soon. I went into it for fun, knowing most likely I'm not going to win. Singing in costume is totally different. I have so much more respect now for everybody's craft, but to get up there with that heavy head on, it's hot, it's so many inches between the mic and the [mouth part] I wasn't able to project my voice the way I wanted to. It's like, 'Whoa. This is hard.' At the end of the day, it's not what I do, so it's all good. But, you can't hear yourself, and I was nervous about what I sounded like! Cause that's the first thing I thought [after elimination], like, 'Dang I know I'm not the best singer in the world but is it that bad? Dang!' But it was so fun.
Did you have much experience singing?
Ali: Oh no. I have a secret passion for singing and I can hold a tune. I actually recorded a song once in the past, but I'm definitely not Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, for sure.
You're a well trained athlete and somebody that's been in the public eye for a long time, so you're trained in poise, controlling your breath and all that. Was it harder than all that?
Ali: Yeah. It was harder than I thought it was going to be, and I knew it was going to be hard. The panda head was like 12 pounds itself. I'm a big girl. I'm strong, but I got a little claustrophobic in there. You got something to keep your hair down, an earpiece that moves around. It's nothing you can really complain about because everyone else is doing it as well, but it totally was fun and a blast even though I was surprised and a little embarrassed 'cause I just don't lose normally. (Laughs) You know? On Chopped, I won. I went to finals on Dancing With the Stars. [Losing] is something I don't experience, so I had to get over that.
Why'd you pick a panda as your costume?
Ali: I wanted to be hidden. I didn't want to go the bodysuit route. You can tell by my voice that I'm African American; my voice has a certain rhythm and richness to it. I sound like a sister. And so with my build, my shape, I thought it would be a giveaway, along with the clues and packages — there are not too many women it could have been. I thought it would be too much. I wanted to be anonymous. I chose that type of outfit and then panda because it kind of represents being humble and shy; that's how I'm going play it on stage and that's the opposite of me — I'm not a shy person. But then I wanted to do female empowerment songs, inspirational songs. That was going to be my plan if I continued. It didn't work out the way I planned but hey, that's the way it is. (Laughs)
Who do you think is in the costumes you've seen already?
Ali: I don't have any guesses! I'm going to be watching like everyone else as people get unmasked episode by episode with my family to figure it out.
Were the precautions to keep your identity secret as intense as its portrayed on TV?
Ali: Oh yeah, definitely. That's the whole point. I don't know who the other contestants are, none of them know who I am. The staff doesn't know — we definitely keep everything covered. We wear masks and hoodies — even down to covering your ankles and hands. It's very top notch. The show wouldn't work otherwise; once one thing gets out everyone would know about it. News travels fast, especially with social media. It's a big part of the show.
Everyone talks about being in the costume as challenging but also almost in spiritual terms, like it helps them get away from themselves and become something different. What was it like for you?
Ali: It was fun being that singing is not something I do and I'm shy about. When I do sing, I'm shy. So to be able to sing with a panda outfit on, no one knowing who you are, it definitely gave [me] the freedom to let go. But it still had all these other factors that balance it out once you got on stage. You can't show expression either, that's the other side to it. I'd have done better if I didn't have the suit on, but that's just not that show.
Sounds like you enjoyed it. Why'd you want to do it in the first place?
Ali: I like to go after my passions. I had a fear I didn't sing that well... and I like to push myself. I was nervous and scared, so I was like, 'Hell do it, it'll be fun.' So I did it. I'm retired from boxing and was like, 'Let me go after things that are fun and that I'm passionate about.'
The Masked Singer airs Wednesdays at 8/7c.