Alas, it wasn’t enough to save her rhinestone-encrusted skin, so when the horse head came off it revealed singer/actress/producer/songwriter and season nine American Idol semi-finalist Tori Kelly. It capped a pretty epic 2020 for Kelly, who recently followed-up her quarantine EP Solitude with her first Christmas album, the 13-track A Tori Kelly Christmas.
Billboard spoke to Kelly before she was sent packing to find out why she will always hold a little piece of the glittery sea monster in her heart.
How did you end up on this show? Were you a fan?
My dad was a big fan and it was so out there and crazy that I hesitated at first. I didn’t just want to say yes to say yes right away. But then I realized it could be a really fun opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and do something that’s not so safe. I could show the alter egos I have and play a character.
I know you have a choice of costumes, so what did you like about the Seahorse?
They showed me a sketch of the Seahorse and everyone liked the idea because it was the first time they were using airbrushing on a costume and there was a lot of details and it was super colorful. It was hard to tell from the sketch [what it would be like] but when I saw it in person I was blown away and was like, “This is my costume!” I was obsessed with it and there were just rhinestones everywhere! They kept adding more for every episode and it was so much fun to wear.
Did it feel like it said something about your personality? And did you have to tamp down any other part of your usual stage performance to throw people off the scent?
Yes. One of my goals for being on the show was to try a bit more choreo to my performances. So rather than dumbing down my personality I had to turn it up because when I put on the costume I was like, “this is where my sassy alter ego comes out. This is the girl who’s been hiding and needs to work the stage and strut all over and do hand movements.” My fans figured out it was me right away, but I think I stumped a lot of people by being super extra.
Your cover of Britney’s “…Baby One More Time” had a kind of rock vibe that really made it your own. How do you take on such an iconic song and not just make it karaoke?
It definitely had its own vibe and they have such a great music team over there who love making alternate versions of songs. I knew I wanted to show my Britney impression a bit, so we thought, “why not make it thematic” and a bit more rock n’ roll so you had the dancers with guitars and we had fun with it. We just tried to switch it up and make it our own.
And not for nothing, taking on Celine’s “My Heart Will Go On” is crazy brave.
That was a song I definitely wanted to do when I thought about all the songs that could showcase [my vocals] and all the styles I wanted to hit. That one felt like it could showcase a different style for me than people are used to hearing. I was definitely scared when I got on the stage for that and I was so nervous because it’s such a big song and I was not super used to moving in the costume yet on the second episode. I remember that whole song I was trying not to fall. I was walking really slowly and focusing on the song and trying not to slip with all the fog on the floor.
Were you surprised by any of the judge’s guesses?
The one I was actually so flattered by was when Ken Jeong said Christina Aguilera. He had some great guesses and I was flattered by all of them, which is part of the fun. I was purposely trying to change my voice a bit through every song because I am known as a singer and I didn’t want to make it easy for anyone. I was just happy to stump the two singers on the panel (Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke) because I’ve sung with both of them and met them and the fact that they didn’t get it until the end… mission accomplished!
Did you expect to make it this far?
I didn’t know what to expect. It’s such a unique type of show and I’m sure other contestants will agree with that of course winning anything is amazing, but this type of show you can’t really be sad. It didn’t feel like a loss when it was revealed because in some ways you get to show everyone that it’s really you and that’s really exciting. It’s not like a normal competition show where there is actual losing. If anything, being able to show off different sides of me was very liberating. I have so much more confidence [now] at the end of the day.
Did the people in your life figure it out pretty quickly?
I purposely didn’t tell my parents right away but they said, “oh, it’s you.” I just told them that they “might” want to watch and was super vague about it and right away they were like, “you’re Seahorse!” I had to keep it a secret, which was hard when people kept asking me. I just had to be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” [laughs]
What was the weirdest part of the costume? It definitely seemed less cumbersome than some of the others.
I feel like I got lucky with my costume because the body was really comfortable and easy to move around in… all the extra bits, the skirt and other stuff we clipped on afterwards. The main part was the bodysuit and everything else was clipped on. The mask was very top heavy, but it was really light and easy to carry around. It took some getting used to as far as moving my head around because it was so massive and I’m used to moving my head in a certain way when I sing.
Is this the weirdest thing you’ve done so far in your career?
Yes, this is officially the strangest, most unique, but absolutely most fun thing I’ve ever done in my career for sure. I don’t know how I’ll top Seahorse, Seahorse will come along with me for all my future performances.
Did you actually get to take a piece of Horse home with you?
I kept some rhinestones that fell off. At the end it was sad not to be Seahorse anymore. I love her so much and I really fell in love with the character, so the costume ladies gave me some rhinestones.
It feels like this is the perfect pandemic feel-good show, was that part of the reason you decided to do it?
Definitely. I remember thinking that I was just honored to be part of a show that was safely going on. Obviously there wasn’t a lot going on this year and so it felt really special because people are at home and it’s something to do with your family.