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January 09, 2019 03:45 PM

A lion, a unicorn and a pineapple make up part of the crop of contestants on television’s newest and most unique reality competition, The Masked Singer.

The Jan. 2 premiere revealed (spoiler!) Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown as the man in the hippo costume, but that still leaves 11 masked celebrities to uncover over the next nine weeks.

“It truly is the ultimate variety show,” host and co-executive producer Nick Cannon tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “There’s nothing else like it on television.”

The competitors also have access to voice coaches, choreographers and a production team, “so they actually get to put it all together,” Cannon says.

Cannon, with a contestant dressed as a poodle, hosting Fox's The Masked Singer.
Michael Becker/FOX

Three pairs of costumed stars face off each episode in front of a studio audience and panelists Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthyNicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke. At the end, the audience votes on the night’s worst performance, and the loser gets unmasked on the spot.

  • For more on Nick Cannon, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
Jake Chessum

“They got to choose their costumes,” Cannon says of the celeb participants, “and usually their costumes are a clue to who they actually are.”

Masked Singer panelists (from left) Thicke, McCarthy, Jeong and Scherzinger.
Michael Becker/FOX

A video package with clues also runs before the performer takes the stage, and so far, some panelists have had better luck than others at making guesses.

“Ken makes the worst guesses,” Cannon, 38, quips. “The fact that he’s a doctor and super intelligent all of that goes out the window because he’s just throwing names out there. But it’s hilarious. Robin Thicke takes it extremely seriously. He’s listening to the voice trying to figure out if he knows these people. And then Nicole the one paying the most attention to vocals and presence.”

RELATED VIDEO: Nick Cannon Talks Fatherhood—& How His Twins Like Being Older Siblings

As for how the celebrities kept themselves a secret on set, Cannon — who didn’t know who was who at the time of filming — explains, “They were in a completely separate area until they were fully in their costumes. Even their entourage and their representation had to wear masks too if they were on set. So we never knew who these people or any of their crew was.”

Cannon and the bee.
Michael Becker/FOX

Now, of course, the father of three is privy to the identities of everyone from the monster to the lion — but he won’t rat anyone out.

“These are definitely top-notch talent and celebrities, but they’re all from different walks of life,” he says. “There’s a couple twists and turns, but there’s people who step it up and take it to the next level. The peacock is somebody who is definitely attempting to be the best showman that they can possibly be.”

The Masked Singer airs Wednesdays on Fox at 9 p.m. ET.

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