"I may have lost on the show, but I’m winning off the show," Laila Ali tells PEOPLE of the experience

By Natalie Stone
October 03, 2019 01:25 PM

Laila Ali‘s time on The Masked Singer may have been short-lived, but she’s still walking away a winner.

During the second week of competition, the undefeated four-time world champion boxer was revealed to be the Panda in front of judges Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke.

“It was crazy!” said Ali, who is daughter of the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, on Wednesday’s episode. “The suit, being hot, just singing through this mask. I feel like you couldn’t hear me. So it was a lot of fun.”

“I mean, I’ve always loved to sing, always been shy with singing, but it was fun to be able to perform without anyone knowing,” the 41-year-old added. “I will say, this is the first time I’ve ever lost something like this, so my heart, yeah. … It was very humbling, but it’s been fun.”

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Following her elimination, the retired athlete, author and TV personality spoke with PEOPLE about the experience, including why she chose to be the Panda, why she turned down the opportunity to compete on the show in season 1, and the life advice her father Muhammad gave her before his death in 2016.

How was the experience?
Well, it was terrifying but fun at the same time. It was pretty much what I expected it would be. It was very challenging wearing that mask, being hot having that mask on your head. But it was even harder actually once I was inside the mask because obviously not being a performer, being on stage, and I didn’t really think about how hard it would be to project my voice through that mask. Depending on which mask you have, I had to pull my microphone so far away from my actual mouth because my head was so large. But that’s part of the competition working through all that stuff. It was fun!

What was it that prompted you to go on the show? Did you say yes when the show asked?
I was asked to do it the first season and I was like, hmm. It sounds so fun. A costume competition. Because I’ve always liked to sing. But I’ve always often been very shy and not very confident in my voice. But at the same time I ended up not being available and I thought, you know what, let’s just see how this does. Strategically from a business point of view you don’t want to be on a show that’s not going to go well and not be successful. It did really great the first season, so the second time around I changed some things on my schedule and made it happen.

On the show, the clues hinted at you honoring your father. Did you have him in mind while performing?
We definitely are interviewed by the producers and people behind the scenes and they come up with the clue packages — I don’t come up with them. I wouldn’t have said anything about my father because I felt like the clues were a little too easy. I thought that some of them were like a dead giveaway talking about a famous family and building my own legacy and cooking and matches. But I guess the judges still had a hard time with it. Anything that I do in general, and I probably said something to that extent in my interviews, which is why it ended up as part of my package. Not singing per se, but one thing my father’s always been proud of is that whenever I do anything, I do it 100 percent and I go in with intentions of doing really well and I like to try and conquer my fears. That’s just something that’s ingrained in me. That’s something that I always try to encourage others to do through my Laila Ali lifestyle brand and through my website, and so for me it was like an opportunity for me to walk that talk.

Laila Ali
Lefty Shivambu/Getty IMages

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Was there any advice that your father gave you about life or performing that you’ve applied and took with you on The Masked Singer?
Not really. I can’t really apply it to this, but I mean my father has in general just always encouraged me to be confident and do my best. My confidence comes from preparation and preparing myself for the moment and then that’s when you can just have faith in knowing that everything’s going to happen as it’s supposed to. And I guess I was supposed to go home last night [laughs]!

Laila Ali and Muhammad Ali

Did you expect Robin Thicke to say your name?
I didn’t hear him, actually, when I was on stage say that. In fact, I even thought: was that a pickup on B-roll after the fact? Because I didn’t hear him say that. I think that if he did think that, it was because of the package. But then I think he was thrown off because of the fact that my body looked so real — it didn’t look like I had on padding. I made sure they shaped that booty very real on that panda. So I think that threw them off. Because I heard them say it could be padding; it wasn’t obvious padding. And that was strategic.

Why did you choose the Panda?
First of all, the Panda was just cute. Strategically, I wanted something that the audience would kind of gravitate to and be likeable. I didn’t want to be like a dark character or mean looking character, something like that. I wanted to just come out really soft and sweet and humble and then just do really strong, powerful songs — empowerment songs. So that was kind of what my strategy was going to be throughout the Panda if I stayed.

Laila Ali

Were you able to choose any animal? Was there any other character you considered?
They have an amazing team of designers and they come with ideas of sketches that they already have of certain characters. And you can choose and then they also ask you if you have anything you want to do. But if things aren’t moving fast it’s always best to just choose something they have and then alter it so then they can customize it to you. So the Panda’s outfit was customized. I was able to have input in. the jewelry, I came up with the idea of adding the jewelry to the Panda’s hands, the rings and all of that; a little more bling and picking shoes and things, that type of thing. And then of course, originally they had the Panda much bigger, even more padding and I wanted it to be — I used less padding to make it seem more real, and just make me look thicker than myself. But I didn’t have anything else that I wanted to be. I could’ve done something in a bodysuit that was sexier — I didn’t want to go that route. I felt like it would be a dead giveaway if I showed my physique. Because there’s not many people that are tall and muscular and 5’ 11” like myself, athletic-looking, African American woman. So that would have definitely been a giveaway. They would’ve been talking about my father and cooking, because I have a cookbook and Spice Blends and all these things, so my fans and other people would just kind of know that if they would’ve seen my physique for sure.

The Panda
Michael Becker/FOX

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Do you have any ideas about anyone else who is performing on the show?
Nope. I haven’t been able to watch since last night. I couldn’t even figure out who I was competing against or who else was on stage, so I’m going to be watching at the end of my seat just like everybody else as people become unmasked. It’s so fun when it’s a surprise!

Anything else you’d like to add about the experience?
I’ll tell you one thing. I may have lost on the show, but I have received so many orders on my website for my Spice Blends and all of that. So I was like, “Hey now! Everybody wants some of the Panda spices!” [laughs]

You’re going to have to come out with a Panda item to sell!
I should’ve done a Panda spice, because they really would’ve been buying it! I’m going to have to restock soon. I was like great, I may have lost on the show, but I’m winning off the show.

The Masked Singer airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on Fox.