World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey
By Kristin Brzoznowski
Documenting the search for the next drag superstar, RuPaul’s Drag Race recently wrapped its 11th season in the U.S. The show, which began airing in 2009 on Logo TV and moved over to VH1 in season nine, has become something of a phenomenon. Its contestants have gone on to achieve various levels of pop culture stardom, and there are legions of fans the world over hosting viewing parties, engaging on social media and gathering for RuPaul’s DragCon, billed as the first convention celebrating drag, queer culture and self-expression. World of Wonder Productions is behind Drag Race, among a slew of other unscripted successes. Co-founder Fenton Bailey talks to TV Real Weekly about the company’s mission of telling authentic stories of people who “live their lives out loud.”
TV REAL: After more than two decades producing, what’s the unique positioning you’ve tried to establish for World of Wonder in this vast marketplace?
BAILEY: We’ve only really ever done things that personally interest us. Randy [Barbato, fellow World of Wonder co-founder] and I often talk about the very first time that we saw RuPaul on the streets of Atlanta wheat pasting posters of himself. Ru always recognized that stardom was his trajectory, and it was a question of waiting for the world to catch up. We’ve followed our hearts.
Randy and I were at film school a long time ago, and we would sneak out of our film editing class and go to The Pyramid Club, which is a hole-in-the-wall [nightclub] in New York’s East Village. We saw some of the most amazing acts on that little stage. Randy and I always felt that drag is true artistry on so many levels: it’s performance, singing, lip-syncing, hair, makeup, fashion, moves, and also, it’s this great celebration and parody of all the insanity of popular culture. It's this multifaceted art form. Drag has been around a long, long time, but we always felt drag was something that deserved a larger stage or a broader platform.
It’s like Ru says: You’re born naked and the rest is drag. It’s true! Whether you’re gay or straight, a drag queen or not, everything you put on is playing with a sense of identity.
TV REAL: How have you seen the factual genre evolve—from where it was when WOW first started producing to what's popular today?
BAILEY: Whether it gets called documentary or reality—I quite like the word "unscripted" because that explains its appeal as well—audiences love something that feels real. There's nothing wrong with scripted, but I think viewers like the feel of something that hasn't been created by a writer or willed into existence by a creative force. It's just people as they are and as they find themselves. This is a genre that has literally exploded, in many different ways, across all aspects of culture over the last 20 or 25 years. There are certain landmarks, whether it's O.J. Simpson on the freeway chase or the Rodney King police beating, those were all in different ways landmarks of this ability for people to see [things as they are]. It goes hand in hand with technology too; we're able to film things so much more easily than we were able to. You can almost do anything now at the touch of a button! One of the great things about that is all of these opportunities for telling stories in a different way. That’s all unscripted is, telling stories in a different way. It’s a golden age of documentaries and unscripted series.
TV REAL: Let’s talk about the success of Drag Race. What do you think took this show from a niche proposition to a global phenomenon?
BAILEY: I don't know what it was that made it happen. To Randy and I, it always felt like this art form of drag was potentially mainstream and does have appeal to a broad audience. It took many years to find a home for the show. We were knocking on a lot of doors for a long time. Something I've noticed more recently, as I spend more time going overseas and talking to production executives in other countries, is that they will say, We’ve never heard of the show, but our kids love it! In many cases, people’s kids have turned them on to the show. It speaks to the fact that drag does appeal to kids; kids don’t bring to it the generational baggage and prejudices that perhaps, unfortunately, people have grown up with. Drag is nothing new. Societally it was seen as some outer limit, beyond the pale, ultra avant-garde thing. That’s not what the nature of drag is. It’s this creative form of expression that hasn’t been recognized. I think to kids, drag queens are like Disney princesses.
It’s all about the queens! Ru wanting to do this show is such a generous thing on his part, to give this platform to everyone else and share it with the world.
This interview continues here.
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