Fenton Bailey, World of Wonder Co-Founder and ‘Drag Race’ Producer, Has Televised the Revolution
When Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato put together a scrappy low-budget reality competition for drag queens with RuPaul as head judge - through a vaseline-smeared lens, famously - they had no idea they were igniting a global franchise, transforming the queer art form into a mainstream global phenomenon, and launching hundreds of queens’ careers into the stratosphere. Now you can read all about this televised revolution in the chapter “Sissy That Walk” in Bailey’s incredible examination of television’s profound effect on reality and culture, ScreenAge.
Yet Bailey and Barbato, who started out as boyfriends and a 1980s NYC-based music duo, The Pop Tarts, have been responsible for creating major ripples in TV and pop culture through their 32-year-old production company World of Wonder. Producing and sometimes directing dozens of award-winning, groundbreaking, way queer, and sometimes controversial series and features for the US and UK - a mere sampling includes 1998’s club kid killer Michael Alig doc Party Monster and its 2003 scripted feature of the same name, 2000’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye (upon which the 2021 Jessica Chastain movie was based), 2012’s In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, 2013’s I Am Britney Jean, 2016’s Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, and Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing franchise - plus a legion of Drag Race spinoffs and almost twenty international editions (largely available on their dedicated streaming service, WOW Presents Plus, as well as many projects featured in the book).
Via Zoom, the UK-born Bailey - who’s co-parenting a pair of sons, 8 and 16 years old, with filmmaker Billy Luther, whose feature debut Frybread Face And Me just premiered at SXSW - discussed his trivia and tea-filled book, going from VHS and public access cable TV to the TikTok era, whether RuPaul will ever pass along the Drag Race torch, and the surprising person he’d most love to do a project about next.
How would you like people to approach this book, and why the title ScreenAge?
We called it ScreenAge because our lives are mediated by screens. Here we are doing an interview by Zoom video! We’re all on our screens all the time. When I was growing up, television was a relatively new thing. It’s still not even 100 years old. I remember being told TV was terribly bad for you, you shouldn’t sit too close to it, and you shouldn’t watch too much, and I think that voodoo mythology persists to this day. It’s weird because our lives are mediated by these screens and yet we still think it’s a bad thing? There’s a little bit of a disconnect there. The kicker was, and this I did not expect, as a gay boy I got to see other gay people and camp and queer things through television, and I don’t know how I would have otherwise. TV has put all kinds of excluded people on screen. So even though it’s not all about television now to Gen Z, the fact is its legacy is the screen age.
Do you wish you had been born in the Gen Z age of TikTok and YouTube, or are you glad you came up when it was just VHS and public access?
I’m perfectly happy being from the VHS and public access era!
ScreenAge contains elements of autobiography, with discussion about your life and work with Randy. Did this start off as a memoir-centric pitch?
It was never going to be a memoir or autobiography. I felt a little of that was necessary because of the weird, random, chance way things happen and how they all seem to add up to something, but it all coalesced into an idea about TV and the crazy world we live in.
Besides celebrating what TV brought to wide audiences, especially queer figures, history, and culture, you also cast a critical eye on how the screen age may have backfired and spread conspiracy theories and propaganda.
When we worked with author Jon Ronson on the 2001 television series The Secret Rulers of the World, we initially thought this New World Order, Illuminati, and conspiracy theory stuff was kind of fun. It was so mad, how could anybody take it seriously? So it was certainly to my amazement how in the so-called information age these ideas not only took root but flourished, thrived, and multiplied. I never saw that coming. I’m not sure anyone did. I think everybody thought we were all going to be better informed, a new era of reason and enlightenment, and yet it hasn’t turned out that way at all. Especially today it seems like people are genuinely insane in terms of the things they’re willing to believe. Never in a million years would I have thought it possible for Trump to become president.
The book bursts with juicy, outrageous anecdotes and factoids, like the time Milton Berle got RuPaul alone in a dressing room, took out his c*ck, and molested Ru, which is insane. Did you have to cut any out during the edit process?
Well, one chapter didn’t make it because I couldn’t figure it out and was still cooking a bit. We did a 2011 series for Oprah’s network, Finding Sarah, about Sarah Ferguson the Duchess of York, Prince Andrew’s ex-wife. It was all about her journey back after she had been exposed in a sting: she was set up in a hotel room. I was trying to figure out the Royal Family and monarchy and how that fits with celebrity and nepo babies today. Maybe that’s for volume two.
You reveal a lot about the process of pitching and selling projects to networks and studios and how some don’t get greenlit. What’s a not-yet-landed pitch that you still really want to happen?
The one I will hopefully not go to my grave wanting to make is Past Life Makeovers. The tagline is: How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been? The idea is these past life regression therapists put someone into a hypnotic state and they experience their past lives and then we immerse them in that past life. So imagine you were in Egypt building the pyramids, we create that as an immersive experience for you. You eat the food, live the life, all with the intention of you come back from this experience and we ask, how has your life changed? We all have problems and face challenges today, and maybe through understanding what our past life had been we’re able to better deal with the challenges we face now. Would you like to be put under?
I would watch it. I don’t want to risk finding out I was, like, Idi Amin or a painfully sacrificed Mayan. Alternately, are there any pitches you’re relieved were turned down in retrospect?
Well, yes. We were once thrown out of a pitch meeting. The idea — it was around the time the death penalty was in the media — would be we televise a live execution and no one would know it wasn’t real. The whole thing would be fake, we’re not going to kill anyone, but we would put it out as a big reality event special, like witness the execution with a talk show audience just to see how people would react. I think capital punishment is sanctioned by its invisibility. It happens out of sight, but if people were confronted with the reality they would be appalled and freak out and protest and be outraged. We thought the pitch was going well and the executive threw his head back and laughed and when he stopped laughing he said, ‘I’ll never do this show, how dare you come into my office and pitch this! Get your parking validated before I kick you out!’
What about disagreements with Randy? Who did you need to convince him to do a project on?
Britney Spears. I was obsessed with her, like we’ve got to make a movie about Britney. And Randy was like, I’m not so sure about that. For his birthday, she was on tour, and I knew if I bought him a ticket he probably wouldn’t go, so I did it as a surprise and took him literally blindfolded so he didn’t know where he was until it was too late. If we weren’t together, we wouldn’t have made a Britney film.
The book’s Britney chapter will probably be jumped to first by some readers. Would you want to do another documentary with her now that she’s been emancipated from her conservatorship?
The title of the chapter is “Leave Britney Alone” because Cara Cunningham made that famous YouTube video. And I think that really said it all. The difficulty for Britney is living her life according to everyone else’s expectations, and I don’t just mean her family - I also mean her audience. I would love to make another film with her, but I also think she probably just wants to be left alone and God bless her, I think she deserves that.
Next year, Drag Race will celebrate its fifteenth birthday and Ru will be 63. I’m wondering if you and Ru have ever discussed whether he’d want to hand the torch to a next gen queen down the line?
Well, the great thing about drag is it defies age. You can be any age and put on drag. Drag takes anything and will exaggerate, celebrate, and make fun of it all at the same time. Unlike all the Madonna bashing in terms of her age and face, I think drag is ageless and if Ru wanted, he could be 100 and still hosting Drag Race. So I think anything is possible really.
You and Randy have directed only one narrative feature so far, 2003’s Party Monster, which is ridiculously entertaining and holds up so well to repeat viewings. Have you discussed making another, and might I suggest a biopic about the late Dead or Alive pop star, Peter Burns?
Peter was so amazing. Never say never! The thing about scripted productions is it takes soooo long. To persuade the entire family of people who need to be convinced this should be made takes so long! And Randy and I love unscripted because truth is stranger than fiction.
Speaking of unscripted, who’s on your wish list to do a documentary on next? Let’s put it out in the universe!
That’s a really good question. Actually, George Santos. I think it’s potentially a milestone story in terms of the post-Trump world. When Randy and I do something, often it’s like we’re asking a question. How could this happen? And I think that’s what people would want to know.
ScreenAge (Ebury Press) will be released March 28th.