Fenton Bailey, co-founder of World of Wonder Productions, talks to TV Real about the company’s mission of telling authentic stories of people who “live their lives out loud.”
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.
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.
TV REAL: Looking at the current production and development slates, what are the types of stories you’re trying to tell as a company?
BAILEY: Randy and I are always moved and inspired by people who live their lives out loud, people who don’t edit themselves, who don’t try to fit in with everybody else. That’s always inspired us. Drag queens tick that box for sure. We are drawn to stories about people who, in some respects, are under-revealed—even if they may seem overexposed. When we made our film about Monica Lewinsky, she had been the subject of headlines and national interest, but we felt that she had been fundamentally misunderstood. In Monica in Black and White, you get to see that she’s a human being with feelings, in her full dimensionality. I often think that the tide of public opinion is unfair to people, and we want to tell stories that try to correct that or tell a different story.
It’s about telling the truth. We’re in such an age of all-out lying about everything, especially in politics. We’re up to our necks in lies! It gets us excited to tell the truth about people and things.
TV REAL: What led to the creation of the SVOD WOW Presents Plus, and in what other ways are you growing the direct-to-consumer business?
BAILEY: Ru often talks about “finding your tribe.” World of Wonder really is a tribe, a family. Everyone who enjoys Drag Race may also enjoy other things that we create, that don’t necessarily fit what cable or network TV is looking for. There is a tribe of people out there who get something out of it, and that’s where WOW Presents Plus came along. Thankfully, technology has reached a point where we could do this. It’s $3.99 per month, which is less than the price of a latte, and you get all this content! It’s a way for people who enjoy Drag Race and the programs we make to enjoy them all in one place. There’s a sense of membership, of an extended family or a club.
That was the same sense of thinking behind creating RuPaul’s DragCon. Meeting the audience at the event is inspiring. People talk in TV about the 18-to-34 sweet spot or the LGBTQ+ audience. That’s not who is at RuPaul’s DragCon. Yes, there are gay people there; yes, there are young people there. But what you see is multigenerational; you see kids with their families and teenagers with their parents. They aren’t defined by Nielsen ratings; they are curious people who want to go and have fun.
TV REAL: World of Wonder’s social channels have skyrocketed in engagement. What’s driving this? What’s the strategy with social?
BAILEY: As much as we’d like to take credit and appear to be strategically brilliant, it’s really all because of the queens! They don’t just sing and dance, do hair and makeup—they have really been pioneers in social media, in terms of finding their audience, connecting with their audience and building their audience. When you add up all the queens who have been on Drag Race, and add up all their followers on Instagram, you end up with a huge social footprint. It’s unique in the sense that I don’t think other celebrities have necessarily curated their following quite so intensely (aside from maybe the Kardashians). We are following the lead of the queens. For artists and storytellers today, part of their job is to find and engage their audience. You can’t just create something and then sit back and wait for the world to discover it.
The internet has been a godsend to isolated young gay people because they’ve been able to find their peers, find role models, find relationships, friendships and contacts. Whereas before you were just alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere! It’s impossible to emphasize the extent and profundity of that shift.