What a Wonderful World

Producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have forever changed the place of gay culture within mainstream media.
February 08, 2013

(Fenton Bailey, left, and Randy Barbato)

World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato will happily take “no” for an answer. The openly gay duo behind RuPaul’s Drag Race and its spinoffs, dozens of addictive reality shows, like Million Dollar Listing, and lauded documentaries, like Party Monster, say that their pitches to executives throughout the company’s 21 years of existence have always ended with a “no.”

“We’ve never had anything bought in the room,” Barbato shares. “Once somebody said they wanted to, and the next day called to say they changed their minds. It’s a word we’re used to hearing.”
“But ‘no’ is also the beginning of ‘yes,’” Bailey maintains. 
 
This is a mantra repeated in the new, hefty coffee table book, The World According to Wonder: Volume I, 1991-2012, dense with fabulous photos and anecdotes about their TV and film productions, collaborators and subjects, plus dishy recollections of an ascent from gritty 1980s New York (“At the time we were broke, living in a sixth-floor walk-up in crack-infested Alphabet City… the fag-end of the American dream. We loved almost every minute of it!”) to present-day life as an international hit factory with a sprawling office on Hollywood Boulevard. These days, they take the pitches as much as give them.
 
“Some networks have literally offered to do a reality show here,” says Barbato, “and we said no. I don’t know why, because we often think that fame trumps everything else so maybe we should reconsider. And everything’s betta that’s meta!”
 
An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to drag queens and the game-changing RuPaul, who first approached them to manage his career, “Supermodel” demo tape in hand, in the 1980s, circa Barbato and Bailey’s short-lived stint as music act The Fabulous Pop Tarts. (To their mock horror, you can find plenty of clips on YouTube.) A few years later, they were directing the “Supermodel” music video. The rest is history.
 
(Fenton Bailey)
 
“Everything I dreamed I could achieve I saw reflected in their eyes,” RuPaul explains via telephone. “That was from the moment I met them in 1985. They got me. They didn’t even have to say they got me. I saw it in their eyes, and I trust them. We all come from the school of ‘the rest of the world will catch up.’ The fact the public doesn’t ‘get it’ now, don’t let that stop you. Do it anyway. And they had also just been through some hell with this record contract publishing deal, so I knew what to avoid when dealing with ‘The Man.’”
 
RuPaul represents a quintessential example of how WOW’s Bailey and Barbato—who first met in NYU Graduate Film School, united by a mutual hunger for fame—have not only exalted pop culture and its icons, befriending and documenting them from an insider’s vantage point (e.g. Monica Lewinsky, Anna Nicole Smith, Tammy Faye Bakker), but have shaped it at the same time. Not only that, but with an unabashedly queer bent.
 
“They love the eccentrics, the loonies, the colorful people who make the culture fun and slightly dangerous,” says Michael Musto, a regular guest on Barbato and Bailey’s first outing, the weekly public access cable talk show The Flaunt It Club! TV, taped at storied nightclub, Limelight. “TV used to reflect the reality in clubs, but now it’s the reverse. Real life imitates RuPaul’s show, and everyone with a razor and some sequins goes out every night hoping to get discovered to be on it.”
 
Indeed, nights spent in New York’s late-’80s/early-’90s nightclub scene, with its way-gay club kids like Michael Alig, led to the Emmy Award-winning documentary Party Monster, which, like many other WOW productions, also aired on U.K. television (Bailey, son of legendary British photographer David Bailey, hails from Portsmouth, England, and has kept one of WOW’s feet planted in his homeland). 
 
(Randy Barbato)
 
In 2002, AMC picked up their documentary Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines, which chronicled the life of Hollywood’s first openly queer star, while a special about five out filmmakers and actors struggling to make it in Tinseltown, titled Gay Hollywood, featured a then-unknown Dustin Lance Black and Q. Allan Brocka (the latter went on to co-direct WOW’s 2005 Camp Michael Jackson, about the pop king’s unflappable fans).
 
The roll call goes on—Being Chaz and Becoming Chaz, Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, Fantasia for Real, 2010 Emmy-winner The Last Beekeper, Inside Deep Throat and Divine David Presents, one of their favorite U.K. productions to date. “David [Hoyle]’s a sort of arts terrorist,” Bailey explains. “He’s a terrifying incarnation and we need to figure out a way to release his show in the U.S. because it was the craziest thing we ever did.”
 
Bailey and Barbato say that compiling the book involved rummaging for months through scrapbooks and archives, unearthing surprising reminders of just how many people were still a part of their lives, and conversely, how many had checked out entirely. “There’s actually quite a long list,” Barbato says of the latter. “John Sex, Tammy Faye, Mr. Blackwell. We were going to do a ‘shout out’ to everyone who left the planet. But the list is only going to grow so it would seem dated sooner or later.”
 
New posed portraits were snapped of the still-living (a photo of Chad Rogers, a.k.a. “The Chad,” from Million Dollar Listing L.A., was taken prior to his leaving the show: “I think he was polarizing in some ways, so there wasn’t a big movement to bring him back,” Barbato notes. “We like him very much but the show didn’t suffer in his absence.”) However, as materials came together, it became clear a “Volume Two” would be called for. 
 
“I wanted to get a picture of John Bartlett for Volume One,” Bailey says. “He auditioned for the very first show we ever did, this great fashion designer and maverick. That was an omission [from Volume One]. And costume designer Zaldy! Oh my god, Zaldy.”
 
Volume Two will also surely include La Toya Jackson. Their reality series Life with La Toya will debut this year on OWN. And by then, more of WOW’s pitches will see a “no” evolve into “yes.” 
 
“The thing I’m most obsessed about is the things we haven’t gotten to make yet,” Barbato affirms. “Lookalike Hotel, a house full of Dolly Parton lookalikes competing. Animal House, a dating game with a house full of plushies and nobody gets to reveal what they look like because they’re all dressed up like furry squirrels and bears. ‘Little Devil,’ the game show set in hell where Satan is the host and you compete to advance through circles of hell. All of them should be made. That’s why our next goal is to have our own network. Hopefully when we’re talking about The World According to Wonder: Volume Two you will be hanging out in the penthouse offices of our network.”
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