The Empire That Drag Built

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Fueled by the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Party Monster, and a string of edgy hits, World of Wonder is bringing the raucous spirit of Andy Warhol’s Factory to Hollywood.

RuPaul’s bejeweled crown and scepter are locked safely behind a chain-link fence in the bunker-like basement of World of Wonder headquarters. A rowdy, Warholian Factory for the Internet Age that’s run by a posse of transplanted New York club kids, World of Wonder could also be described as an old-school studio and an incubator for the next wave of drag royalty. Warhol had Edie Sedgwick, Joe Dallesandro, and Baby Jane Holzer atop his Valhalla of alternative superstars; WoW founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey have Tammy Faye Bakker, Chastity Bono, Tori Spelling, and, of course, RuPaul.  

Photograph by Meeno

Fenton Bailey

Photograph by Meeno

Randy Barbato

Bailey and Barbato, ex-lovers who are now in their mid-50s, launched their studio close to two decades ago. Since then, their growing stable of celebrities has helped the duo build their production company into a home for the outre, the freakish, and the maligned. In addition to RuPaul’s Drag Race (almost 120 episodes and counting), their productions have explored the worlds of rent boys, televangelists, beekeepers, gay farmers, furries, and Monica Lewinsky, in more than 180 documentaries, TV movies, reality series, and feature films.

Their basement, just steps from street performers sporting off-brand Marvel costumes and tour buses idling in the afternoon sun, was once a punk club called Masque that hosted bands like the Germs and the Go-Go’s. Although it now serves as the company’s vault, lewd graffiti and open stalls attest to lurid nights gone by.

The foreboding space includes a soundstage, where I find Milk, a queen from season 6 of Drag Race, filming a makeup tutorial.

“They shove us down here to film, isn’t that cute?” she says. “They only take off the ball and chain when visitors are around.”

The same grotto studio hosts UNHhhh, a series recently bought by Viceland, featuring drag queens Trixie Mattel and Katya talking about everything from botched botox treatments to their own spiritual despair. (“Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s clinical depression,” Trixie muses in one episode.)

WoW’s unconventional fixations have brought Barbato and Bailey something neither expected—critical acclaim and considerable financial clout. After winning four Emmys (three for the documentaries Out of Iraq, The Last Beekeeper, and Party Monster, plus another for RuPaul as outstanding host of a reality TV show), the two are currently collaborating with J.J. Abrams’s production company, Bad Robot, on a dramedy series based on RuPaul’s rise from ’80s club kid to drag icon. Such mainstream semi-acceptance portends something of an existential crisis: Bailey and Barbato feel moved to bring their flamboyant vision to an even wider audience, but how do they do that while preserving the Factory vibe that sustains them?

“They have been pathfinders,” says Sheila Nevins, the legendary president of HBO’s documentary unit and a frequent collaborator. Eventually, Nevins would turn to them when a juicy documentary topic came her way, whether it involved Monica Lewinsky, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or, most recently, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

“They were so gifted and so talented and so visual,” Nevins says. “And not at all snotty.” Soon, Barbato and Bailey were taking Nevins to drag shows in Hollywood. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” she says. “It was this subcultural sexuality that wasn’t hurting anybody that I found extremely fascinating, and they were the masters of it. They pounced on it as a form of television.” 

In fact, this decidedly subversive impulse is embedded in their company’s DNA. “We’ve always been attracted to unfiltered voices and points of view that are a little left of center, a little marginal over mainstream,” says Barbato, his voice shifting between sotto voce and emphatic. In the office he shares with Bailey, a tiara occupies shelf space with an Emmy. We’re meeting a few days after DragCon, the drag arts and cultural festival they produce, which drew a record 40,000 attendees.

The festival is a natural extension of the rabid fandom that sprang up around Drag Race, which now airs in 11 countries and has earned eight Emmy nominations for 2017. In addition to WoW’s more mainstream offerings like the hit real-estate series Million Dollar Listings on Bravo, the show has given them a reputation as reality TV hitmakers.

LAND LORD
Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing, starring Chad Rogers, has been a major hit for the studio.

But both of them insist that nothing has changed about the way they do business. “There’s this notion that we are media moguls, but it’s never been any different for us these past 25 years,” says Barbato. “People take our calls, and they also still call us ‘the boys.’ They think we run around in high heels over here.” 

Their boutique production company runs on the energy of 50 full-time staff members and roughly 125 freelancers, but has had an outsize impact on TV programming, some say. 

“They really helped shape the entire character of Bravo,” says Lauren Zalaznick, widely credited with transforming the home of Inside The Actors’ Studio into a cable destination. Nevins agrees. “You know, they accepted gay culture, they accepted drag, and they accepted the injustice these communities faced. They made it a song and dance to fight back,” she says.  

Nevins wistfully recalls their first salacious collaborations at HBO. “I mean, we did the Pink Führer together!” she says, referencing the film they made about Hitler’s alleged homosexuality. “Who would have ever done that? It was insane!”

And, of course, there was the show about drag queens they’d begun pitching “even before Project Runway took off.” Executives at Logo, then trying to appeal to a buttoned-up demo, told them that their show was “too gay” for TV.  

“They wanted to present the idea of gays as the guys next door,” Bailey and Barbato write in their impressively produced 2012 book The World According to Wonder. “Exuberants need not apply.”

Barbato and Bailey

Barbato, a blue-eyed Italian from New Jersey, and Bailey, who is British and often locks you with a gimlet-eyed gaze, first met when they were both film students at NYU. They are nothing if not exuberant.

Hi Mum, I’ve Gone to Space was Bailey’s directorial debut, a sci-fi flick featuring a boy who flies to space and performs brain surgery. Barbato’s film, Robin, was a scripted drama based on a true story of a pre-op drag queen he knew. They moved in together shortly after dropping out of film school, starting a disco band called the Fabulous Pop Tarts while using Bailey’s scholarship money as their slush fund for drum machines and synthesizers.  

New York’s downtown scene plays a prominent role in the Pop Tarts’ music videos. “New York City Beat” features a frenetic camera dancing from club kids in face paint to a young Michael Musto in a scarf. Warhol’s face rushes by, too. It’s a kind of DIY love letter to the anarchic, clubby spirit that fueled them—one they’re still trying to distill, bottle, and sell. 

Michael Musto

The music videos’ vibe reflected another of their obsessions: the icons of public-access TV, including smut king Al Goldstein, the late Screw publisher, who hosted an interview show with porn stars for over 29 years; ex-porno starlet Robin Byrd, who interviewed guests in the nude; and Ms. Mouth, a trash-talking pair of lips filmed on a man’s upside-down face.

“The shows were very homemade, and as a result, they were completely fresh, completely different, and very democratic,” Bailey says. “In a way, that’s what pop culture has delivered in the 10, 20 years since. I mean, you look at YouTube stars—they are the equivalent of public access back in the day.”

Fenton and Bailey

Working by day at soul-sucking jobs—Barbato at a Madison Avenue ad agency that specialized in real estate, Bailey on Wall Street, editing newsletters about junk bonds—they partied after hours in vibrant, decrepit Alphabet City. Drag-queen sightings were a daily occurrence, as they lived in the same building as Fay Runway and Sister Dimension. The Pyramid Club, an iconic venue that helped define the drag and gay scene in the East Village, was just down the block. Eventually, they traded their Lower East Side pad for an apartment above the Holland Tunnel and began hanging with a motley crew that included Madonna’s backup singers and the director of I Shot Andy Warhol, Mary Harron. They christened their workspace “the new Factory.” Michael Alig, a club kid who’d later become infamous for disemboweling his drug dealer, would occasionally stop by. 

Their first break was a licensing deal, bundling their favorite clips from public access and selling them to British TV. The host they chose for their show was “as fearless about fisting in a sex club as she was about hanging with the mole people in the tunnels below Grand Central Station,” they write in their book.

A documentary about the Rodney King L.A. riots was more of a challenge. Barbato and Bailey gave 10 people— including a teacher, a journalist, kids from the inner city, gang leaders, and police officers—video cameras for a year to document the aftermath. 

The two also demonstrated a flair for the macabre. Party Monster: The Shockumentary, was a postmortem about both the grizzly Alig murder case and New York’s extreme club culture. It had its premiere at Sundance and later played at Cannes, but was a commercial flop. Nevertheless, it cemented the duo’s reputation as boundary-pushers. 

In 2000, Bailey and Barbato fell in love with another subject: disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, whose husband, Jim Bakker, had bilked their followers of millions. Following her divorce and her marriage to another man who’d also ended up in jail, Bakker had emerged as a tabloid mainstay, not to say something of a role model. Barbato and Bailey saw her as a survivor.

“We spend a lot of life reducing things to make the experience digestible, but the reality is that it’s complicated,” says Bailey. “It’s good to try to add color or shades of gray to things that have been reduced to black and white.”

The documentary they lovingly shot revealed Tammy Faye’s compassion for gay people. In the film, narrated by RuPaul, old video footage shows her caring for men dying of AIDS. “I refuse to label people,” Bakker says when asked about her thoughts on gay rights. “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make junk.”

Around this time, Nevins finally returned one of their calls. Bailey and Barbato had long admired Nevins from afar but could never get through to her office. (During a book signing the duo hosted for her in Los Angeles, Nevins confessed that she’d been avoiding calls from them because: “What kind of production company names themselves ‘World of Wonder?’’) She ended up producing Videos, Vigilantes and Voyeurism—later renamed Shock Video—which examined sexuality as depicted on TV programs around the world.

“It was known in-house as ‘Schlock Video,’” Nevins says. “And it was extremely successful.”

Nevins says she wanted the documentary wing of HBO to stand for “something unique, something different, something titillating,” and Barbato and Bailey aligned perfectly with her vision. “And they were a couple,” she adds. “I loved them as a couple, and when they got separated, I was furious at them.”

Zalaznick, then at VH1, responded similarly to them; she’s the executive who greenlit The RuPaul Show, a talk show in the mid-’90s that formalized World of Wonder’s brand of mixing high and low culture. The addition of RuPaul into the mix automatically made it transgressive programming.

“Every show was a statement,” says Zalaznick. “The set was a statement. Ru was a statement.” The bookers for the show managed to attract a wide range of pop culture icons, including ’N Sync, Cher, Joan Rivers, Dennis Rodman, and Ivana Trump, all of whom were onboard for the irreverent humor. “It wasn’t defined by mainstream, but by a kind of alt-stream sensibility, so we could have Jackie Collins, Jeff Stryker, and Susan Lucci as well as Mark Hamill and Whoopi Goldberg,” says Bailey.

Team WoW followed Zalaznick to Bravo, creating a series of mini-docs for the channel, including The Christmas Special Christmas Special (a special about Christmas Specials) and The Award Show Award Show (a show all about award shows). They also collaborated on a reality-TV show about the lives of pageant dog owners that Bailey speaks of with striking sincerity. “It was sort of like a Christopher Guest movie but I was also so touched by the love these owners had for their dogs.”

“We just presented the world as we saw it, not the world as we wished to manipulate it into being,” Zalaznick says.

As to why the company seems to have captured the current zeitgeist, she told me, “I think that appreciating and adoring the essentially outsider point of view without judgment is something that smart, great people who adore entertainment are gravitating to now.”

BAND OF BROTHERS
Atlanta 1988. Top row, left to right: Michael Musto, Trade, David Goldman. Bottom row: Randy Barbato, RuPaul, Nelson Sullivan, Albert Crudo, and Fenton Bailey.

RuPaul met Bailey and Barbato while he was wheat-pasting posters of himself that read RuPaul Is Everything along the streets of Atlanta, where the Pop Tarts were playing. This was the era of Wigstock, Lady Bunny’s all-day drag festival in Tompkins Square Park. Drag in those early-’90s days drew much of its inspiration from TV commercials and Saturday morning cartoons.

“He had a very different look back then,” says Bailey. “It was pre-supermodel. It was more terror drag.”

Barbato chimes in: “It was genderfuck Glamazon. Like, the jockstrap and football shoulder pads and huge ratty wig.”

RuPaul remembers the moment vividly. “[Randy] looked at me, and I could see it in his eyes: all the dreams I’d thought of for myself, he was reflecting back at me,” he told Spin in 2013. “And I thought, ‘You see what I see, don’t you?’ He didn’t even have to say anything.”

Barbato and Bailey proceeded to shoot RuPaul’s first music video, “Supermodel.” It was a hit, bringing him mainstream exposure and a presenting gig at that year’s MTV Music Video Awards. A lucrative contract with MAC cosmetics followed.

The duo had long batted around the idea of putting drag queens on TV, to little effect. Even when the gay channel Logo launched in 2005, the network rejected their pitch four times before finally picking up the series in 2009. Season one was shot on a shoestring budget; the control room was a “broom closet with aspirations,” they write in their book. It would go on to become the channel’s most-watched series.

The cast of Drag Race season 9

From the beginning, the series was a bawdy, low-rent spectacle, more interested in commenting on reality-TV-show tropes than reinforcing them. (“All of our projects have a little meta in them,” Barbato vamps, “because meta is bettah.”)

Tom Campbell, chief creative officer at World of Wonder, says the company has always been on a humanistic mission. “We try to make good TV but we also try to sleep at night,” he says. “We don’t trash people or edit them meanly or any of that stuff. If anything, we try to lift people up and make them look funnier and smarter.”

If you want to provoke them, ask Barbato and Bailey if they think drag will ever become too mainstream. “Noooo!” both cry in protest before I’ve even finished the question. “Drag will remain outside of the mainstream because that’s what makes it drag,” Barbato says. “There’s never a danger of oversaturation because they’re all brilliant and deserving of attention.”

In late April, I join throngs of queens and their worshippers at RuPaul’s DragCon. The parking-lot traffic moves at a glacial pace, giving me an intimate view of one drag queen donning a rainbow-colored wig while leaning against her Accord. The convention floor is massive, filled with stalls hawking wigs, makeup, removable butt inserts, and customizable crowns. Sequins and spandex are sold as a path towards self-enlightenment.

Many of the queens from past WoW seasons have their own artfully decorated booths. Kim Chi’s, from season eight, is the most ornate, filled with paper-mache lilies and purple butterflies. On the floor above the packed hall, panels led by drag queens address issues like, “What is Drag in Trump’s America?” (hosted by Teen Vogue) and “Geeks and Glamazons: Gender Blending in Comics.”

This year, for the first time, DragCon has its own Kid Zone, featuring face painting, a bouncy castle, and a Drag Queen story hour for the toddler set. (“The sequins on the drag queen go ‘bling, bling, bling,’” the queen Eureka O’Hara sings as I walk by.) Parents, many of them Gen Xers, seem pleased by the setup. “It’s perfect for kids: it’s glitzy, it’s makeup, it’s dress-up, it’s fun, it’s over the top,” one parent tells me. 

Reigning above it all is mother Ru. During the day, wait times for his autograph match those for rides at peak-season Disneyland. At his keynote, the capstone of the festival, he preaches self-love and the benefits of colonics to a crowd of crying, hysterical fans. He also goes deep, speaking plainly about how his fear of abandonment has affected his love life.

During a Q&A session after his speech, a woman asks him how he’d recommend she go on living with intense chronic pain after her cancer treatment. Another asks how she can love her body after growing up in an abusive household. After all the questions are answered, a sustained applause fills the hall. It feels like church, with Ru the ecstatic preacher.

The scene begs the question: would drag seem this relevant, this important, without Donald J. Trump in the White House? When you have a president who fancies himself a strongman, even the most superficial and silly queen seems like a powerful rebuke to the administration.

Barbato and Bailey believe drag is striking a populist chord today in part because the repressive ideal of masculinity no longer seems as relevant to the younger generation. That could be wishful thinking, but for World of Wonder, it’s also a credo.  

“So many crimes committed on mankind revolve around our awful notions of masculinity,” Barbato says. “Thankfully, the new generation is pansexual and pan-gender. The fluid generation is the future.”

About The Author

Steven Blum is the digital editor of FourTwoNine. He's written for Vice's Broadly, The Stranger, Blackbook Magazine, Tablet and the Daily Dot.

  • jocked07

    a wonderful exploration of a group of artists with guts and glam!

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