Matthew Bell discovers there’s a mission behind the company that brings us RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
Television glitter should lift many spirits brought low by this year’s Christmas comedown as RuPaul’s Drag Race UK returns for a second series in January. Good news for fans of the raucous and rude BBC Three show – and for the people that make it.
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey met at NYU film school in the mid-1980s, performed as a gloriously camp electro-pop duo, The Fabulous Pop Tarts, and went on to found World of Wonder Productions in 1991.
Many of its early productions, such as Channel 4’s fondly remembered The Adam and Joe Show, were made from its offices in Brixton, south London. But World of Wonder began to focus on the American market and its success has been built on the back of the phenomenal – and multiple Emmy Award-winning – RuPaul’s Drag Race in the US.
Are TV and drag the perfect match? Bailey thinks so. At an RTS event in London late last year, he persuasively argued that drag queens and the telly go together “like peanut butter and jelly”.
A year later, from his Los Angeles base, he says: “The thing about the small screen is that you want to make a big impact. That is definitional to drag; it is about walking into a crowded room and turning heads. It is about compelling people to watch you.”
Judged by the longevity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which completed its 12th series in the US earlier this year and is growing overseas, Bailey is clearly on to something. The reality competition show has brought glam and glitter to Thailand, Canada and the Netherlands, and will shortly add Spain.
RuPaul’s Drag Race began life on a US gay pay-channel, before graduating to entertainment channel VH1 – and then to other mainstream channels worldwide. “While you can never predict what will connect with an audience, we always hoped it would, because we firmly believe that the appeal of drag is universal – young and old, gay and straight,” says Barbato.
“We have been thrilled to see the [show] grow both in the US and internationally, and shine a light on the culture of drag that exists in every country.”
But there is much more to World of Wonder than RuPaul’s Drag Race. The SVoD service WOW Presents Plus, which launched in November 2017, offers Drag Race and its spin-off shows, UNHhhh, Fashion Photo RuView, Werq the World and God Shave the Queens. The latter, a documentary series about the tour that followed the first outing of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, began its first run on BBC Three last month.
WOW Presents Plus, which claims to be the world’s leading LGBTQ+ streaming platform, “is going gangbusters”, says Bailey. “We have doubled our subscribers year on year. [It] enables us to have a creative space, as well as housing all our shows in one place.”
Beyond its drag output, World of Wonder makes documentaries about serious subjects. Out of Iraq tells how a US Marines translator and an Iraqi soldier found love during war, while Stonewall Outloud recounts the story of the 1969 riots when patrons of a Manhattan gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, fought back against the New York police.
Barbato rejects my suggestion that its documentary output is somehow more worthy than its drag shows: “Please don’t misunderstand: drag is serious. Fun, yes, but serious fun. It attacks prejudice and raises up the marginalised. And that’s very much our mission in life.”
World of Wonder’s most recent documentary, produced by Barbato and Bailey and directed by Chris McKim, chronicles the life of New York artist David Wojnarowicz. “Less well-known than Warhol or Mapplethorpe, artists whom we have also made documentaries about, Wojnarowicz was an outspoken critic of the US government’s cruel indifference to the Aids epidemic,” says Barbato. “Now that we [have been] in the same situation again with Trump and Covid, Wojnarowicz’s voice and work deserves amplification.”
Despite the success of its SVoD platform, World of Wonder remains committed to linear-TV. “We love that we can work with broadcasters alongside our own offering – with many viewers finding their way to WOW Presents Plus through discovering our shows on their regular, go-to broadcasters in their respective countries, and then expanding their World of Wonder journey through the platform,” says Bailey.
If they were prepared to sell, World of Wonder would presumably make Bailey and Barbato a heap of dollars, but the duo are not tempted to cash in. “What we love most of all is being able to do exactly what we want to do. We like being able to roll the dice and take risks. It’s really what keeps things interesting, so I don’t think we would sell,” says Bailey.
Where do they see World of Wonder in 10 years’ time? Peering into his crystal ball, Barbato says: “One of Ru’s favourite words is ‘stick-with-it-ness’, and that ability to keep going and refuse to go away is what gets us out of bed in the morning. So, in 2030, we hope people will be watching Drag Race Uranus, assuming that humanity hasn’t succeeded in wiping itself out – which is, admittedly, a big assumption.”
More seriously, Barbato believes that World of Wonder’s independence gives it an edge in a TV landscape increasingly dominated by big producers. “While algorithms are great for the ‘McDonaldsification’ of content, the more things become the same, the more people crave something different – and that’s why we’re here.
“We try to make what we want to watch in the hope that enough people will want to watch it. And, because of that, we are freed of the nightmarish pursuit of trying to be all things to all people.”
WOW Presents Plus, he continues, “is our way of creating an extended family of like-minded souls. It’s also been a place where we can experiment and incubate things.”
As befits a company whose origins lie in managing Bailey and Barbato’s 1980s band, World of Wonder’s portfolio extends beyond TV. Earlier this year, it launched a theatrical extravaganza, RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! Las Vegas, at the city’s Flamingo hotel and casino; this month, it releases the first album from The Frock Destroyers, who are Divina de Campo, Blu Hydrangea and Baga Chipz from the first series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. “We like to experiment,” says Barbato. “There’s always the chance of falling flat on our faces, but it does make life interesting.”
Next up, after a coronavirus-induced delay, is the return of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. With the same team of regular judges, Michelle Visage, Alan Carr and Graham Norton – and more queens and episodes – World of Wonder is hoping to repeat the runaway critical and ratings success of the first series. The BBC is clearly optimistic, having already ordered a third series.
Shooting on the second series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was suspended during the spring lockdown, “With closed borders, international quarantines and national lockdowns, it was an interesting challenge, spanning the better part of eight months,” recalls Bailey. “I think this period has been difficult for everyone and we hope season 2 will make everyone feel ‘much betta’ as Baga would say.” Summing up the secret of the show’s success, Bailey adds: “From Shakespeare to the pantomime, drag has always had a strong tradition in the UK. But, of course, it’s not just in the UK. We have found that, all over the world, there are armies of queens ready to bewitch and bedazzle audiences with their talents.
“It’s about the courage, perseverance, and conviction of the queens, and that appeals to everyone’s capacity for empathy and compassion. Well, almost everyone [except] the loser of the recent US election.”