Exploring a World of Wonder

Meet Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of the production company World of Wonder: they're the guys who made Sharon Needles a star, keep Tori Spelling employed, and give a forum to James St. James.

BY Neal Broverman

January 04 2013 8:00 AM ET

Barbato and Bailey, photographed by Mathu Anderson

If you've seen RuPaul's Drag RaceMillion Dollar ListingParty MonsterThe Fabulous Beekman BoysThe Eyes of Tammy Faye, or Tori and Dean, you know the oeuvre of World of Wonder. The Los Angeles-based production company just celebrated 21 years of wacky shows, movies, and documentaries and is still led by its dynamic and flamboyant founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (shocker: they're both gay). Working with photographers who've captured some of their muses, from Chloe Sevigny to Chaz Bono, the guys put together a huge coffee table book about WOW: The World According to Wonder. We caught up with Bailey and Barbato to talk about the past two decades, their hilarious WOW Report, celebrity, failure, and LaToya Jackson.

The Advocate: So, what was it about 21 years that made you want to look back?
Bailey: It wasn’t 21, it was going to be 20. But it took three years to put this together! That’s one reason. Twenty-one also seemed good because we’re old.
Barbato: Also, in general, if you don’t write a book about yourself, who’s gonna? Number two, I feel like we have a different Hollywood story to tell that might be inspirational to people. Our success is based on failure and so much of what we do is perceived as marginal and out of the box. So, we felt motivated to share that.
Bailey: The other thing was, on one hand, yes it’s us telling our story but the idea of it was, by having Tony Craig and Idris Rheubottom take these pictures of all these people we’ve worked with over the years, it was to say thank you to them; this extraordinary collection of people who’ve been in our life. 
Barbato: To celebrate our world of wonder.

Some of the most interesting people are spread through the book's pages.
Bailey: It’s this mixture; you’d never expect to find this one group of people under one roof.

World of Wonder started with cable access, but you guys knew each other way before that. You met at NYU and formed a rock band, right?
Bailey: We left the story of our band, the Pop Tarts, out. Maybe for Volume II. We met at film school and, at the time, making films was very difficult. Naively, we thought it would be easier to make pop music than movies. So we thought we’d fund our films with a string of pop hits.
Barbato: We failed at both.
Bailey: There were no pop hits and no movies.
Barbato: But it was a fabulous time. We were in the graduate program, living in the East Village and four blocks from the Pyramid club on Avenue A. So a lot of times we’d cut classes and go to happy hour at the Pyramid. That was the beginning of our real education.

When you started making shows and, eventually, movies, when did you think, We could actually do this and make a living at it?
Bailey: Never.
Barbato: We still don’t.

What project have you done that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved?
Barbato: All of our projects (laughs). That’s hard. Part of me thinks, all of the projects we’ve never made, But, that’s not it.
Bailey: The truth is, if you're in TV, or even in pop culture, you want to reach as broad an audience as possible. And one of the things we’ve always run into is being told. 'That’s nice but that’s a very marginal idea, or niche.' In general, there’s an assumption when something is niche, only a few people are going to be interested in it, but I don’t think that’s true. In pop culture, the more specific a thing, the more likely people are going to be interested. Generally, people know much more now because there’s so much more media and, as a result, they’re interested in things they don’t know about. It is a continuing dynamic in our work; presenting ideas that executives say are too niche. I think audiences are much more curious than we give them credit for. 

Was RuPaul's Drag Race seen as too niche?
Bailey: This is a show we pitched for about 10 years. It wasn’t until Tom Campbell came here and headed up development that he suggested we take it out. We were like, ‘No. We’ve taken it everywhere. To Logo a million times. No one’s going to buy this show.” We’ve been told no one wants to see drag queens on TV, or that’s so gay and very niche and marginal. We even were told that at Logo. So it did take a long time. If it wasn’t for Tom Campbell, we would have given it up.

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