Famous People

The World of Wonder Guys Chat With Us About Their New Book

By David Hershkovits
The World According to Wonder, 1991-2012, is a most appropriate title for a book chronicling the 20 years of Hollywood's eccentric production company and the equally off-center duo at its helm, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. With a long list of iconic TV programming to their credit like Party Monster, RuPaul's Drag Race and Inside Deep Throat, the WOW-sters thought a coffee table book would be the most unlikely (yet oddly appropriate) way to celebrate their achievements. I've known them since their early forays at Limelight as the Pop Tarts in the '80s and Bailey wrote a column for Paper magazine as well. They visited recently and we chatted about their opus and stuff. And make sure to check out the cuckoo preview pictures from The World According to Wonder, 1991-2012, below.


The New Museum has an exhibition called "NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star," what they identify as a pivotal moment when everything changed. You're celebrating 20 years of World of Wonder. What was it like for you starting then?
Fenton Bailey: We started in '91. That was when we'd moved our office to Varick Street and RuPaul came into see us and was like "lets do this thing."

What was this thing that he wanted to do?
FB: Ru had been a big downtown drag queen for a while but he wanted to take it to the next level and really do music.

So he came to you for music?
FB: Not really for the music but to actually manage him.

But why would he come to you for that?
FB: That's a good question, you know, because we had our band and we hadn't been particularly too successful.

Randy Barbato: We knew him, we worked with him on his Star Booty album and we always took him seriously and when it came to all of our club friends I think one of our distinctions was that we always had day jobs. We would go out at night but we also always got up early in the morning.

Fenton, you had a day job too?
FB: I worked at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the video department. They had a film and video department making videos about junk bonds and high-yield securities and zero-backed mortgage coupon bonds and things of that nature.

RB: I think that the day time jobs saved us from...

Descending into the K hole!
RB: Yes, we never got lost at Disco 2000... And Ru, even though for a while he was partying more than we were, he also was quite happy to get up at 9 and to take a meeting. He loved talking about what was going on. He was in the nightclub scene but also loved to step back, he was also the observer of the scene.

1993 was the year that I did the cover interview in Paper with RuPaul.
RB: I remember that photo shoot so clearly too. It was fun. It felt like a big moment.

It was! Gay culture was emerging on TV and here and there, little signs of what had previously been completely ignored in media was suddenly appearing and RuPaul was the one who was going to really bring it out, which he did with his show.
FB: Right! Downtown had always been bubbling up. Madonna kind of came from downtown and Deee-Lite too.

Everyone kind of knew each other. It was like 200 people and you would bump into each other somewhere inevitably.
RB: There are so many people from that time who we are still very closely connected to, like Lady Bunny, James St. James, RuPaul and Stephen Saban. We know and see these people pretty regularly. Michael Musto. And Lisa Edelstein is out in LA.

Let's talk for a minute about reality TV because you know everyone is obsessed about it.
RB: Honey Boo Boo! Reality TV has such a bad name, its unfair.

It does, but everyone watches it.
FB: Exactly, I think it's the modern idiom. It's a hyper reality.

RB: It is true that since we moved out west and went to Hollywood there's been a continued democratization of the entertainment industry making television more accessible to people. Sure, there are some people who are on TV that people have issues with or think are just trash, but TV is much more accessible to people.

With all your success, has the process of getting a project green-lighted become any easier?
RB: It's just exhausting. You have to pitch and pitch and pitch and pitch! People think we're drag queens or something like that. People still call us "the boys." I mean come on ..."the wacky World of Wonder boys." But I do think it's easier to get a meeting and people are more curious and open to more extreme or fringy stuff. I know RuPaul had his talk show on VH1, which was successful, but really it's like RuPaul's Drag Race was truly twenty years in the making. And it is a show that finally shines the light on the artistry of drag. Yes, it has what it needs to be a successful entertaining show but at the heart of it, it is all about celebrating this art and that's great! Yes, there is a winner who gets a check -- but there are no losers on that show. They all go out and work the circuit and make money.

FB: We're living in the screen age. The place to be in the screen age is on the screen. It's true. That's what I always thought was interesting about club kids. Again, they were sort of these performance artists. Their whole thing was "fame for fame's sake."

Are there great ideas that you wish you could get done that haven't been able to sell?
FB: I still have a favorite show that we have not made. And everyone in the office laughs at me. I sometimes bring it out at pitch meeting. It's called "Past Life Makeovers." And the tag line is "How do you know where you're going, if you don't know where you've been." The show is you meet a regression therapist -- I've done this personally -- and we figure out what your past life was an we immerse you in that experience. If I was a knight I'd put on armor, learn how to joust, learn how to ride a horse, drink mead. And the payoff is how does that change your life.

RB: I have one called "Animal House." It's basically a furry dating show. Like The Bachelor but everyone is a furry. But it's for real. Singles go into this house but never see each other. The squirrel goes out with the bunny, and at the end they get the big reveal.

FB: It's priceless to see the public react to a bunny and a fox at a restaurant. People can get to know each other without judging on impressions.

In your book you include portraits of celebrities as well as lesser-knowns. Why do you think people would want to see portraits of people who are important to you but unrecognizable to them?
FB: That's just it. We really thought it was important to put them in because today it is a completely level playing field. The drag queen who threw the first brick at stone wall is as important as the president who speaks about gay marriage in his inauguration address. One is cause and one is affect and they are completely connected. Someone who is not very well known versus the most famous person on the planet, they are actually on the same level.

RB: Our first receptionist is as important as Pamela Anderson. You're right to a certain extent: it's just in our eyes. Like when we first went to the Pyramid Club and Lady Bunny and Hapi Phace walked in we were never more starstruck than then. We could sit in the first row of the Golden Globes and frankly it does not match sitting at the bar at the Pyramid. For us it's our duty to continue to keep the playing field level and have our receptionist photo right next to Pamela Anderson.

What fascinates you today?
RB: Bounce. We're doing a serious show with Big Frieda. Kind of excited it about that.

FB: I went to North Korea in November and negotiated an agreement to make a film following the first Western artist to exhibit there. James Birch, who did the Gilbert and George exhibition in Beijing and Frances Bacon in Moscow is organizing it. It took about four years to get approval. The artist's name is Keith Coventry, one of the lesser known Young British Artists. There's no advertising, no billboards, no electronic signs, no traffic, no cellphones -- they take it when you arrive. It's incredibly quiet. You're in the capital and you can hear a pin drop.



RuPaul


Chloë Sevigny


John Waters


Elvira


Pamela Anderson


Michael Musto


Simon Doonan


Latoya Jackson


Lady Bunny


Charo


Perez Hilton

Subscribe to Get More