“You do what you love. And then the next thing you know, 20 years have passed.”
Thus begins The World According to Wonder, a tome—”coffee table book” seems slighting—that unknowingly chronicles the last two decades of queer pop culture. World of Wonder is a Los Angeles-based production company responsible for some of your favorite film and television programming. With a collective résumé that encompasses everything from gay TV staples (RuPaul’s Drag Race, Million Dollar Listing, Tori and Dean) to feature films with cult status (Party Monster) and riveting documentaries (The Strange History of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Inside Deep Throat, The Eyes of Tammy Faye), company founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have bravely taken on the task of keeping entertainment cool. The World According to Wonder, a look back at the company’s first 20 years, is a testament to that very fact.
In the Beginning, There Was Public Access
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato met at NYU, where they attended film school. “We started working together pretty much right away, because we were in the same film class,” Bailey remembers. “We just partnered up.”
After a few less-than-successful attempts at striking entertainment gold, including a short-lived New York public access show and a stint as musical act The Fabulous Pop Tarts, Bailey and Barbato eventually created a product that characterizes everything to have sprung from their heads since.
“There were all these fabulous shows [on New York City public access], from Robin Byrd to Voyeur Vision to Mrs. Mouth,” Barbato recalls. “Fenton and I at the time were obsessed with Manhattan cable, and we would watch it all the time in the ‘80s. We’d either be watching Manhattan cable or Dynasty. For a little while, after we finished NYU, we were living in London, and there was never anything to watch on television. We were constantly pining for Manhattan cable, and that actually was the beginning of our first television series, which we just called Manhattan Cable. We spliced in clips from all these fabulous shows, we packaged them in these weekly clipumentaries and sold it to British television.” Manhattan Cable ran in various iterations for four seasons on Channel Four UK, and World of Wonder was born.
In 1994, following the Northridge earthquake, Bailey and Barbato moved World of Wonder to Los Angeles. Today the company’s offices sit in the heart of Hollywood, where much of today’s pop culture is meticulously crafted, right at home among the entertainment industry’s culture of celebrity.
In its more than 20 years of creating pop culture sustenance, World of Wonder has remained extremely adept at giving a voice to the voiceless, telling the stories of counterculture movements and those marching to a different drum. “That’s who we are,” says Barbato, referring to himself and his co-founder. “We tell stories about people like us and people we relate to. We’ve always identified with people slightly outside the mainstream—those left of center.”
Many would be surprised to learn of the wide range of ‘left of center’ stories World of Wonder has told and continues to tell. They include drag performers, New York club kids, gay and lesbian servicemembers, transgender activists and more—an eclectic mix of heroes and tastemakers, for sure.
But as Bailey tells me, the diverse tone of World of Wonder’s productions isn’t so much a conscious business directive but a love of unique storytelling. “I think it’s really just about stories that interest us—stuff that’s interesting. But all of these stories demand their own way of being told. I think that’s why it seems so diverse. The common thread through everything is that we’re really interested in telling stories, and every story suggests a different way of being told.”
Barbato adds, “I also think [our output] just reflects who we are. We’re very high/low. We’re a wacky mix of all things. We’re curious, and we’re attracted to lots of different things. Some of them on the surface seem more broad and accessible than others, but we’re not discriminatory toward our attractions.”
Whether ‘high’ or ‘low,’ the guys’ ability to tell stories with great affection and a genuine sense of heart is undeniable.
The Journey to Drag Dominance
Asked whether any of World of Wonder’s many accomplishments—in its vast roster of passion projects—stand out as personally meaningful, Bailey gave me a surprising answer: “I think I’d say it’s the ones that haven’t been made yet that seem particularly meaningful. We’ve got to tell these stories!”
One story still in the process of being told is that ever-elusive search for “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” a journey documented by the cultural phenomenon that RuPaul’s Drag Race—the fifth season of which recently premiered—has become. Many are unaware that the competition-based reality show was in the works for more than a decade before it was first seen on gay cable network Logo.
“Drag is an artform, and it’s one that I think for so long has been marginalized or laughed at—and not only by the mainstream but also by the gay community.” Barbato says. “For us, getting to do [Drag Race] and getting to watch these queens grow—it’s not about making stars but about acknowledging them. There’s not one winner of Drag Race—they’re all winners—and that’s incredibly satisfying. We’re introducing artists to people.”
Bailey and Barbato have managed RuPaul since the drag diva’s early days, and they have acted as wizards behind the curtain for such highs in RuPaul’s caeer as the dance chart single “Supermodel” and VH1’s The RuPaul Show. “Ru has always been the sort of ringmaster of not just being a fabulous drag queen but understanding the significance and importance of drag in our culture,” Barbato adds.
Publishing: The Final Frontier
Having solidified itself in the fields of reality television and film, it was a no-brainer that World of Wonder would venture into the realm of blogs and podcasts, two properties that have since found a large audience among L.A. residents. Until recently, the world of book publishing had been foreign territory, though it’s an area with which Bailey and Barbato seem to have grown comfortable.
“The World According to Wonder is the first book we’ve actually self-published, and I think now that books have gone digital, it’s our responsibility to enter into this world—to save books and keep people literate,” Barbato says.
Part of the reasoning behind creating a book may have had to do with no one expecting it. “I think the idea of a book was so exciting,” says Bailey. “In the age of the internet, when everything is digital, making a big old book just seemed perversely appealing.”
Most amazingly, after compiling 20 years of work that reads like a ‘who’s who’ of queer culture, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are merely humble and appreciative of the work they’ve been able to produce and those with whom they’ve conspired. Bailey insists, “The book isn’t really about us at all.”
“Yeah, if it was about us,” Barbato laughs, “there would be a lot more airbrushing on our photos.”
The World According to Wonder is available now. For more info, and to access World of Wonder’s blog, The Wow Report, go to worldofwonder.net.