What a world of wonder we live in, and what a difference a decade of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” makes.
Long the domain of gritty gay clubs, indie filmmakers, and occasional mainstream appearances, drag artistry has been dragged — death-dropping, tea-spilling, and shade-throwing — into the global consciousness, in no small part due to the team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, whose predilection for fostering LGBTQ+ visibility has become a potent form of de facto activism.
Bailey and Barbato are the minds behind World of Wonder (WOW), the 1991-founded production company responsible for unleashing “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (RPDR), “RuPaul’s DragCon” conventions, and other queer-centric entities upon an unsuspecting, and increasingly welcoming, public. As storytellers and paradigm-shifters, they’re just getting started.
So much of what we now know of drag started with a chance meeting, which would become a pivotal event in herstory.
“Randy and I,” Bailey recalls, had “this shared moment of recognition” years ago, in Atlanta, when they came across a drag queen “wheat pasting posters around town, and they said ‘RuPaul is Everything.’ And we were like, oh, my god, he is a mother-fucking star… I think RuPaul’s always been a star. He’s one of those people who’s been fully formed, and it’s been about, really, the world catching up with him.”
WOW’s seeds of spreading the drag gospel, Bailey notes, sprung “from the days when Randy and I went to see drag shows at the Pyramid. We’d see these amazing queens on this tiny stage,” he said, referencing the iconic ’80s NYC East Village club where Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and, yes, RuPaul, cut their teeth and sharpened their claws.
“We always felt,” Bailey says, of the art form and aesthetic, “drag deserved as big a platform as possible.”
With UK, Thailand, and Chile editions of “Drag Race” up and running, that platform handily extends beyond America, making RuPaul and World of Wonder globally recognized brands. But back in the Pyramid Club days, Bailey says, “I don’t know that we necessarily had an agenda. That would suggest we were very clever and knew what we were doing. I think it was just, we thought this is really great art. This is great creativity. This is great work, and people should see it.”
And see it they shall. Bailey assures there are “definitely plans to extend the franchise, yes,” and that WOW is “exploring some other local [international] versions.” He deferred when asked for specifics, insisting, “I can’t! I can’t… I could, but I’d have to kill you.”
Rather than end our interview via the strategic murder of this reporter, the conversation pivoted to the question of whether contestants from abroad might be invited to compete on future domestic seasons of RPDR. “There are no plans currently,” Bailey says, “but I think that would be a wonderful thing.”
Every country, Bailey notes, “has its own rich drag culture.” British drag, for example, is “a bit more gritty,” drawing on pantomime as well as “something called ‘end-of-the-pier’ humor,” which Bailey describes as referring to “seaside towns in Britain that have piers that go out into the water, and people would walk on the piers, and they became ‘Fun Fairs.’ I suppose it’s like the circus in America, I guess, but maybe it’s a little more ‘Little Britain,’ ” he notes, invoking the 2002-2007 BBC sketch comedy show whose title references the insular nature of cultural observation.
While the expressive quirks may differ, Bailey maintains drag is “something that is universally relatable. You don’t have to be a drag queen,” he says. “You don’t have to be gay.”
Recalling RuPaul’s iconic articulation of what constitutes the form (“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”), Bailey asserts, “Anything we put on ourselves is about building an identity, making a statement, assuming a pose, creating an image. So I think, in this Instagram world that we live in, everybody can get that, and enjoy that, and play with that.”
With its rich pageant of panels, meet and greets, product exhibitors, and appearances by a dozens-strong stable of “Drag Race” stars from seasons past and present, DragCon conventions, Bailey notes, came out of a “group discussion with Ru,” about ways in which the trio could “extend the experience of ‘Drag Race.’ Wouldn’t it be great for this tribe to actually meet up, in person? Increasingly today, we live in our virtual worlds and we’re communicating digitally, with less and less face-to-face time. Let’s do this. If we build it, will they come?”
With a combined 100,000+ attendees at 2018’s DragCon LA and NY, and greater numbers expected this year, the participatory phenomenon, Bailey says, “kind of defies everything you might expect. It’s absolutely a huge LGBTQ+ core,” he notes, but also draws “tremendous numbers of girls and women, and also, lots of families; teenagers bringing their parents, or younger kids dragging their mums and dads along… It defies demographics.”
The celebratory nature of DragCon is, Bailey says, “important to put in the context of the fact that when the Stonewall Riot happened, it was illegal to be gay. It was against the law to dress up in gender-inappropriate clothing… And here we are, 50 years later, it’s kids’ response to the show that is most inspiring to us. You know, drag has a long history, and has been the victim of much cultural prejudice and judgment during that history, but kids today, they don’t care about that. They just love it. It’s like Big Bird or UglyDolls or Lego movies, and they respond to that.”
Ten years ago, when “Drag Race” first hit the airwaves, Bailey notes, “Trump wasn’t in the White House. ‘Drag Race’ fans are the exact opposite of this — I was going to say, administration, but it’s actually a regime. Drag is not about fear. Drag is not about building walls, or exclusiveness… It’s a big tent for everybody. So I feel that given the cultural climate, it’s become more pointed.”
Asked to name an emotionally pointed moment from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (currently airing Season 11), Bailey cites Season 5 contestant Roxxxy Andrews, who, after lip synching for her life, “starts to tear up, and Ru says, ‘What’s the matter?,’ and then Roxxxy reveals, at three years old, that her mother abandoned her at a bus stop. I mean, you realize, being a drag queen, you don’t just walk out the door like this. It takes incredible courage, and often, incredible suffering and persecution, to get to that point. Yes, it’s about wigs and heels and glitter and stuff, but it’s also about heart and humanity, and perseverance, and a sort of refusal to be defeated by bigotry, callousness, cruelty, hatred.”
Perseverance against all odds is a theme also running through the chilling, cautionary documentary series “Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo,” a recently ran Bailey/Barbato-created work for SundanceTV, that chronicles those who did, and did not, escape the cultish thrall of a sociopath in evangelist’s clothing.
“Years and years ago,” Bailey recalled, WOW “made ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye,’ [a documentary about the ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker], so we’ve always been fascinated by the phenomena of televangelism.”
Tammy Faye, Bailey notes, was “not a typical televangelist… She was, in many ways, and I think she’d agree with this, she was a drag queen. She had wigs, her makeup was tattooed on. She was very loving and openhearted… But to tell you the truth, we had not heard of the story of Alamo Ministries. When Peacock Productions came along to us, we were shocked and stunned, and it’s always fascinating to us: Why is it that people will put their faith in such self-evident con men and frauds?”
That is, he says, “a rhetorical question, because look who we have as president… It seems that in America, we are especially susceptible to cults and cult-like personalities… This man may be the president, but as we’ve known for many years, he’s a liar, he’s a cheat. How does this work [our susceptibility]? I think everybody needs to be aware of it.”
But with a multitude of projects that encourage participation and foster fierce loyalty, how close to a cult is “Drag Race” becoming?
Bailey draws a notable line between the drag ministry and, well, “Ministry.”
“As far as I know,” Bailey says, in defense of the art form, “there are not drag queens holding kids in a basement, making them work. But the distinction to make, and this is THE distinction, is that drag doesn’t take itself too seriously… Drag parodies everything. Yes, it celebrates pop culture, but it celebrates it by making fun of it. And that is the difference, because you’re just not going to enslave yourself. It always, by definition, prevents the cult from becoming some crazy, Jonestown-type experience, right? One hopes.”
RuPaul’s DragCon LA is taking place May 24th-26th, 2019 at The Los Angeles Convention Center. For information visit https://rupaulsdragcon.com